Image via GQ

Pharrell Williams is evolving.

In a new interview with GQ, the singer, producer, and fashion innovator discussed personal and political evolution, spiritual warfare in America, and his newfound appreciation for the fact that we live in a "chauvinistic" culture—an appreciation he gained through criticism he faced for the lyrics of "Blurred Lines," the 2013 hit he cowrote with Robin Thicke.

When that song first appeared, it was quickly criticized for its "rapey" implications and coercive lyrics that pushed the boundaries of consent. Williams defended the song at the time of its release, and he told GQ that when he created it, he believed the song was actually a tribute to women's independence and sexual liberation. Also, the fact that some women enjoyed the song somehow led him to believe it would be enjoyable for all women. "I didn't get it at first. Because there were older white women who, when that song came on, they would behave in some of the most surprising ways ever… So when there started to be an issue with it, lyrically, I was like, 'What are you talking about?' There are women who really like the song and connect to the energy that just gets you up." (Because older white women are obviously the arbiters of all women's sexual preferences).

Fortunately, his views and understanding changed over time. "I realized that there are men who use that same language when taking advantage of a woman, and it doesn't matter that that's not my behavior. Or the way I think about things," he said. "It just matters how it affects women…. I cared what they were feeling, too. I realized that we live in a chauvinist culture in our country. Hadn't realized that. Didn't realize that some of my songs catered to that. So that blew my mind."

While Pharrell's comments are indicative of a lifetime of ignorance, they actually reveal something that should be praised more: a growth mindset.

Most men, and humans in general, are not born with innate knowledge of what is acceptable and what is not in terms of sexual consent, and a great deal of media and social norms (like hit songs like "Blurred Lines") only serve to rehash distorted perceptions of what is acceptable and what is not, perceptions usually shaped by the very chauvinistic culture that they help perpetuate.

Although Pharrell's comments on "Blurred Lines" might make us cringe, at least he's realized that consent isn't something people should be coerced into, that women often have different ideas of what constitutes consent, and that desire should always be clarified and re-confirmed prior to each sexual act. If more people were like Pharrell, open to learning about what it actually means to be a feminist and willing to listen to others' voices, then we would be living in a very different world.

GQ.com

This doesn't mean we should be willing to forgive inappropriate behavior or provide abusers with a cushion of forgiveness. Too often, men who are implicated in #MeToo cases are willingly reintegrated into society and allowed to continue with their careers, while research and follow-ups with women who reported assault cases reveal that these groups often suffer, in terms of their careers and mental health and other aspects of their lives.

So instead of being preemptively forgiving of willful ignorance, we should be willing to embrace people like Pharrell who reshape their worldviews after learning from their past mistakes. Most of the interview finds Pharrell speaking with a highly tuned sense of moral and ethical responsibility as well as a strong feminist ethic. He openly supports women's leadership and criticizes white male-led masculinity while addressing the fallout that is resulting from the downfall of this ancient and destructive hierarchy. "Man, what would the world be like if women held all of the highest positions worldwide?" he said.

He also addressed the fact that gender politics can't be extricated from other issues like race and class. "If you ask me, when we talk about masculinity, it's also very racial, this conversation," he said. "Because the dominant force on this planet right now is the older straight white male. And there's a particular portion of them that senses a tanning effect. They sense a feminizing effect. They sense a nonbinary effect when it comes to gender."

It does seem like he's had thick blinders on for a very long time. For example, he states that he "just read the Declaration of Independence the other day" and his "jaw dropped" when he saw that the document "[refers] to the Native Americans as merciless savages." On the other hand, while these ideas might be well-known in progressive circles, much of America still celebrates Columbus Day. To collectively grow, we're going to have to be open to a lot of people having these kinds of revelations, which are of course too little too late, but are better than nothing.

GQ

Maybe the wisest thing Pharrell says in the whole interview is, "I don't think my opinion is everything. I don't know anyone else's plight." As Socrates once said, "All I know is I know nothing, and I am not quite sure I know that." These ideas are the polar opposite of the message of "Blurred Lines," which is, of course, "I know you want it."

