28 May 2014

Pharrell Williams asks: is ‘I know you want it’ sexually suggestive?

“The whole of womankind was offended.”

“Half of them bought the record. It was the biggest record of the year.”

“What was he was thinking doing that video?”

“He’s a musical genius – can I come and watch? I’ll carry a bag or something?”

“Who buys his records anyway?”  “EVERYONE” (in chorus)

“What does he mean by New Black?”

“You have to start with Iran.”

And so went the (fairly heated) “what should Krish ask him?” chat in the office before I jumped in a cab to the very swanky Corinthia Hotel in Westminster (odd place for an American superstar to do interviews?) to meet Pharrell.

‘I know you want it’

The “Happy” man. That’s how lots of Channel 4 News viewers will know him. The older ones probably only encountered him through Despicable Me 2 being watched by children and grandchildren. But he’s also the “Blurred Lines” man.

The biggest song of 2013 was also one of the most controversial: banned in 20 universities, described as a bit “rapey” for its chorus “I know you want it” and attacked as sexist by people in pubs, offices and blogs the world over (and parodied by feminists, like in this amusing version – which has strong language).

Pharrell was there in the video with Thicke prancing around fully clothed surrounded by topless models.

But there’s a whole lot more to Pharrell than Blurred Lines. Many more of us have been happily singing/jigging along to his music without knowing it.

There are various absurd statistics – at some point in recent history he is claimed to have been in some way responsible for between 40-60 per cent of the music being played on music radio.

From Jay Z and Snoop Dog to Madonna and Justin Timberlake he spans almost every genre as a producer.

He is ultimately credible while also helping to churn out the most ephemeral pop. As if the number one record of 2013 wasn’t enough he also gave us the number two: Get Lucky. And that’s before you even get to Happy (which obviously should have won the Oscar over that song from Frozen) with its imitations and dance-alongs everywhere from Tenerife to Tehran.

He is as mesmerising a performer as he is a producer. Hitting his stride aged 40+ he can do no wrong, musically.

I am, straightforwardly, a fan of anyone that talented. I could spend hours talking to him about music and production and how he does it, if I worked on a music programme. But I don’t. And I’m going to talk to him about Iran, his charity, sexism in music and his recent claim on Oprah to be a “New Black!.

“Please God, let him not be a jerk”, I thought on the way.

Small talk

Our interview was going to be after BBC Breakfast. And by the time Pharrell walked in he was already looking a bit serious. Had Charlie Stayt wound him up before me? Had Louise Minchin finally lost it over his constant claims to love women?

The small talk wasn’t going brilliantly to be honest. Best to start with the questions. I told him we were a news programme not an entertainment show, that the questions would be reasonably serious and that we’d start with what had happened in Iran recently when a bunch of kids were arrested for miming a video to “Happy” and take it from there. We got there quicker than I had intended.

Pharrell seems to some observers to be on a sort of subconscious penance for the Blurred Lines controversy.  At every opportunity right now he tells people how much he loves women: the world should be run by women, he says. America should have a woman president and he has so much regard for women in general. So much that he has called his album G I R L and it is a largely romantic homage to the fairer sex.

Once he’d volunteered all this I had to ask the question: isn’t everything you’ve just said a bit at odds with what you did in Blurred Lines?

Car salesman

I won’t say too much now, before the interview has gone out, but may add a post-script to this blog later.

He compared the line “I know you want it” to wanting a car or some tempting food. But it isn’t about a car or food, is it Pharrell? It’s about sex.

The line, he explained, means “a good girl can have naughty thoughts”. I’m not sure that makes it much more empowering for those who felt it was more about cajoling a girl into sex but you can listen for yourselves and judge it.

The line he perhaps struggles to defend is one written by his co-writer T.I. : “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.” Not a line you want your kids singing in the back of the car, on the whole.

‘I need this’

The most interesting thing that happened was that after the interview we continued talking for as long, if not longer, about the interview and what he didn’t like about it.

Pharrell brushed off the increasingly desperate attempts of his minders to pull him away insisting “No, I need this”, just as during the recording he dismissed their attempts to end the interview by saying “No, I’m enjoying this by the way”.

We didn’t exactly agree in the end (there are some big cultural differences in the way American and British interviews with stars are carried out) but we parted smiling, sort of.

Happy? Not honestly, no. “You could have done that better”, he said. After 26 years in this game I know that is always the case. But in truth, so could he.



