Rjyan Kidwell, aka Cex, is often called the Jackie Robinson of Playing a Laptop on Stage at a Concert. His most recent album Shamaneater is available here. You can follow him on Twitter here.
By naming his seventh album Paula, Robin Thicke imbues the album with a concrete identity that is immediately understandable and irrevocable. With this one simple act, Paula becomes a power play in a real-life break-up situation that is still unfolding between Robin and his estranged wife — a situation that has yet to be resolved but is escalating dramatically as we look on.
The scale of this decision is understood just as quickly: Robin has bestowed upon his real-life wife the Album Title of the only album he will probably write and release for at least a year, maybe two. That a musician who will undoubtedly be both advertised and scrutinized in every profitable music publication has made such a grand gesture communicates to us, his audience, without any further elaboration, that he is completely consumed with an aching need for reconciliation with his lost love. He has quite literally made it his full-time job to express the depth and weight necessary to resolve this crisis in his personal life.
When we see people we know or see around do gestures like this we call it drama. We use the word that means “putting on a costume and reciting lines for an audience” to describe when someone makes their unbearable pain or their grievances with others public. Like the majority of us, I really love drama. Also, like the majority of us, I really loathe the children of rich people. My best guess is that this admittedly intense judgement originates from consistently nauseating experiences with them during my combined six years in a public high school and a private college, with a little help from their consistent portrayal in movies and on television as entitled narcissists who are able to both evade the consequences of ill-considered actions and to succeed without struggling or making significant sacrifices. I did not know anything about Robin when I first started hunting for the Paula MP3s, save that last year a lot of people were mad at his big single with Pharrell because the lyrics were too date-rapey, and, of course, that he’s the son of the most famous sitcom actor/sitcom-theme-song composer of my youth, but these two pieces of information alone were sufficient to solidify my image of Robin Thicke as an archetypal Child of Rich People.
Despite my previous indifference to Robin or his music, I was impressed by the decision of Universal Music Group (who own Interscope, the label releasing Paula) to capitalize on Robin turning heel with that date-rapey song. While hardly a risky move1, a suddenly-vulnerable villain is both an exciting and a flexible narrative device. In this particular case, those of us who need to believe in redemption can use Robin’s vulnerability as proof of his humanity — they can see a fallen sleazebag who has come to realize, painfully, the importance of real love. And those of us who need to believe in punishment can relish the idea of this dapper Lothario discovering, painfully, that his wealth and his fame and his name are all powerless to prevent suffering if it comes in the form of a lover that no longer wants you in her life. And those of us who need to judge whether someone else is worthy of redemption or deserving of punishment can use the album to play the role of the examining magistrate presiding over the fate of the infamous villain.
So when my search for pirated Paula MP3s proved fruitless and Talkhouse managing editor Michael Tedder gave me the password for the Play MPE® Player 5 application that allows writers to hear really important albums before their release date, my biggest fear was that only a few songs on the album would concern the situation referenced by the album’s title. I sorely wanted this thing I learned, about his estranged wife, to be something more than a tacked-on talking point for that white space between the embedded video and the banner advertisement.
Ideally, Robin would be revealed in such a dramatic state of real-life obsession with his wife as to be oblivious to the audience. I wanted to be eavesdropping on emotional declarations that were not meant for me to hear — or, barring that, to be convincingly tricked into thinking that I was. In spite of what you might interpret as an absurdly or inappropriately serious approach to writing about a pop album by a douchey singer who is merely scandalous without being truly transgressive, I do recognize that the ultimate function of this album is to be entertainment. However, I assert that not only does this approach add a great deal to the entertainment value of the Paula experience, it also can aid companies like the Universal Music Group in creating even more useful narratives in which to package their future products.
To my relief, the album not only features mostly songs that concern Robin’s relationship with Paula, but it presents them in a sequence that illustrates the arc of Robin’s evolving reaction to their break-up. In fact, the few places where this topic may initially appear to be mostly abandoned — for example, the James Brown-jacking “Living in New York City” — actually add fine detail to the illusion that Robin is moving in real time through a series of successive reactions to getting dumped. The song immediately preceding “Living in New York City,” called “Whatever I Want,” contrasts starkly with the first four tracks of the album by exploring Robin’s projection of Paula’s point of view. As anonymous female voices repeatedly proclaim “I can do whatever I want,” Robin enumerates the benefits of a newfound freedom from monogamy. The effect of this exploration, however, seems to be an embrace of anger as a justifiable response to Paula’s exit. The robotic, nanny-nanny-boo-boo delivery of the titular line contrasts with Robin’s own James-McAvoy-In-Some-Kind-of-Days-of-Doobies-past soul-signifier saturated singing style. The only other words delivered in a female voice — “Kiss me kiss me kiss me kiss me” — seem vapid and slutty when delivered this way. Alongside, Robin’s own words take on a vitriolic quality: “So deep, so deeply intrigued by what you’ve never had/Emotion explosions, none of which are mad/Now every dream that you feel/that you feel is coming true/Because there ain’t nobody/nobody to tell you what to do.”
