Boobs at Work: Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, and Nudity in Music Videos

Justin Timberlake dropped the video for “Tunnel Vision,” the third single off his 20/20 Experience, the other day, prompting many viewers to point out the major similarity it shares with Robin Thicke’s blockbuster “Blurred Lines” video: Boobs! Several of them.

Both “Blurred Lines” and “Tunnel Vision” feature beautiful nude women in the role of background dancers. “Blurred Lines” has a lot of goofy prop comedy that sort of desexualizes female models Elle Evans, Emily Ratajkowski, and Jessi M’Bengue’s nakedness, while “Tunnel Vision” is a more self-consciously artsy take, featuring a clothed Justin intercut with female dancers serving as canvases for projections of Timberlake’s face. The videos also, inevitably, prompted more discussion about the similarity between the blue-eyed soul sound and pompadoured looks of the two R&B singers, harking back to when “Suit & Tie” first came out and #Thicke started trending on Twitter.

“Blurred Lines,” which Thicke made with the Neptunes, sounds like the kind of obvious dance-floor filler some people might have wanted from Justin’s first single instead of “Suit & Tie.” Indeed, the Thicke songs with the Neptunes do sound a bit like JT outtakes (rather than the other way around), just like the songs Timberlake did with the Neptunes for his first album sounded like Michael Jackson outtakes, since they had been written as prospects for MJ’s comeback album Invincible. To make things even more confusing, Justin is veering from his all-Timbaland diet and working with the Neptunes again for 20/20‘s second installment.

“Blurred Lines” has generated controversy, with some calling it exploitative. It seems no more offensive than all the other videos that utilize attractive women as accessory objects for the male subjects, or maybe I’ve just become jaded in the years since I was scandalized forever by Warrant’s video for “Cherry Pie.” “Blurred Lines” feels like a flip take on an overdone music video trope. Diane Martel, the veteran video director who was behind the camera for this one, defended it as a playful tease meant to stir up talk and, most importantly, to sell virtual records. Both videos were posted officially on YouTube, only to get pulled shortly thereafter for violating the site’s terms of service, but not before they’d already been dissected on blogs and reposted elsewhere, fulfilling their mission of getting attention for the songs.

The “Tunnel Vision” video reappeared on YouTube a few hours after it was yanked, suddenly requiring a login for proof of age. YouTube wouldn’t clarify its exact position on artistic nudity, but released a statement explaining that the company will “make exceptions when [nudity] is presented in an educational, documentary or artistic context, and take care to add appropriate warnings and age restrictions.” What’s the difference between “artistic” or “educational” nudity and purely gratuitous body shots? It’s hard to say. YouTube doesn’t seem exactly sure, opting to take it on a case-by-case basis for now. The unrated version of “Blurred Lines” still comes up on Vevo, and smaller rival tube service Vimeo allows full nudity, although full-on pornographic content is still verboten on both. Near nudity isn’t monitored in music videos, which means that Miley Cyrus’s palm tree pasties under a mesh bodysuit in the “We Can’t Stop” video (also helmed by Martel) are totally legal, but a nip slip would render them obscene.

The nudity in “Tunnel Vision” is artistic, sure, but it’s also super silly. Justin’s face is projected onto the dancers’ bodies, and one shot of his face looking rather like a Picasso (baby) when superimposed on the girls’ backs looks just like that tacky Pink Floyd dorm poster where several women’s backs and asses are painted with Pink Floyd album covers. Something about the girls being fully nude while the men are clothed seems absurd, and not in a Manet way. Video girls aren’t going away anytime soon, and we wouldn’t want them to, so the fairest thing to ask for seems like an equal distribution of nudity. We don’t expect to see full-frontal male nudity on YouTube anytime soon, but why not, if female nude bodies are OK in the name of art?

More often than not, female pop stars’ videos tend to focus on the star’s own body as the main object of visual desire, but occasionally videos objectify men equally aggressively. There are the legions of cut-from-steel ironworkers in Madonna’s “Express Yourself” (directed by David Fincher), and more recently the locker room of young athlete babes in Grimes’s “Oblivion.” D’Angelo has talked about feeling dehumanized and depressed after the “Untitled” video, in which he famously disrobed and flaunted his perfect v-muscles, when afterward people would scream at him to take his shirt off while he performed.

A fully clothed man surrounded by barely clothed women is a common image in men’s magazines, commercials, and basically everywhere else you look in culture. The reverse is rarer and more subversive than the norm, but there’s actually a genre of niche pornography, called CFNM, for Clothed Female, Naked Male, that features men as the primary lust objects and women as judgmental spectators. Just look at the success of Magic Mike to see how easily the tables can be turned. If the idea of being judged and valued solely on your face and body seems frightening, imagine how Marion Bartoli feels about John Inverdale’s non-apology for suggesting that she was lucky to be so talented at tennis since she was “never going to be a looker.” Someone needs to step up and put some fully naked men in their next big music video for the sake of art, and see how YouTube takes it. Ball’s in your court, Miley.

Filed Under: D'Angelo, David Fincher, Justin Timberlake, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Miley Cyrus, Music Videos, Robin Thicke, The 20/20 Experience

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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