Career Killers: “Paula” by Robin Thicke.

I wrote a review for Robin Thicke’s Paula when it first came out in 2014. I decided to revisit it for several reasons. 1) I’m lazy, 2) It was obvious, at the time, that this record would tank his career and 3) I see him every week as a judge on The Masked Singer and I can’t decide whether being on a hit show means that his career has recovered from this debacle of an album or if it’s confirmation that his musical career is over and that he’ll just be a reality show judge from here on out. In other words, did his album about one Paula (Patton) have the effect of turning him into another Paula (Abdul)?

In retrospect, “Blurred Lines” wasn’t the start of something great for Robin Thicke. It was the beginning of the end. And Paula ended up being the nail in the coffin.

That’s not usually the case when you score a monster hit single. “Blurred Lines” was supposed to herald the arrival of Thicke as the next great singer/songwriter/producer of his era. Having toiled in near-obscurity for years as a songwriter and producer to the stars while picking up a few minor hits along the way for himself, “Blurred Lines” looked like it would catapult Thicke onto the musical A-list. With his talent, good looks, and pedigree (his dad is Alan Thicke of Growing Pains), there was no reason to think that he wouldn’t be a powerful and influential hitmaker for years to come.

After all, it may be easy to forget, but “Blurred Lines” was a bona fide phenomenon when it came out in 2013. It’s one of the biggest-selling singles of the streaming era and has been certified diamond (10x platinum) in the U.S. Its success wasn’t limited to America, as “Blurred Lines” hit #1 in 25 countries. According to Billboard, “Blurred Lines” was the 14th biggest song of the 2010s, and even that seems low. This song was everywhere and everyone was talking about it.

But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. For one thing, the song was instantly controversial — mainly for its lyrics, which were sexually aggressive and misogynistic at best and an endorsement of rape culture at worst. The uncensored video, featuring nude models and Thicke bragging about the size of his – well, it rhymes with his last name – only reinforced many of the criticisms against him and Pharrell Williams (his producer and co-writer).

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Turns out, there was a reason why the song was so catchy. Williams and Thicke admitted that they had been inspired by Marvin Gaye’s 1977 classic “Got To Give It Up,” and had wanted to recreate its vibe for “Blurred Lines.” They did it a little too well, because Gaye’s estate immediately accused them of plagiarism. So, Thicke, Williams and co-writer T.I. struck first and sued Gaye’s estate, filing for a declaratory judgment in federal court that they were not liable for copyright infringement.

To say that the lawsuit backfired is an understatement. Williams and Thicke were hit with a jury verdict in 2015 ordering them to pay $7.4 million in damages to the Gaye estate (the jury cleared T.I., who only wrote the short rap part in the middle of the song). The verdict, which shook the music industry to its core, was upheld after several appeals (although the damages were reduced to $5.3 million) and the parties eventually settled out of court. More importantly, it led to a trend where anytime there’s the slightest similarity between a current song and a previously recorded one, the writers of the former will toss a co-writing credit to the latter just to be safe (however, that could be ending, thanks to recent high-profile decisions clearing the likes of Led Zeppelin and Katy Perry of copyright infringement).

Nevertheless, the long litigation proved to be highly damaging to Thicke. For instance, in his deposition, Thicke admitted to being drunk and high for most of the songwriting process and that Williams wrote most of it (Williams has since expressed regret for the lyrical content). Williams did back up Thicke, though, chalking it up to the nature of the music business. But regardless of whatever the unwritten rules of the industry are, it made Thicke look like an untalented leech who simply got a co-writer’s credit because he was the singer.

But the bigger blow came at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. First, he let a scantily-clad Miley Cyrus dry-hump and twerk all over him during a bizarre and uncomfortable performance of “Blurred Lines.” Then, at an after-party, Thicke’s hand got stuck in the cookie jar with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Both of these incidents seemed to confirm longstanding rumors of Thicke’s infidelity, and less than six months later, his longtime marriage to actress Paula Patton was over, setting the stage for his subsequent album and career immolation.

From my original review [edited slightly to remove redundancies]:

Much like how Gaye wrote an entire album about his divorce, Thicke goes back to that playbook and bares his soul in 14 gut-wrenching songs, alternating between pitiful begging to his soon-to-be-ex-wife and “TMI”-level introspection. It’s refreshing to hear an artist drop all pretenses and sing what’s on his or her mind- after all, it’s difficult to accept this as Thicke’s mea culpa unless he’s being open and honest about everything.

But in this case, it’s just exhausting. It may be nice to see someone beg for forgiveness, but no one wants to see that person do it for nearly an hour (especially if forgiveness is not forthcoming). It’s like the scene in East of Eden where James Dean throws himself at his disapproving father’s feet and gets no compassion or love in return. The lack of subtlety or symbolism on Paula is jarring and turns an interesting concept into an uncomfortable front-row seat to one man’s public self-flagellation.

