Robin Thicke's Paula and the Afterlife of Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear
Behind the headlines of 54 copies sold in its first week and accusations of harassment, Josh Chiat explains how Robin Thicke's awful, maligned Paula reveals more about the history of trad soul than might first be imagined.
I often wonder what was going through Marvin Gaye's head when he pitched What's Going On to Berry Gordy. Few concrete moments establish the honesty of the sentiment, and eco-politics aren't repeat subjects in the music Gaye made after 1971. Maybe he was high on that beach in Barbados (probably yes), and awoke from a fugue state with an advance for an album on some political ideas borrowed from two year old Impressions records. Maybe he read about Woodstock and decided this hippie bullshit was a clever business move. Maybe he genuinely meant it. That last one is almost disproven by the soundscape of the album itself, Inner City Blues aside it's all laced with Disney strings, a toffee apple of a protest record. It's groundbreaking certainly, one of the first socially aware mainstream pop records, but Gaye also seems to be baiting his audience with his insincerity.
My favourite Marvin Gaye album, by far, is Here, My Dear, the sociopathic break-up record he released in 1978 to cover remuneration he was court-ordered to pay to his first wife Anna Gordy after their divorce. Gaye is all about ego, so his best singles before and after that were full of sexual anxiety, ego, belonging and lameness. Let's Get It On and Sexual Healing are both undisputed bedroom anthems, but they're also sad in their glib request for sexual fulfilment. Sexual Healing was secretly about Gaye's fear of his own sexual disfunction with its final line, the muted apparent ad-lib “it's not good to masturbate”, revealing the depressing context that surrounded Gaye's final years on Earth.
Here, My Dear though is no coy nod. It's an honest representation of the inner evils of Marvin Gaye. A cocaine addict and a philanderer. What's often regarded as a cynical observation on the nature of relationships by apologists of the album who feel the need to reconcile Gaye's character with their love of his music, could just as easily be read as an accusative screed against his ex-wife, blaming her for the relationship's faults against the overwhelming likelihood that his infidelity was the root of their troubles. To hear Gaye be so open, so himself, is what makes Here, My Dear so engaging, the true centrepiece of his scatterbrained career, the only moment that he approached the complex honesty of a songwriter like Al Green, who was always prepared to investigate his contradictions in song (principally between his opposing roles as a lover man and good Christian). Yet by hearing his open mind, we're also witnesses to the cruelty and arrested development of a man unable to accept his indiscretions; Here, My Dear is an album full of misogyny and crassness. Gaye's tortured screams and wild vocal shifts can symbolise anything to anyone, most likely 'a troubled soul' to people extolling his innate genius, domestic violence to people more attuned to the context of the time.
This is where Robin Thicke's Paula comes in. It is, not that. While his recent Twitter Q&A represented him as the tragicomic enemy of the people, a casual misogynist and the butt of all memes, Paula's creepiness pales in comparison to the sheer aggression of Here, My Dear. Where Gaye makes himself blameless, Thicke is all self-abnegation, a tamer version of Eminem's determination to make himself the villain in his own pantheon. Thicke's idea seems to be that with this twisted love letter of an LP he can chance winning back the woman that he claims, on the album at least, to have cheated on. Ironically, Marvin Gaye was joined in public again with Anna Gordy in the afterglow of Sexual Healing's success in 1982 and, at least according to his biographer David Ritz, maintained a sexual relationship with both his first and second ex-wives.
He's apologetic about his very existence at times. The central theme of Gospel knock-off Lock The Door is that Paula's life is better without Robin, and Whatever I Want, which apes Short Eyes era Curtis Mayfield, is all about the freedom the ex will have without Thicke at her side. Everywhere Thicke goes he's followed by a chorus of demonstrative, unified female backing singers whose simple unison is juxtaposed against the broken wails of the tragic lead. In contrast, Marvin is, for the most part, the only voice you'll hear on Here, My Dear. He is the ego, superego and id. While Thicke could be easily criticised for popping his lyrics out of a can and jacking beats, there's also direction, purpose and character behind his songwriting. On 'Blurred Lines' he was an accidental casual misogynist because he couldn't bother to think of anything smarter for a pick-up line than “I know you want it”, but on Paula he's deep in contemplation, portraying himself as a bugbear, the “monkey off (her) back”.
It's easy of course to overlook the virtues of the album for a couple reasons. Firstly, despite its apparent honesty and Thicke's mildly honourable tendency to self-blame (as opposed to Marvin Gaye's violent rejection of it), it's still an absolute invasion of his wife's privacy; the grossly over the line Black Tar Cloud is based around a possibly real story about Thicke's wife lying about overdosing on pills.
Secondly, Paula is horribly derivative. There's a Quiet Storm redux in the pretty Get Her Back, he plays the dog from the Da Funk video doing a James Brown impression on Living in New York City, George Thorogood on Something Bad, what's supposed to be Sinatra but comes out more like Michael Buble on Time of Your Life and maybe smatterings of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, the Isleys and whoever else Thicke thinks sounds sincere. The sincerity thing is the real concern with Thicke's retreat to traditionalism. It's not that he's trying to re-appropriate black music of the 70s, – he's always done that, even Blurred Lines was the subject of a settled lawsuit with Marvin Gaye's family over its similarities to Got to Give it Up – it's that Thicke is appropriating it because it is the “music of sincerity”, the open bearing of the soul. He's presenting the idea that by retreating to a past where things are more simple and honest, lies are null and our words have more meaning, that the old soul music of Otis, Sam, Al and Marvin necessarily imparts the honesty of the Lover's Discourse. A load of bullshit considering the notorious deaths and private lives of partiers and womanisers like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye.
What props up Here, My Dear is it's aesthetic qualities, and its honest portrayal of Gaye's personality. In its blunt denial, its inherent cruelty and anger, Gaye comes off as more sincere than the loverboy lead astray played by Thicke. The centrepiece of the album, and I would argue Gaye's career, When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You, sits at the apex of 70s soul music, standing out as a departure from the simple Lover's Discourse of the time. The way the base chords sit, undulating repetition while a wistful saxophone flies free form above it, Marvin strings out hook after hook for five and a half minutes, hitting emotional troughs with lines like “look at all the things we did, some we're proud of, some we hid” and a violent peak at “DO YOU REMEMBER ALL OF THE BULLSHIT BABY, YEAAHHHH”, before finally reaching catharsis with the hook, three times repeated, “when did you stop loving me, when did I stop loving you”.
It's one of the great creative achievements of R&B history. It took as many as 15 years after Here, My Dear initially bombed for the music journalism world at large to acknowledge this. Will Paula, which has sold 86% less copies than his previous album Blurred Lines in its opening week in America, have a similar late appraisal in its future? Hell no. Paula is a basic three stars at best, creatively it's at the lower end of the sort of LP that Mayer Hawthorne or Aloe Blacc will be crapping out every three years until they die. It is, however, a conversation, unintentionally or not, with a greater legacy of R&B that goes beyond Robin Thicke's two years in the Zeitgeist. In a career that, unlike Marvin Gaye's, will probably be reduced to the buzz of a couple of novelty singles a decade apart, it is a rare moment of interest that may be remembered by the odd enthusiast years after TMZ loses interest in its cultivator's private life and his work is thrust into the bargain bin of history.