In this context, “Living in New York City,” becomes Robin’s resolution to, as we say, exploit the carnal advantages of residing in America’s most legendarily easy-to-be-single-in city and Get Under One To Get Over One. “Wait ’til you see what I do/When I find somebody like you” is a pretty intensely aggressive declaration from the man who, three songs ago, was “Still madly crazy for you.” The next track, “Love Can Grow Back,” which is the album’s seventh, shows us Robin making a full regression to the frat-tastic sleazebeast that engendered so much ire in the interim between Robin’s previous album Blurred Lines and this one, opening with the declaration, “Oh, you’re way too young/to dance like that in front of a man like me, babe/You know cigarettes are bad for you, baby/And so am I/Alright.”
Fortunately, though, at this very point we’ve come to the exact halfway point of the album. There seems a strong possibility that the now jailbait-banging protagonist has finally Hit Bottom, making his eventual redemption all the more powerful. Surely the next seven songs won’t serve to distance Robin further and further from his lost love, not on a pop album! We have become Jiminy Cricket watching Pinocchio smoking stogies. “Robin,” we implore, tugging on his sleeve, “We’re supposed to be looking for Paula! Don’t give up, Robin, not yet!”
The second half of the album begins with arguably the most important — certainly the most revealing — of all of Paula’s songs. After a series of predictable genre exercises, “Black Tar Cloud” is the first unconventional composition we encounter. With a distinctly Trapped in the Closet-ish flavor, Robin hurriedly narrates a fight that results in Paula (presumably) telling Robin she’s just tried to OD on pills. The specific details (“You smashed up my favorite golf club”) and the way many of the lines don’t rhyme or fit the song’s meter do a pretty good job of giving the story an air of veracity. But the details are damning for Robin. His sudden, fleeting mention that he and Paula have a child together — clearly an aspect of the breakup that would merit more than one single line on the album — is so shockingly off-hand that I went immediately to the web to see if it could possibly be true. (It is!) With an equally striking absence of empathy, Robin reveals that Paula was lying about trying to kill herself. According to him, she explicitly (and pretty implausibly, I would say) states, “I was just desperately crying for help.” Even the song’s refrain, “Emergency/There’s a black tar cloud/All because of me” seems suspect — what the fuck is a tar cloud? Once again, I went to a search engine to see if it was a real thing. (It isn’t!) At the top of the second verse, Robin makes a self-aggrandizing claim and an incoherent joke: “I was licking your wounds/I thought we were straight/I thought everyone was going to eat the chips/Turns out I was the only one who double-dipped.” Later in the album he’ll use this same little technique to make a joke about a bird that flew in his window and “left with a dirty tweet.”
The offensive impact of these lyrics is greatly exacerbated by the reappearance of the female backup voices that exclaim, “Truth!” and “Tell ‘em the truth!” The robotic quality of their voice remains although, across their many appearances on the album, this one is their most animated. The effect is the impression that Robin is preaching to a congregation of fembots. Some have already derided this album as pathetic, but upon real scrutiny, that really doesn’t go far enough. It’s blatantly sociopathic.
Through the rest of the second half, both transcendent redemption and genuine torment seem increasingly impossible outcomes. “The Opposite of Me,” the antepenultimate track, initiates the final phase of the album, in which Robin, in a sulky, feeble voice, makes a sulky, feeble attempt to close the album with some pretense towards growth and contrition. The song, which has merits when removed from the context of the story of Robin and Paula, shoots itself right in the foot when Robin once again glaringly glides over a very important admission: he cheated on Paula. Repeatedly. (“If she ever knew that I would never be the man I promised I would be/If she ever knew that I was going to be running ’round she never would have stayed.”) This is treated more as an inevitable, perhaps regrettable aspect of Robin’s character, but one undeserving of emphasis or reflection upon.
