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Blurred Lines controversy: Is it Edinburgh University’s place to ban a song?

The Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) has banned Robin Thicke’s ubiquitous number one song ‘Blurred Lines’ from all student buildings.

While this is the first UK university organisation to ban the single, the controversy surrounding the song makes the news somewhat unsurprising. With lyrics as blatantly sexist as “Not many women can refuse this pimpin’” and a few more too vivid to mention, the reaction from noted feminists, and many others, can best be summed up by PolicyMic’s Elizabeth Plank: “The lyrics are rapey [and] the video overtly objectifies women.” The EUSA’s justification for banning the song? It breached their policy to “end rape culture and lad banter.”

This all took place in the same week that the University of Edinburgh entered in the top 20 universities worldwide. Issues of censorship tend to be divisive in elite academic institutions but rarely concern pop songs. This situation, however, begs the question: why does a university organisation feel the need to filter what students hear in their buildings? This sets a dubious precedent; namely, that some of the world’s most privileged students aren’t considered smart enough to make up their own mind about a tune. They have no choice but to succumb to the received wisdom of their student union.

Whilst the nature of the song is indeed raunchy – no, outright exploitative – it is, after all, just a song. It isn’t a textbook encouraging harassment; it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. If it does offend a student’s sensibilities, they have the option to opt out of listening to ‘Blurred Lines.’ It should, however, be beyond a student association’s authority to force other students to involuntarily opt out as well.

The context of the scenario matters greatly to understanding why banning the song is so perverse. An EUSA official performed an intervention at a freshers’ silent disco and told DJ Magnus Monahan to fade out the track. The silent disco, incidentally, has two headphone channels; if any student didn’t like the song, than they had to the option to change channel. This only heightens the absurdity of announcing the ban at a silent disco of all things.

The EUSA could have taken notes from three Auckland University students who, rather than pushing for an authoritarian ban, instead decided to upload a feminist parody entitled ‘Defined Lines’. It’s catchy, creative and far more intelligent than Edinburgh’s blanket ban (or the original song). As for the ban, it’s quite obvious it will have little effect. Sexism will still exist to the same degree: ‘Blurred Lines’ never encouraged sexism, sexism encouraged ‘Blurred Lines’. Tackle the cause, not the effect. The EUSA’s action is little more than symbolic gesture; it does nothing to tackle rape culture, but does a fair bit to encourage censorship.

The issue is important beyond Edinburgh. Curbing something which does come roughly under the ‘freedom of expression’ box may well redefine the role of a Students’ Union. Instead of pushing student interests, it encourages uniformity of thought regarding a song. It blurs the lines (sorry) of a student union’s role. The union’s role has been perverted in prioritising their moral high ground over catering to student interests. Unless, that is, you consider inculcating political rectitude as a ‘student’s interest.’

Jeremy Dobson

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4 Comments on this post.
  • anon
    18 September 2013 at 13:31
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    Perhaps as a man I can’t quite grasp how this song is offensive to all women. It is objectifying, yes – but only to the women in the video. Surely the vast majority of us can differentiate between those women who willingly take part in a sexually suggestive video and those who don’t? I would argue that the small minority of men that can’t will not be persuaded by the banning of a (catchy albeit repetitive and dull) pop song. I’m sure however someone will be able to straighten this out for me!

    • Bez
      19 September 2013 at 21:00
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      Hey anon! I think the key point is, he’s not singing about the 3 women in his video, same as most songs aren’t directed to the models or actors in their vids. He’s directing it to ‘you’, aka any person in the club or wherever that he’s trying to hook up with, or the object of desire of the person listening (perspective with the 1st and 2nd person is a bit tricky I suppose) But I think it’s definitely meant to be ‘about’ women in clubs generally rather than the 3 in his video.

      As for why it’s offensive to women, it basically trots out a lot of really tired and horrible ideas about women, sexuality and consent, stuff that women are tired of hearing and that does impact negatively on lots of womens’ lives, since it’s so normalised that many people end up believing it. The big ones are things like ‘I know you want it’ – read: I will ignore your agency and assume that you want sex regardless of what you say or do.

      This post here talks about how Thicke’s lyrics echo a lot of things said by actual rapists to the survivors of their attacks: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/09/17/from-the-mouths-of-rapists-the-lyrics-of-robin-thickes-blurred-lines-and-real-life-rape/ So while it may seem like an innocuous song, it forms part of a culture where dangerous and harmful and horrible myths around consent abound and influence peoples’ actions.

      Hope that’s cleared up a bit about the song’s problems!

      • anon
        20 September 2013 at 14:58
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        Fair enough, that seems a reasonable explanation to me. Cheers!

  • Bez
    19 September 2013 at 20:51
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    “If it does offend a student’s sensibilities, they have the option to opt out of listening to ‘Blurred Lines.’” Thing is, if it’s playing over speakers, on student radio, in student areas etc you can’t really ‘opt out’ of listening. But if you want to listen, you can listen to it on your own MP3 player or however.

    “‘Blurred Lines’ never encouraged sexism, sexism encouraged ‘Blurred Lines’. Tackle the cause, not the effect.” I think this is a bit oversimplified, and tackling root cause and effect together is the most effective way to combat any problem. Also I have to disagree with saying that EUSA’s decision to ban the song does nothing to tackle rape culture: making a firm stance by refusing to give airplay to a song which normalises a really ugly vision of sex, consent and healthy relationships is exactly tackling rape culture.

    As a student personally interested in having an SU which stands up against sexism and really shitty rape-normalising media, I don’t think they’re overstepping bounds. I see it not as “encourages uniformity of thought” about the song, but not forcing students who don’t want to be exposed to misogynist claptrap to have to listen to it in their universities.

    I think the question of banning a song on campus is interesting, because a lot of pop songs have some super skeevy implications and things when you get down to it. Don’t know if I necessarily agree with the ban, but I think it makes a strong statement for EUSA and a declaration that they are taking combatting rape culture on campus very seriously. So I have to disagree with some of your reasoning, but good article ^_^

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