Well I said I might add a couple of thoughts and here they are. The first thing to say is that I think Pharrell came over rather well on the whole. Unlike other celebs (Tarantino springs to mind) he kept his cool on camera and kept smiling through his answers. He threw questions back at me. All quite skillful. Personally I didn’t find his explanation of the lyrics terribly convincing. It would have been refreshing had he just admitted the Blurred Lines lyrics – especially TI’s line – was a bad call.

I’ve been terribly amused by all those people (including a couple of colleagues, surprisingly) who thought this was some kind of gladiatorial contest in which we were fighting to the death. I wasn’t trying to “win”. I don’t do that. He’s an entertainer not a politician and I respect his musical talent. My approach was simple : ask him the harder questions in a polite and gentle way. The follow-ups weren’t designed to get him, or pin him down or win an argument. So no, I didn’t go for the kill. But killing a musician? Really?

Some of you asked what happened afterwards. After the camera stopped we continued an “animated” conversation for quite a long time. It wasn’t private or off the record. In fact it took place in the hotel lobby by the lift. We jousted around the way the interview had gone. He thought it was what he called “a gotcha” (I’m guessing he wasn’t referring to Noel Edmonds). I told him it was just my job to put questions people at home wanted to see asked, and Blurred Lines had provoked a lot of criticism. Finally he asked me “Do you actually think that phrase ‘I know you want it’ is a bit rapey?”. “I’m uncomfortable with it”, I said, “I think it is pressurising. And I think the line about tearing her ass in two is terrible. And I think you do too.” He shook his head in disagreement, I thanked him and we said our goodbyes.

Because the truth of the matter is this : what if she doesn’t want it? Why should she have to put up with that stupid line? Why should she be made to wonder if she’s putting out the wrong signals? Not to mention giving good men a bad name.


Follow @krishgm on Twitter.


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20 reader comments

  1. barbara robertson says:

    If the rhythm and music mesmorizes then the lyrics may be initially immaterial. unless obviously lewd. , But with familiarity, suggestiveness can be appealing and negatively influential .to youth and children particularly.

    Perhaps that is why there are so many young sex offenders

    1. Dee Boy says:

      you didn’t have this kind of lyrics 50 years ago,, and yet so many celebrity old men are now being exposed for sex crimes committed years ago,,,,,

  2. Richelle says:

    I have seen the clip in which Pharrell attempts to compare the line ‘ I know you want it’ to a car salesman. What nonsense!

    I am stunned that he is trying to compare the two. A car salesmen telling a prospective car buyer ‘I know you want it’ is completely different than the lyrics of a song which has a video featuring near naked women gyrating around fully clothed men.

    He is insulting our intelligence by making such a ridiculous comparison.

  3. Philip Edwards says:


    (a) I have never heard of the fellow


    (b) If you quote him accurately he seems to have the intellect of a gnat


    (c) To use the colloquialism….who in their right mind gives a rat’s ass about anything he has to say.

    Hope this helps.

    1. Dee Boy says:

      who gives a rat’s ass,,,,, he made millions from those lyrics,,, I bet your daughter’s got 50 copies of his music in her bedroom right now,,,,,

  4. Jess Austin says:

    Great blog Krishnan! I too find it a little jarring how much he’s carrying on with this whole “I love women” thing. His new song Marilyn Monroe contains the lines:

    ” I put my arms around her, and I promise not to abuse you.”

    Err, thanks for that mate. Appreciate it.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Krish, you surpassed yourself. That interview was in the top 10 of all time. Hilarious.

  6. Ann says:

    Why are you broadcasting an interview like that at 7.45 pm when there are potentially children around? It is offensive. I love Channel four news, but you got it wrong this time.

    Try waiting until 10 pm next time.

  7. Chris says:

    He’s a phenomenal producer ipso facto.

    Remember ‘Relax don’t do it when you want to come’

    Been there before so get over it you priggs..!!

  8. Caroline Thomas says:

    Why such an anemic interview? You let let him wiggle out of every question with some arrogant, pseudo philosophical rhetoric, you even let him take over the interview! Why are the media in such awe of pop figures? Would you have lost your footing so badly if he had been a politician? Channel 4 gave this man a platform to express his view on women and their sexuality, without holding him to account.

    Quite hypocritical after your very distressing Opening segment on Farzana Parveen, the woman stoned to death by relatives in broad daylight, near the high court in Lahore, in front of numerous witnesses who did not intervene. 

  9. Mike Benson says:

    I have always looked to Channel Four news for sensible, deep and analytical news. This item is so dummying down that I’ll be watching BBC4 news in future.
    The recent trend to include pop music and call it “news” is something that has been upsetting me for some time.
    Today’s “story” was so unpleasant and so not news, you ought to be ashamed of yourself Christian. i just wonder what the editor was doing, or are you given free rein to include whatever rubbish you want to?

