To twerk or not to twerk 

Off the Rack tackles gender stereotypes with a parody of "Blurred Lines"

After the Miley Cyrus MTV Video Music Awards debacle last August, a few interesting parodies showed up on YouTube. Mostly, they were revisions of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines (feat. T.I.)," a song that was a significant part of the VMA onstage medley, "We Can't Stop/Blurred Lines/ Give it 2 U," wherein Cyrus twerked on stuffed animals and pointed a foam finger at Thicke's crotch while sticking out her tongue, KISS-style. (No need to describe it further; we can't stop remembering it.) One of those videos was created by screenwriter and veteran YouTube parodist Bart Baker, whose version quickly gets to the point by changing Thicke's intro line, "Everybody get up!" to "This song totally sucks," while flashing a "#creep" on the screen rather than the original "#thicke." The next line doesn't mince words either: "Come over here, if you want to get raped. By a creepy wannabe Timberlake." Another video, a more academic and playful parody produced by University of Auckland law students and titled "Defined Lines," begins with "Every bigot shut up!" and offers lines like, "Boy, you'd better quit, all your sexist ways ... it's time to undermine, the masculine confines."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Tahj Kjelland and the Mizzou Booty Crew parody Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” in an attempt to “challenge pop culture stereotypes within the gender paradigm” for the upcoming Off the Rack fashion show.

At Blue Mountain Clinic's upcoming annual fundraiser, Off the Rack, attendees will be treated to another parody of the song. Hip-hop artist, slam poet, musician and all-around social justice activist Tahj Kjelland wrote the lyrics for this version. And he's collaborated with several other performers, including the Mizzou Booty Crew, plus his partner, Lynsey Bourke—the clinic's director of development, outreach and communication—to bring it to the stage. His lyrics match Thicke's a little more closely than the other parodies do, but he's shifted them in a way that completely upends the meaning. Instead of Thicke's line, "If you can't hear what I'm trying to say ... maybe I'm going deaf," he sings, "If I can't hear what you're sayin', then I'm a chauvinist." In Kjelland's lyrics, accountability for who's supposed to be doing the listening—the male singer or the female object—has switched. And replacing Thicke's "maybe" with a declarative sentence undercuts the idea of a blurred line: a chauvinist is a chauvinist, end of story.

"I'm trying to match everything in the same tonality," Kjelland says, "but I'm flipping up the words to challenge pop culture's messages. What are the social engineers trying to say? We know sex sells, but what are the hidden messages? "

Kjelland, 37, also known under the moniker Tahjbo, has been doing hip-hop and spoken word since he was 13. He serves as the slam poetry organizer for the Montana Festival of the Book and plays the bass in local blues band Mudslide Charley. His upcoming album Crosscurrents mixes rap and reggae, features organ and guitar, and shows off his talent for biting social commentary, smooth phrasing and catchy beats and melodies. It's an imaginative collection that touches on social issues—sweatshop sneakers, for instance—but it's also music that embraces having a good time. "Fire, fire, loosen up the body now," he sings on one track. "Higher, higher. Let the flames burn and grow. Open up the soul."

Having a good time while also addressing social issues is a central feature to Off the Rack. But feminism, among those who don't pay attention, still has a bad rap for being not fun and not funny, and the "Blurred Lines" parody is yet one more example of how that is a misperception. What's most interesting about this year's Off the Rack—which, each year, showcases dance performances, spoken word, stand-up comedy and a fashion show featuring condom couture—is that it's all about blurred lines. Last year's theme, "Sex in the Zoo: Desire, Choice and Exploration," felt like a pretty straightforward approach to complex issues, whereas this year's "Meta-morph-o-sex" gives off a mysterious, abstract air. It's kind of the point. On the OTR posters the word "Meta-morph-o-sex" is accompanied by "(v) (pl.)," defining the made-up term as a plural verb. Kjelland says the theme refers to an active effort to embrace the sliding spectrums of sexuality and gender. It's about how rigid our definitions can be and how fear, not logic, often deems what is appropriate. It's about what we expect from one gender and not the other. (The Auckland law parody, for instance, which showed scantily clad men, was taken off YouTube for inappropriateness before the creators appealed. Meanwhile, millions of videos with scantily clad women stay safe from scrutiny.) Those layers show exactly how Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke and twerking become part of the OTR conversation. But addressing them in a piece is complicated; even among forward-thinking feminists, the VMA video is still being debated.

"The Miley Cyrus thing, I feel, was an objectification of a woman," Kjelland says. "And it also was a lot of reaction from people who were saying that she couldn't do what she did. But then with Robin Thicke, no one really pushed any blame on him and he's got a wife and kid. And if you break down the lyrics of his song—it's open for interpretation, but there's pretty nasty things in there, too."

Of course, Thicke did end up being judged to a certain extent, hence the parodies. But the questions still remain as to how much Cyrus is in the driver's seat for the image she's projecting: Is she a pawn of the industry or a woman embracing her sexuality? Or both? Not often discussed is the extent to which her overtly sexual performance was any different than any other pop star's—say, Britney Spears—other than the fact that it was weirder and, for that, perhaps at least more original. And as for Thicke, if we're going to chastise the man, what about acknowledging every single gross song sung by creepy men starting from Winger's 1988 hit "Seventeen"—"her daddy says she's too young, but she's old enough for me"—up until now?

It's the kind of gray area that keeps people like Kjelland busy.

"Making this piece has been fun," he says. "We have had so many discussions. And it's important. I feel that the next real evolutionary move for us as human beings is the gender movement—to really explore it."

Meanwhile, Kjelland and the other parodists are still discussing how to execute the piece just right. Kjelland says the piece will embrace the ways in which gender is fluid, and it will incorporate themes of transgender issues and healthy sexuality. But there are still little details to be ironed out: How much twerking is reasonable? And if you do have a twerking Miley Cyrus character in the piece, will it promote progressive thought or feed into the very objectification that the piece is trying to combat? After all, nuance is essential in a good parody. And walking that blurred line is never an easy feat.

Blue Mountain Clinic presents Off the Rack at the Wilma Theatre Sat., Feb. 1, at 8:30 PM. $25/$15 living lightly. Visit bluemountainclinic.org

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