Pharrell is not the climate hero we need (yet)

Musician Pharrell Williams has recently taken a Leo-esque foray into climate change advocacy, using his influential platform to call for better protection of the planet.

There’s just one problem.

Pharell’s songs include what many claim are misogynistic lyrics. And you can’t be pro-environment without also being pro-women.

From rhymes to climes

Last year, the hit producer debuted a new song titled “100 Years” to a super-select group of 100 people. The rest of us will have to wait 100 years — at which time the disastrous impacts of climate change are expected to take center stage if we perpetuate inaction — to hear it. The song is apparently a condemnation of our political landscape as it relates to the climate crisis, and a statement on the extent to which humans are altering the planet. Housed in a water-soluble clay vessel, it will be destroyed if sea level rise floods its storage unit before the release date in 2117.

Promo for the song “100 Years”, featuring Pharrell surrounded by water.

As someone who loves when celebrities use their sphere of influence to advocate for environmental causes, and as someone who promotes the power of art in influencing public opinion, I should love this project. And I want to. But I can’t embrace Pharrell’s evident altruism when it doesn’t extend to a very important part of climate advocacy: women.

The intersectionality of the climate crisis

Climate change does not exist in isolation from women’s issues. Women around the world are more likely to be affected by climate change than men, and they are widely underrepresented in the larger climate change conversation. If Pharrell can’t take a step as small as thinking through his lyrics, how can he expect anybody else to take drastic measures to protect the disproportionately-female victims of a changing climate?

When Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s single “Blurred Lines” was released in 2013, there began (and continued) a prominent national dialogue on the way women are portrayed in pop music. The song inched notoriously close to promoting non-consensual sex, and its music video was heavily criticized for its objectification of women. Written mostly by Pharrell, the controversial lyrics include the following lines:

“I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”,

“You the hottest bitch in this place”, and,

“So I’m just watching and waitin’
For you to salute the true big pimpin’”.

Pharrell in the “Blurred Lines” music video.

But maybe we should Pharrell some slack.

After all, this was arguably the first song to spark this kind of widespread discussion, and lyricists like Eminem had been comparably getting away with murder for years. Disrespectful, even violent, language towards women was almost the status quo in most genres of music.

But Pharrell didn’t learn from this mistake, claiming “Blurred Lines” was not about sex and going on to write similarly damaging lyrics later on in his career.

That’s not to say celebrities, or any other advocates of any cause, should be held to an impossible standard when it comes to their opinions; we can’t be perfectly informed about all issues at all times, and expecting otherwise can lead to a shame culture that stifles important conversations before they even begin. That Pharrell seeks to use his voice to promote causes like environmentalism is encouraging. It’s just that, while he shouldn’t be expected to be flawless, he should be expected to learn and grow.

One of the most jarring examples of his yet unevolved lyrics can be found on the soundtrack to the Spongebob Squarepants Movie, a children’s film. Emphasis on the children.

In the song, “Squeeze Me”, he writes:

“Dang, dang, diggy-dang
Everybody in the rain
Tell me shine like a chain
Wipe it up like a stain
Uppercut, yup again
A double dutch with Lil Wayne
Do it till you vomit again
The job done now”

This comes from the same person who, in an interview for his climate advocacy song, said, “I think the world would be a different place if millennials and women would take positions of power.”

Perhaps women wouldn’t have to fight so hard to be taken seriously if they weren’t constantly sexualized and humiliated by artists like Pharrell himself.

The influence of misogynistic lyrics on communities

It’s been said by musicians and the consumers of their work that, although the lyrics of popular songs may degrade — or even promote violence against — women, they would never do that in their “real lives”. But the line between real life and the life glorified by cultural icons is, despite what Pharell might think, so much blurrier than the one he wrote a hit song about. Because although Blurred Lines might have sparked outrage, it was one of the few songs to do so on a grand scale, and the widespread blasé attitude around misogynistic lyrics reflects the deeply-rooted sexism poisoning our communities.

Music, like all forms of media, play a role in shaping culture. Lyrics like Pharell’s contribute to negative perceptions of women by society , perpetuating the dehumanizing and inhibiting behaviors that harm, and even kill, women. To put it differently, music is part of our collective socialization. And our collective socialization has so far set the stage for discrimination against women.

Sexual assault, workplace prejudice, occupational segregation, and domestic violence are just a few examples of how gender inequality plays out in the United States. But those are broad examples. Consider the subtly sexist messages women are faced with on a daily basis — from inappropriate coworkers, from strangers on the street, from their own loved ones.

Action is underpinned by attitude, and attitude by exposure. The more we are exposed to particular ideas, the more likely we are to adopt them. This is the pattern playing out in our country today, thanks in part to the rampant misogyny in nearly all genres of music.

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Nobody is perfect, and no public figure can be expected to be aware of all important issues at all times. But refusing to consider the voices of your critics and failing to realize how your own actions contribute to problems you advocate against does not spell out a role model. It spells out an influencer holding a one-sided mirror and criticizing a reality he helps perpetuate. And until Pharrell addresses this, he will never be the “climate hero” we desperately need.

Full-time storyteller, part-time fruit connoisseur // More at amandarbrown.com