Done right, an album about anguish, pain and love lost can work. For instance, Eric Clapton was able to write an entire album about how he was in love with his best friend’s wife. What made it palatable was that he used symbols, private references and characters to convey his feelings and pain. While it’s clear who Eric is singing about, it’s not so obvious that you feel like he’s clubbing you over the head with a 2X4.

Musically, it’s a perfectly acceptable record. Paula showcases Thicke’s prodigious talent. After all, he not only co-produced the album, he wrote all of the songs in a three-week period after finishing his “Blurred Lines” tour and played multiple instruments. Anyone expecting another “Blurred Lines” or a similarly over-produced song from Pharrell Williams will be sorely disappointed. Paula harkens back to his pre-2013 sound and is very similar to “Lost Without U,” his biggest hit prior to “Blurred Lines.” It is a sparsely produced album that relies heavily on acoustic guitar, piano and horns.

After listening to this album again, I can safely say that the first three songs (“You’re My Fantasy,” “Get Her Back” and “Still Madly Crazy”) are very good and definitely raise expectations that Paula could be a self-confessional classic à la Gaye’s Here, My Dear or Usher’s Confessions. As I mentioned in my original review, “You’re My Fantasy” sounds like it could have been sung by Justin Timberlake (and been a big hit for him), while lead single, “Get Her Back,” is undeniably catchy. “Still Madly Crazy” seems like it was going to be a single in that he went to the trouble of actually making a video for it (and casting a bunch of adorable kids in lieu of appearing in it himself), but it was probably canceled in light of the poor reception this album got. It has definitely grown on me, and I can really appreciate the beautiful sentimentality behind it. Like “You’re My Fantasy,” “Still Madly Crazy” probably could have been a big hit under different circumstances.

Not every song on this album is about trying to win back his wife. “Whatever I Want” is a catchy, up-tempo number about the benefits of being single again. “Living in New York City” is another up-tempo song and one that doesn’t really have any connection to the overall concept of the album, except that it features a voice-over of Patton saying she was moving there. I don’t know if it was taken from a voicemail or if she agreed to do a quick recording session as one last favor to her soon-to-be ex-husband, but as a song, it’s actually quite good. It definitely shows off Thicke’s vocal range and provides a welcome change of pace from the nonstop angst of the record. Meanwhile, “The Opposite of Me” is another song that has grown on me considerably since the first time I listened to this record. It’s a nice juxtaposition of light, breezy music and dark lyrics and themes (“If she ever knew that I would never be the man I promised I would be/ If she ever knew that I was gonna be running around she would’ve never stayed/ All that she needs is a good man”).

The rest of the album, however, is forgettably mediocre. Perhaps even more strangely, he spends much of it trying to sound like other people.

The record also showcases his derivative tendencies. To be fair, all artists imitate others and there’s a fine line between homage and plagiarism (as Thicke found out the hard way) . While Thicke has a great voice and style of his own, he spends much of the album imitating other artists. In “Living in New York City,” he does his best James Brown impersonation (right down to the “Living in America”-style wails). “Lock the Door” sounds like a rejected cut from “Ray,” “Time of Your Life” is supposed to sound like Sinatra, but Thicke ends up sounding more like Michael Buble, and “Too Little Too Late” could have been one of those studio-created songs used by the Michael Jackson estate to put on a posthumous album. Another song, “Tippy Toes,” is supposed to sound like Elvis Presley (and even talks about girls twerking – a peculiar reference for him). [And here’s one I missed in the original review: “Something Bad” seemingly apes George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” – right down to Thicke going “ba-ba-ba-ba-bad.”] Maybe it ties into the fact that he hates himself for blowing his marriage and being someone else is easier for him than taking a long look in the mirror.

More problematic is “Black Tar Cloud,” which is probably the most intense song on the album (and that’s saying something). The narrative piece starts out with a fight between the narrator (Thicke) and “you” (presumed to be Patton) and culminates in a fake suicide attempt by “you” in order to try and get the narrator to change his ways. “You were lying in bed, said you took 20 pills/ Now I’m calling the ambulance, police/ I’m freaking out ’til you said chill/ Baby I didn’t really take them pills/ I’m just desperately crying for help.” Patton has never commented on this album, but I can’t imagine she was happy about Thicke airing their dirty laundry like that (assuming it’s even true). It really calls into question what his motives were for even doing this album in the first place.

What really makes this record stand out is the very fact that Thicke recorded it. Is he really trying to win back his estranged wife (whom he, admittedly, hasn’t seen in months)? Or is this damage control from a savvy artist who knows there is a huge backlash against him and hopes that playing the penitent husband will help him win back his fans?