That's not to say that we should forgive people who disregard others' rights to exist or walk safely in the streets, or that anyone should be expected to corral their anger when faced with bigotry. But instead, maybe we should be more open to those who have done the work and grown and changed, and allies should never pretend to be authorities on others' experiences.

The Internet's algorithm may thrive off dissent and snap judgments, and nuance and active listening may be lost causes in this age of polarity, but change and evolution are some of this life's only constants. In light of this, we need to be more comfortable with growth and with admitting that we've done wrong in the past. We need to listen to the voices of others and accept discomfort and criticism instead of resisting them.

Recently, the actress Jameela Jamil faced heat for stating that she only recently learned of the extent of George W. Bush's war crimes in Iran, and in response, she started the hashtag #ProgressNotPerfection in order to emphasize the importance of being open to learning, to questions, and to changing our minds in order to change the world.

So in the spirit of #ProgressNotPerfection, here's to Pharrell speaking the truth and denouncing "Blurred Lines" six years after the fact. It would've been nice if that happened before the song's release, and if we could've been spared the collective trauma of watching Miley Cyrus twerk on Robin Thicke—but that's in the past. Today we're living in the era of flying cars, hopefully a female president, and finally admitting that we don't know a damn thing.

GQ

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Music Features

Ed Sheeran is Headed to Court

Ed Sheeran could lose up to $100 million for allegedly plagiarizing Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On."

NBC News

Ed Sheeran — a wedding singer who seemingly won a Faustian contest of mediocrity that elevated him to super-stardom — is facing legal trouble.

Given his repetitive songwriting and greasy "dude, let me copy your homework" vibe, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that he may or may not dabble in plagiarism.

On Friday, a US judge rejected Sheeran's call for the court to drop a legal case accusing him of copying parts of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." District Judge Louis Stanton said he found "substantial similarities between several of the two works' musical elements." Now, the case will go before a jury to be decided. According to the BBC, "The action has been brought against Sheeran, Sony/ATV Music Publishing and Atlantic Records by the estate and heirs of the late producer Ed Townsend, who co-wrote Let's Get It On with Gaye." The suit states that Sheeran and his co-writers "copied and exploited, without authorization or credit, the 'Let's Get it On' composition," copying various elements "including but not limited to the melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation, and looping." They're asking for $100 million in damages.

Hollywood Reporter

The song in question is Sheeran's 2014 number-one hit, "Thinking Out Loud," a love song so generic that it could have been written about any human being that ever lived as a musical product of any time period since the invention of the guitar. If you listen to "Let's Get It On" and "Thinking Out Loud" in quick succession, you're not struck by their similarities, but by the extraordinary contrast between the two songs. Marvin Gayes' song is a timeless, soulful masterpiece; while, in comparison, Sheeran's song seems like a tepid lament from a Tinder date who's just tired of going to the movies by himself.

However, if you can look past the disparity in quality between the two hits, you may recognize a few familiar moments in Sheeran's song, as the two songs share many of the same chord progressions and have a similar groove. However, as Power Station Studio's Audio Engineer Joshua Taylor put it to Popdust, "90% of pop songs are written at basically the same tempo and all use the same two or three chord progressions, so really cases like this have to be about the melody" — which means that it's unlikely that these similarities are enough to validly claim plagiarism, since the songs are melodically very different.

Unfortunately for everyone's favorite lazy-eyed Raggedy Andy, when a case like this goes in front of a jury, the facts of musical composition tend to lose importance. For example, in 2015, Gaye's estate won $5.3 million after a jury decided Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' 2013 hit "Blurred Lines" infringed upon Marvin Gaye's 1977 composition "Got to Give It Up." As Variety puts it, "Jurors in such cases are rarely musical experts and similarities based on gut — or as the 'Blurred Lines' decision put it, 'feel' — instead of musical notation can carry the day."

That and Ed Sheeran's case have raised concerns throughout the music industry about who should be allowed to decide questions of musical plagiarism, as the lack of musical expertise among the average jury leaves artists open to possibly undeserved legal prosecution. After all, should Ed Sheeran really be punished for making indistinct, soulless music that sounds like every other song you've ever heard?


Brooke Ivey Johnson is a Brooklyn based writer, playwright, and human woman. To read more of her work visit her blog or follow her twitter @BrookeIJohnson.


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