As we near Paula’s conclusion, Robin has lost any kind of sympathy or credibility several times over. Interestingly, this arc is mirrored by the sound of the music over which Robin fleshes out his grotesque tale. The two best songs on the record — providing you’re cold-blooded enough to be able take pleasure in art in which a man shames a woman and glorifies in being an irredeemable cad in order to enrich himself and his shameless enablers — are the first two, “You’re My Fantasy” and “Get Her Back.” These two songs really clearly conjure a vivid atmosphere: sweet flamenco guitars whisk you away instantly and unmistakably to the Marriott Resort & Spa on Hilton Head Island. Before Robin has even crooned a word, you can already feel at least one pair of eyes rising off of a page midway through 50 Shades of Grey to surreptitiously watch you sip a delicious strawberry daiquiri. A lot of popular songs have flirted with this ultra-clean Luxury Vacation vibe in the last year or two, but these two tracks commit the hardest and surpass them all. Casual poolside chatter actually creeps into the background of the opening song, and the second, “Get Her Back,” even takes the relatively bold step of dispensing with drums entirely.
It’s enough of a bummer when you realize the top-shelf Coppertone vibe has been completely abandoned, but the music of Paula actually gets aggressively unlikable in the second half, starting with the general MIDI-karaoke-version vibe of “Too Little Too Late.” From there we’re launched into this neon-crayon Kidz Bop zone, kicking off in earnest with this fucking terrifying “Tippy Toes” song, a high-fructose necromantic incantation to bring Amy Winehouse back from the dead, as performed by one of those bootleg electronic Little Richard dolls that sing and dance when you clap your hands next to them. “Something Bad,” which follows, is clearly the theme song to a Saturday morning cartoon from 25 years ago about a baby that’s always eating cat food and chasing mice, and the robo-ladies’ exclamations of “Something something!” seem like maniacal taunts acknowledging the half-assed feeling of this part of the album.
The jarring aesthetic of these songs is puzzling enough to knock us out of the confines of Paula’s narrative and into contemplation of the record label’s influence on its final form. Is having a bunch of kindergarten bangers as strategically important on a pop record as Slow Jams for the Ladies are on a rap record? Hopefully, I do not impugn my critical authority by admitting I don’t think it would be at all useful to contemplate it any further.
But regardless of any meritocratic myths that some of our peers might still cling to, the music is at best the third most important part of a contemporary pop album, behind the money that makes an artist an unavoidable presence on our screens and the stories that make them an infectious topic of conversation. Lacking the presence of anything even remotely resembling Genius, it all comes back to the fact that ultimately Robin proves to be neither intelligent enough nor self-conscious enough to have been transformed by his experience of heartbreak2. And as anyone who has ever studied stories or even watched a serial drama knows, the transformation of the protagonist is a fundamental part of any satisfying narrative. Because we know Robin is a “spoiled little rich kid” (an accusation attributed to Paula but immediately succeeded by the robo-ladies’ interjection of “Truth!” when it Robin sings the phrase in “Black Tar Cloud”) we know that there will be no serious external consequences for Robin. He will remain paid, laid and famous, and in a year or two he will make a new album that will almost certainly avoid anything more than a passing mention of Paula, lest critics accuse him of being out of ideas.
The part of us that needs to believe in redemption will come away from this album envisioning that the process of Robin’s fading from the pantheon of relevant pop has now begun — for a sin of greater importance to the audience than sexism or entitlement or stupidity has already been permanently enshrined in Robin’s most concerted attempt to tell a story about himself: the sin of trying to get away with a boring non-ending. The part of us that needs to believe in punishment will assume that the return to the protagonist’s original condition is a cynical employment of conventional sitcom trope that will allow the Universal Music Group to try and capitalize again later on the sleaziness that has proven twice over to garner Robin a lot of press attention. And for the part of us that must judge our people’s idols, there will be an endless succession of new actors whose dramas we can attempt to wring meaning from, in the hopes that we may uncover insights that our culture could use to elude the gradual evaporation or the purgatorial stasis that works like Paula seem to accept.
1. Because it’s common knowledge that you catch more clicks with shit than with honey, right? Some people will think your honey tastes good enough to buy, and some people won’t, but some of those in the latter group will definitely talk about your honey if a rich kid in shit-stained drawers is helping you sell it, and more people are gonna come try the honey if they hear a bunch of other people talking about it.
2. The other possibility — that Robin doesn’t really give a shit about Paula, and this whole angle was indeed no more than a contrived attempt by employees of the Universal Music Group to increase publicity for the album by providing a conspicuous soap opera context to engage the audience emotionally — is likely to be either too meta or too close to a Conspiracy Theory mindset to appeal to most of the people who give a shit about Robin Thicke. Besides, this mindset can be safely put aside even by those whose own experiences within the music industry support its likeliness, because the intentions of any storyteller are incapable of invalidating a well-supported interpretation of the work they give us.