Robin Thicke’s latest album, Paula, is remarkable for a number of reasons. Aside from the baldness of its artistic mission – namely, to woo back Thicke’s now-separated wife Paula Patton – and its startlingly amateur cover design, it has also inverted the old canard that success has many parents and failure is an orphan. Since its abysmal sales in the UK and Australia were first reported, various cultural professionals have been keen to name a definitive cause for its failure. So what, exactly, has caused Paula to sell so poorly that it has already positioned itself as this year’s most memorable flop?
We might begin by noting that Paula is only a flop in the context of the remarkable success of ‘Blurred Lines’, which was the best-selling digital single worldwide in 2013 (with 14.8 million paid downloads). By nearly any measure ‘Blurred Lines’ was the song of 2013, boasting the best combined sales of any song in the UK for that year and being pipped to the post for Billboard’s most popular song of the same year – measured by a combination of radio plays, sales and streams – only by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s 2012 sleeper hit ‘Thrift Shop’.
Paula’s sales have been miserable by comparison: it debuted at number nine on the US Billboard charts, selling 24,000 copies in its first week; in the same time period in the UK it sold a mere 530 copies. Several media outlets triumphantly crowed that Paula had sold fewer than fifty-four copies in its first week in Australia, but this figure was based on a misunderstanding of the album’s local release date and how ARIA counts pre-sales. (However it can’t have sold very many copies here, as it has thus far failed to chart in the ARIA top fifty.) But please, a little perspective: for artists like Swans or tUnE-yArDs – whose work critics venerate but the buying public strongly resists – achieving US sales of 24,000 in an album’s first week would be an incredible coup.
Does Paula’s failure have anything to do with the backlash against ‘Blurred Lines’ for its sexist content? No doubt many people exercised their right not to purchase Thicke’s music after finding the lyrics and video to ‘Blurred Lines’ a bit skeevy – I am among them – but this kind of action barely dinted the song’s sales. And as nice as this scenario would be, it seems unlikely that 14.776 million or so buyers of ‘Blurred Lines’ subsequently developed a feminist consciousness robust enough to prevent them from ponying up for Paula.
Can we blame the lack of a coherent marketing campaign prior to Paula’s release? This is a tempting answer, given that the amount of pre-release publicity was effectively nil. However, it’s worth remembering that Beyoncé’s recent self-titled album sold millions of copies with no advance publicity whatsoever. By the same token, there have been many high-profile flops with extensive marketing campaigns behind them, such as Guns N’ Roses’ infamous Chinese Democracy. (The explanation that Paula has tanked thanks to the early intervention of critics is so deluded as to almost not warrant a response – all we might note is that if critical approbation or lack thereof had a sufficiently strong influence on album sales as to cruel Paula’s chances of success, then we’d see albums like Ben Frost’s A U R O R A racing up the charts.)
One theory does go some way towards explaining the gap between the sales of ‘Blurred Lines’ and Paula – namely, the argument that people bought ‘Blurred Lines’ in spite of Thicke, rather than because of him. Thicke himself isn’t much of a presence in ‘Blurred Lines’, instead acting more as a delivery system for Pharrell’s production work – that insistent cowbell and hi-hat groove, those falsetto yelps. This argument is buttressed by the fact that the mammoth sales of ‘Blurred Lines’ the single didn’t translate into equally impressive sales of Blurred Lines the album, which has yet to sell more than a million copies in the US.
This theory might also explain why a number of critics and journalists have gone out of their way to trumpet Paula’s supposed failures, often through rather self-serving analyses: if this failure has many would-be parents lining up to take credit, it’s because Thicke’s failure is seen as everyone else’s success. Which is another way to say that Paula’s reception gives us the unedifying spectacle of critics and the public cruelly proving what many of us have suspected since ‘Blurred Lines’ became embroiled in controversy: millions of people will happily listen to Thicke’s music, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they like him.