    1. John Meakin says:

      I agree, I have watched Channel 4 News for more than 20 years and I have great respect for the skills of John Snow, Matt Frei, Lyndsey Hillsum, John Sparks and co (not to mention the departed Faisal Islam). Tabloid arts trivia like this has nothing in common with news and it detracts from the serious stuff.

    2. Madeline Leslie says:

      I could not agree more,absolutely ridiculous .Think twice before you do anything like that again Christian. I like to watch Channel Four news mainly because it often puts a different slant on things but this , well I’m not going to waste any more words on it!

  10. poor show says:

    Poor, poor, poor interview. He ran the interview, he lead the questions, he answered what he chose to when he chose to, while you uncomfortably squirmed and shuffled onto the next question. That made me cringe for you. What ever happened to proper journalism? I think you felt nervous and uncomfortable and it showed throughout the interview and it was poorly prepared. Sorry.

  11. J Holmes says:

    As a doctor who works with the victims of rape and sexual abuse, day in, day out we see women who have been subject to acts of sexual violence that sound like young men playing out what they have seen on a computer screen. This song further brings into the mainstream a casual attitude to sexual violence. I have seen many women and young girls with anal injuries from rape. It is not glamorous and fun as the line in BL suggest. I congratulate you for attempting to confront PW with it. He is a slick PR machine and it was disappointing that he managed to wriggle out of it by suggesting that all men secretly harbour violent sexual fantasies and embarassed you sufficiently to stop the line of questioning. I would invite you to make a follow up piece by visiting a sexual assault referral centre, such as the one I work in to understand how important it is for young men and young women that PW and his ilk are challenged on these issues. Thank you for trying to

  12. Viv says:

    His empty rhetoric revealed his embarrassment that you were questioning him about those lines. His egotistical personality would not wish to be blighted or diminished in the eyes of his fans/ the world!, by admitting that his meaning was sexual/ even ‘rapey’. I suggest that him shaking his head at the end of your post interview chat n the lobby, to your continuing protests about the ‘tear her ass in two’ line, was a typical ‘ Na, I don’t believe this, man’ kind of response.
    Congratulations for challenging him.
    Can you now get an interview with the person who wrote the other line?

  13. Angellica says:

    Krishna starts the interview with misgivings about Pharell’s character ‘perhaps he’s a Jerk’ he ponders;So its build him up and tear him down time for Pharell in the broadcast media..Rewriting the offensive lines is easy…To ask him why he didn’t do so is to ask Tracey Emin why her semen stained bed of 16 years ago ever became news! Compare both the interviews… Why Didn’t Mr Guru-Murthy address, not attack Pharell and say you did 2 music video’s why not rewrite the lyrics if you respect women so much. Instead it’s the usual lets detract from all the other work he’s done and remind him he just a ‘black man’, making music not a british,european or amwerican artist flogging conceptual art.
    A British artist is always allowed artistic license,Feted and Lauded why? Discuss and comment

  14. Barbara says:

    Bad interview anyway. Badgering a guy for ‘dodgy’ lyrics, Obama orders drones to kill civilians and Americans. Ukrainian army bombs civilians, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan are in turmoil and C4 badgers a man for ‘dodgy’ lyrics. Give me my tv license fee back!!!

  15. Jess says:

    It’s promoting violence against women, which should always be challenged.

  16. Anne says:

    It’s not often I get to watch an interview where both people doing it look uncomfortable but in a way that’s what made it a good interview. I think you got under the skin of things just enough, and the blog backstory is very illuminating, so thanks for that.

    The question that vexes me most is why can’t men and women flirt suggestively these days without there been a good risk of it ending in causal violence or political uproar? That’s what I find most disconcerting in our culture and I agree with Pharell’s argument there. The ass-tearing thing is not on though in any way and J Holmes has made a very good suggestion about doing a piece on sexual assault referral centres, it is much needed.

    More of a focus on that and we wouldn’t be having such conversations about the lyrics in pop songs at all, we’d all have a more humane perspective and be able to get back to things that are much more fun.

    That’s a huge cultural issue. Getting all po-faced about whether it’s politicians or musicians who should be on Channel 4 instead instead of who’s raising important questions about quality of life and the state of inter-relationships these days is to me completely missing the point.

    Glad you made this Krishnan, thanks for sharing it. If you do another I’d be happy to carry a bag or two.

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