It's been quite a summer for Robin Thicke. He's had the second biggest-selling singles of the year, he's helped to 'reinvent' the career of Mylie Cyrus, he's fallen victim to one of the best internet parodies since Alanis Morrisette covered 'My Humps' by the Black Eyed Peas, and now he's had his song banned by Edinburgh University Student's Association (EUSA).
The song in question, Blurred Lines, has been one of the catchiest singles in a long time, and unfortunately it's stuck in my head even as I am typing this. Depending on who you listen to the lyrics are either 'provocative' or they're 'kind of rapey'. Whatever they are they're certainly not pleasant and the line 'I'll show you something big enough to tear your ass in two' is hardly likely to feature in a Valentine's Day card any time soon.
In his defence Thicke points out that he and his collaborators are all married with children, and suggests that he is being unfairly demonised for what he claims is obviously a tongue-in-cheek single. His critics have responded by saying that his music is misogynistic and that his lyrics entrench rape-culture. With EUSA's Vice President explaining the logic for the ban in saying that the song "promotes an unhealthy attitude towards sex and consent."
Thicke hasn't done much to avert the criticism, and in a characteristically un-self aware defence of the explicit video for the track he said "We pretty much wanted to take all the taboos of what you're not supposed to do--bestiality, you know, injecting a girl in her bum with a five-foot syringe--I just wanted to break every rule of things you're not supposed to do and make people realize how silly some of these rules are."
What does the success of a song that likens women to animals and talks of 'smacking their asses' and pulling their hair as if it were the height of chivalry say about our society? In reality very little,. Even if we assume the lyrics allude to rape (which is far from clear) then the song is still no more likely to create rapists than Grand Theft Auto is to create career criminals.
The song may be puerile and distasteful, but music is a supply/demand business. Its success may be a symptom of a sexually debased society, but it's certainly not a cause. Unfortunately sexism is rampant in much of popular culture, and now it's possible for a rap star to sing about having 99 problems (apparently 'a bitch aint one') and get on first-name terms with the President of the United States.
In some ways EUSA's wider policy of trying to eradicate 'lad culture' on campus is admirable, there are few sub-cultures more deserving of contempt than the sorts of jocks that are rampant on university campuses.
However, I see no evidence that students have actually been consulted at any point in this decision - not least because there haven't been many around over the summer. Furthermore the idea that such a cultural low as Blurred Lines can become a symbol for free speech is entirely detrimental. The other problem is that defining 'lad culture' is hard in itself.
Banning Nuts magazine from your shops is one thing, but what about cultural genres like rap music, hip-hop and even much of the cheesy pop industry which reinforced gender stereotypes? Then we get onto comedians like Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr, who have made a lot of money out of jokes about minority groups and/ or rape, and would easily sell out every single student's union in the country. Would banning them from EUSA make them any less popular?
In a free society there will always be times when people disappoint you. When I was President of my student's union (Dundee University Student's Association) we used to host all sorts of events that I disapproved of (Golf Pros and Tennis Hoes and Chavs and Goths being two that spring to mind) but unfortunately they were far more popular than any of the high-brow cultural events we held during the same time. Our single most popular event was a Traffic Light Shag Tag event (the idea was that students wore colours to determine how 'up for it' they were with green for very, amber for 'impress me' and red for not at all). I remember telling my colleagues in the events department that I hoped it would be a massive flop, so as you can imagine I was unpleasantly surprised when it attracted 1600 students and sold out its entire ticket allocation.
But why do the choices of a student's union warrant extensive comment? Normally they wouldn't, but in this case they are representative of a wider mindset on how to tackle society's evils. Ultimately I feel the same way about Robin Thicke as I do about gangster rap, lad's mags and page 3 of The Sun. I don't like any of them, and I wish them every failure. However, I am even more opposed to the sorts of campaigns and gesture politics that seek to create change by making people's choices for them.
Changing minds is about debate, campaigns, stunts, boycotts and leading by example, rather than lobbying for top-down bans on things because we personally disapprove of them. Furthermore, the history of pop culture has been a history of moral panics and cultural battles. If we think back to the battles against punk in the 1970s, rap in the 1980s or Marilyn Manson in the 1990s the themes have been the same. Those in opposition have always been worried about the effect the music might have on listeners and the cultures they are perceived to promote. Yet all three examples were reflections on where youth culture was at the time, and now that sufficient time has passed it is apparent and clear that the opposition was an overreaction to what was merely a passing fad or phase. I hope that Robin Thicke goes the same way.