Five years ago, Robin Thicke, T.I. and Pharrell Williams released Blurred Lines and unleashed a catchy riff with lyrics which sparked enough outrage to mark a genuine turning point in talks of sexual politics.
Two years later, a federal jury concluded Williams and Thicke had copied Marvin Gaye’s 1977 chart-topper Got To Give It Up, and told them to fork over nearly $7.4 million in unpaid licensing fees.
Hear why below:
You’ve probably heard the lyrics lamenting what Robin Thicke misogynistically dubbed the ‘blurred lines’ between consensual sex and rape.
Thicke testified to say he was drunk and high on Vicodin in the studio and didn’t really help write the song, released on March 26, 2013 through Pharrell’s label, Star Trak Recordings.
But the lyrics he sang – ‘Can’t let it get past me’ and ‘I know you want it’ – will go down in history. Needless to say, women everywhere thought the line was, in fact, pretty clear.
You’re probably also familiar with Emily Ratajkowski, who shot to superstardom for her performance in the music video, and subsequently, her unique brand of feminism.
The backlash has since seen Ratajkowski distance herself from the song, which became the longest-running number one single of 2013 with 12 weeks at the top, saying it was ‘the bane of [her] existence’.
You can learn more about ‘@EmRata’ below:
Blurred Lines was so marred in controversy, people who watched the 6 o’clock news and surfed KISS FM alike had all heard it.
You can watch that controversial music video below:
Speaking exclusively to UNILAD five years on from its release, the women share their thoughts on Blurred Lines and gender politics.
Jessi, who was born in southern France to a Senegalese father and an Algerian mother, was pursuing her music career in New York and about to quit modelling when she got the call from her agent for the Blurred Lines job in LA.
She was booked after having previously worked with Diane Martel, the director, and went along thinking it would be her last job.
Speaking in her uniquely lyrical manner, M’Bengue told UNILAD:
At first, nobody even knew this video was going to be such a big deal. I’d never heard the song before the day of set.
I was cast as a model, not as an artist. Most people, at the time, did not know that I write music myself.
Jessi had been scouted after moving to Toronto as a ‘troubled teen’ to learn creative writing. Like Jessi, Elle Evans’ first love was not for modelling.
The self-confessed tomboy grew up splitting her time between rural Texas and Louisiana after her parents’ divorce, where fashion was inaccessible, and Mother Nature took precedent.
Both have somehow managed to remain unscathed by the backlash against all involved in the making of Blurred Lines.
When asked if she gets recognised from the music video, Elle replied:
Blurred Lines, wow! Really hard to believe that was five years ago now…
I’m definitely not recognised much from that any more, but back then it happened at least once a day.
Jessi, on the other hand, told UNILAD why she was happy to avoid the limelight:
I am not recognised from that vid no… And I made sure to have it like that. When the video was shot I forgot all about it, even cut my entire hair out to start my life fresh and new.
And then the video came out and it was huge. Massive.
I simply decided to stay away from the limelight so I could do my thing. I did not want to rock out the Blurred Lines wave. I wanted to focus on me. So I never was part of the conversation and happily so.
But I totally understand the different opinions [about] the song, and even the video. This is the beauty of life. We are all entitled to our opinions and most opinions are valid within their own context.
Saying that, Elle and Jessi both had to deal with the connotations of the artists’ lyrics in their own different ways.
Elle was scouted after a career on the pageant circuit which won her the title of Miss Louisiana Teen USA 2008, as she says, once she got her braces off at 16 years old.
She said she’s not had to battle against the backwards belief a woman can’t embrace her sexuality and hold strong and valuable opinions at the same time, adding: ‘It’s just something that I do and hope to lead by example.’
I am perfectly comfortable with my sexuality and I have plenty of strong and valuable opinions. I know this, but I’ve never really felt the need to convince other people of it.
Her experience echoes Jessi’s, who said she grew up in the ‘ultimate modern day European melting pot’ and was unperturbed by a certain sub-section of society, which took particular umbrage with the nudity in the music video.
