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.


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