A picture speaks a thousand words and videos can read like novels. The “Get Her Back” video shows a bloodied and teary-eyed Thicke begging for forgiveness while what seems like actual text messages between him and his wife flash on screen. All of Thicke’s messages are remorseful while all of Patton’s purported messages are dismissive or unforgiving. “I wrote a whole album about you,” reads one of Thicke’s texts. “I don’t care,” is the response he gets. Other responses he gets include: “You drink too much,” “You ruined everything,” and “You embarrassed me.” While Patton seems to be the wronged party (if press reports are to be believed), if you read the out-of-context text messages, it’s Thicke that you end up feeling bad for. The video for “Get Her Back” seems less about getting her back and more about making him seem sympathetic. The fact that he spends the video cavorting around with a naked Patton lookalike only raises more questions about his motives.

Indeed, the album seems to be a mea culpa, not to Patton, but to the general public.

After all, it became abundantly clear in the aftermath of “Blurred Lines” that Thicke was not only unlikeable, he was phony. He had always portrayed himself as someone who was madly in love with his wife, and while he might be tempted to stray, he never would because his wife wasn’t just his soulmate and best friend, she was his muse as well. It’s the same schtick Howard Stern used until his divorce — and while the shock jock may have been able to reinvent himself as an excellent interviewer, it took a long time for him to get the point where people started taking him seriously.

Based on what has come out about Thicke’s and Patton’s ugly divorce, it’s clear that the golden couple had been having problems for years and that things were already close to their breaking point well before the 2013 VMAs. Nevertheless, Thicke’s decision to not only go public, but to do so with a mediocre album at the height of a backlash against him was an odd move at the time and seems even more strange in retrospect. Doing an entire record about how desperate he is to get his wife back and mostly blaming himself for all of his shortcomings and misdeeds may have seemed like a noble, even romantic thing to do. But it also made him look like a needy jerk — and one that couldn’t take “no” for an answer (sound familiar?). The public was never going to root for someone like that — especially not by spending their hard-earned money to buy his records or concert tickets. The right move probably would have been to lay low and work on himself before coming back a few years later as an older, wiser and more mature Robin Thicke.

It also would have helped his creative process. Paula has a handful of good songs and a few decent filler tracks, but the rest is completely forgettable. But it’s not a bad album — certainly not as bad as I remembered when I first listened to it in 2014. Maybe the shock of it has worn off, especially since we now have closure on the whole Patton/Thicke passion play. Also, there’s a natural inclination for critics to revisit horrendous flops and re-evaluate them and declare that maybe they weren’t so bad after all (it happened with Liz Phair’s disastrous 2003 album, for instance).

Or maybe I got caught up in the hype backlash over this album. After all, it was clear, almost from the moment Paula was released, that it was going to be a monumental, career-killing flop. To say that sales numbers for Paula weren’t very good is like saying Ishtar didn’t get the greatest reception at the box office. The album sold fewer than 54 (you read that right: 54, not 54,000) copies in Australia during its first week. The album did slightly better in the UK and Canada, moving 530 and 550 copies in its first week, respectively. It did manage to debut at #9 on the Billboard charts, but with first week sales of 24,000 in the U.S., it was a far cry from “Blurred Lines,” which moved 177,000 copies in its first week of release.

Indeed, Paula stopped Thicke’s career dead in its tracks. To his credit, he continues to defend the album, saying that it was an honest portrayal of how he felt at the time. “As an artist I have no regrets because as a writer you write what you feel, you have to express yourself and give it away,” he said on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live. “But, as an entertainer, I felt like I should have just given it away for free instead of promote it or make it part of my entertainer’s process.” In retrospect, Paula probably would have worked better as a mixtape or a Spotify exclusive. In fact, Thicke has said that his label and management warned him against releasing Paula, and it speaks to how much clout he had at the time that he not only overruled them but got a full album release.

Sadly for him, that might be the last time he has that much muscle in the music industry. To wit, his follow-up album has been in limbo for a while and all he’s managed in the six years since Paula has been a handful of little-noticed singles. That’s not to say that he hasn’t accomplished anything since Paula wrecked his musical career. He’s gotten remarried and has had two children (with a third on the way). He’s done bit of acting (I’ve watched a few clips of him on Kevin Hart’s satirical Real Husbands of Hollywood and thought he was pretty funny), and landed his gig on The Masked Singer, where he’s probably the most even-keel and likable of the four regular judges. He’s also weathered some pretty big personal tragedies, including losing his father, who he seemed genuinely close to, in 2016, and then losing his home to a California wildfire two years later. He also seems to be in better health and has done a good amount of PR for himself. Can he stage a successful comeback? I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. Others with less talent have survived even biggest falls from grace. Why not Robin Thicke?

But will he ever reach the heights he did with “Blurred Lines”? Probably not. But considering everything that happened after that, maybe that’s a good thing.

December 4, 2020

The Admin Formerly Known as TheConvictor

Leave a comment