Jessi described her own ethos of female body autonomy, saying:
I have shot nude before that video for amazing high end publications. Nudity is not a problem. I am French after all. We see nudity differently than most people.
I believe the female body is beautiful. I cherish it. I cherish my nudity. My body belongs to me and how or if I decide to show it is my own individual choice, whether it is perceived in an alpha or beta way.
My mother fought for me to have free will of my choices. I am a French born African/Arab woman with the weight of my beautiful culture on me as well. So it can be tough. But my nudity is mine. My body is mine.
As I grow and develop as a woman, I am learning more empowering ways to cherish my body and nudity than when I was younger. Self expression with the body is an individual journey .
Recalling what it was like on set, Jessi added:
The set was closed, meaning only the performers and the director were on set.
Everybody else was behind the curtain. It was a job.
Professional. Nothing else. Nothing more. And as hired models to do a job, we just performed our job.
Elle chimed in, recounting her experience for UNILAD:
I remember everything vividly. That might be the most fun set I’ve ever been on! I was having so much fun that I kept breaking character!
I hadn’t yet had any formal acting training so I was just breaking character and cracking smiles left and right. Pharrell was talking to me and smiling at me and I just thought he was so dreamy!
You can hear Pharrell abstractly defend Blurred Lines on Channel 4 below:
After such an enjoyable experience, UNILAD asked whether the models keep in touch.
Now a musician and spoken word poet working in LA, Jessi said she sometimes bumps into her former co-worker, Emily, in tinsel town.
You can hear her music via Spotify and by listening to the audio in this tweet:
— Jessi M'Bengue (@Jessimbengue) September 8, 2017
The 28-year-old songwriter said:
I am not in touch with the musicians. It was a job, not a personal favour. Jobs go through our agents and when the job is finished, that’s that.
I have bumped into Emily a few times (after the video) in LA and I am happy for the success the video brought her. She is a cool girl. I didn’t get to speak to Elle much on set. But I believe she is doing lovely as well.
Indeed, since, Elle has starred in the film Muse, which is still in the festival circuit:
In an amusing coincidence, Elle is engaged to Muse frontman, Matt Bellamy and also featured in one of his music videos three months after they’d been together – even though she confesses the pair shot their parts for Mercy separately.
She explains she’s not in touch with the other models from Blurred Lines, but added:
I always see and like their pics on Instagram but haven’t really done any keeping in touch. I still think it’d blow people’s minds if we got back together for a reunion though.
Emily is so great, right?! Love her to bits! We should all stand behind those women that are unapologetically free.
Sharing her thoughts on gender equality, of which Ratajkowski is a champion, Elle said:
I think things are really looking up for the women of the world. There is still a long way to go but great strides are being made all over.
Everywhere you look you’ll see women standing up forever against all forms of sexual harassment, demanding equal pay, creating more leadership and public service opportunities, and experiencing the freedom to truly make one’s own choices.
I’m proud to be alive to witness the greatness that is to come.
Although Jessi – a self-confessed ‘introvert’ – cites music as both her love and lover, she said modelling is an integral part of her discipline for which she is grateful.
Echoing the feeling of most women who work in the so-called decorative industries, she said:
Modelling has allowed me the time to fully discover and understand myself, and blossom into the woman I’ve always wanted to be.
I had to model to make a living and ended up embracing it as one of my artistic aspirations.
As Elle throws herself back into work after taking some time to share with her family, Jessi has been inspired by her own family’s struggles, and the struggles of particularly women of colour, to start [Nuit Noire], a female collective, with Mamé Adjei, ‘to highlight and showcase the various cultural components of female artistry’.
Jessi calls it her way of helping women who, as she puts it, ‘often get the low end of the stick in every affair of life’, since she’s in a position to do so.
So from the ashes of the most controversial song lyrics of all time, comes a platform for championing female expression.
The butterfly effect doesn’t make the sentiment of Blurred Lines right, of course, but it sure does show how far we’ve progressed as a society in those short five years.
If you have a story to tell, contact UNILAD via [email protected]
A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.