News Column

Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke: Too reliant on NSFW videos?

July 7, 2013


July 07--Ever since YouTube brought music videos into the privacy of your home or well-locked office, an easy way for artists to get attention is to include some artful nudity in their videos. It's been standard practice for groups on the experimental fringes for years -- see the Flaming Lips and the Weeknd, among many others.

But in the last few weeks, both Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke have released racy edits of videos for their popular singles "Tunnel Vision" and "Blurred Lines." These aren't cuts by rising acts looking to make a stark first impression. These are two the biggest names on pop radio -- Timberlake's album "The 20/20 Experience" is the year's top seller, and Thicke's "Blurred Lines" is becoming the consensus pick for the song of the summer.

All this suggests that today, it's not enough to be a striking fellow in an excellent suit with great dance moves and a chart-exploding single to prove your prowess. But is a passel of topless models really the most creative way to make that point?

The unrated versions of both videos -- which we can't link to, but are easy to find online -- are directed with libertine good fun. Both videos are more about the joie de vivre of guys at the top of their game, having the time of their lives, than anything especially salacious or demeaning. We've seen worse at friends' pool parties, even without Pharrell and T.I. stopping by to escalate proceedings.

But you don't have to be Catharine MacKinnon to wonder whether today's pop-R&B rakes could try a little harder to subvert the cliches of the current NSFW video trend.

For starters, there's the imbalance of who is doing the stripping. We can appreciate Timberlake's "Suit & Tie" choices as much as the next armchair sartorialist, but it's a little unfair that he gets to keep it on in these videos. If it's that kind of party, J.T., your suit and tie should end up somewhere by the pool too.

But also, this streak of NSFW makes the mistake of simply assuming that the inclusion of topless female models is always the most interesting and resonant artistic choice. We guess we can't argue with the base logic of that approach, especially when hawking a single to today's vast sea of Tumblr-lechers.

But let's go back and look at what's empirically the sexiest music video of all time: D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)." There's no actual nudity (unless you count D's considerable lower-abdominal muscles), and the video gets all its tension from the starkness of its composition -- locked-off shots of D'Angelo crooning and pleading in front of a pure black background.

It was such a striking, inventively sexy move for a video that it almost -- and regrettably -- overshadowed the rest of his career. But that just shows the huge variety of tactics that can raise the temperature of a video without resorting to stock moves.

Maybe we're just complaining because the only time we hung out with Pharrell was in a lounge at Capitol Records, with Hans Zimmer as our lunch date instead of a half-dozen models in varied states of undress. We've got absolutely no problem with hard-R videos imaginatively composed to make an artistic point.

But if such a thing is possible, we may have hit Peak Toplessness in music videos. Today's rakish singers owe us plebeians some more enticing imagery.


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