Saturday, December 18, 2010

Anti-Bieber Fever

Until I recently had a student write a paper exploring the phenomenon of "Bieber Fever," I'd never sustained more than a few seconds at a time thinking about Justin Bieber. I take full advantage of the fact that I live in a saturated media climate, to the point where I am almost never exposed to something that I don't on some level want to be exposed to. Although I, to the best of my knowledge, have never heard a Bieber song, I am still fairly certain that his music wouldn't appeal to me. Previously, I have been vaguely aware that Bieber was an ultra-popular teen idol, appealing primarily to teen-age and preteen girls, and I was also aware that there is a significant Bieber backlash: I'd seen the Facebook groups like "Please God give us back Bob Marley, you can have Justin Bieber" and the like.

And my response to the entire phenomenon has been utter and complete apathy. It's hard to muster up any feelings when you've seen teen idol fads cycle several times throughout your lifetime. I was in elementary school when New Kids on the Block exploded in popularity. I was too busy listening to sports talk on the AM dial to care what was being played on the top 40 stations, but I was well aware that New Kids were a big deal. So when I got to middle school, the NKOTB backlash was something that my young mind just couldn't comprehend. The most popular band in the world had somehow become the least popular band in the world, seemingly overnight. People actually wore shirts that said "New Kids Suck" (imagine someone wearing a "Beatles Suck" shirt in 1966). I remember eating dinner with my parents' friends, and hearing them express bewilderment with their daughter's change of heart regarding her favorite band ("We have a closet full of stuff that she refuses to wear anymore").

I think the fall of the New Kids is still a unique phenomenon--though teen idols often lose popularity as their audience matures, it is rare that their exact audience turns on them with such vengeance. The New Kids got caught up in an early 90s vortex that saw theatricality and gaudy excess give way to gritty cynicism (hair metal and bubblegum rap giving way to grunge and gangster rap). But there has always been a backlash against fads, and several years later I would wholeheartedly take part (in what limited capacity I could) in the backlash against the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync (though I will defend Hanson to this day). It actually made me angry that many of my contemporaries would listen to what I considered to be such horrible music when good music went unappreciated. When Billy Corgan announced in 2000 that the Smashing Pumpkins were breaking up because it became too hard to "fight the good fight against the Britneys of the world," I actually didn't regard this as ridiculous.

But from my perspective today, I realize how utterly misplaced my emotion was, how ineffectual it was to waste any time or energy despising a pop culture phenomenon which will eventually dissipate anyway. And again, given the fact that with my ipod and my satellite radio I can avoid any music I don't want to hear, I see no need to concern myself with what others are listening to (aside from a restrained pity that so many kids today just don't know what they are missing). So the phenomenon of Bieber Fever doesn't hold much interest to me.

But I am interested in the backlash. I still have never listened to a Justin Bieber song, but after reading his Wikipedia page, I can't understand why anyone would hate him. Yes, I know that his image is constructed in corporate boardrooms, but as Jack White observed a few years ago, we may need to deconstruct the idea of artistic authenticity when it comes to popular music. And if the narrative of Bieber's rise to popularity is to be believed, it is perfect--a true Horatio Alger story for the 21st Century involving incredible serendipity (a music exec accidentally stumbling on a youtube video), and a Dickensian story about a young boy, both innocent and experienced, taking control of the world on the basis of his sheer talent. And as I can attest to, even if these narratives do nothing for you, it is still completely possible to ignore him. But also according to Wikipedia, there are plenty of people who spend their free time trying to bring him down:

He has been a frequent target for Internet bloggers and message board posters—notably by users of Internet message board 4chan, users of YouTube,and various Facebook groups. Pranks have included a successful campaign to push "Justin Bieber Syphilis" to the top of the Google Trends Hot Searches list; hacked YouTube videos that were altered so as to redirect users to adult websites or trigger pop-up messages saying that Bieber had been killed in a car accident; his photograph being changed to pornographic images; various rumors circulated, from rumors that Bieber had died, joined a cult, or even that his mother was offered $50,000 to pose topless in Playboy magazine—none of which were true. This all forced the affected companies to update their security protocols to reverse the damage, and Bieber himself tweeted to fans reassuring them that he was still living and that false rumors about his mother "just grossed and weirded [him] out." Most notable was the campaign to send Bieber to North Korea as part of his world tour (entitled My World Tour).This was carried out in part by 4chan, digg, and reddit users voting for the country on the tour's website, for the free competition to nominate a bonus country for the tour—the second-placed country being Israel, which presumably was voted for by Israelis genuinely wishing to attend the concert.

Why all the hate? According to British writer Nick Collins: "Bieber's character also appears to strike a particularly sour note with his Internet critics, with many remarks commenting on his youthful appearance, his teen-pop songs, his image as a heart-throb to young teenage girls and his manner of speech, which his detractors say is more suited to rappers than someone of his middle-class background." The latter accusation (i.e. that he is a "poseur") is a particularly tired one that pretty much anyone of any stature in pop music (even Bruce Springsteen) has dealt with in a career. The previous one reeks of jealousy ("maybe girls would like me if Justin Bieber didn't exist"). The others hardly seem grounds to mount a campaign.

But it seems to me that Justin Bieber's greatest sin in the eyes of his detractors is that he is not subversive. New Kids on the Block's fall in popularity corresponded with the rise of 2 Live Crew. In a world where parental advisory stickers can be regarded as a badge of honor, where "Grand Theft Auto" set the tone for a generation of video games, where every Halloween a Saw movie tops the box office, the fact that a squeaky clean teen-ager can ascend to such heights may actually make some people nervous. If he is rewarded for staying between the lines, what does that mean for those who would prefer to wallow in the mire?

Or perhaps Bieber haters just see him as the vanguard of a coming Canadian cultural imperialism-- or is that just another way of saying that they fear a new reality of non-subversive entertainment?


Blogger BrookeH32 said...

I suffer from Bieber Fever! haha I love Justin Bieber! Those who hate him are just people looking for the new thing to be negative towards. Don't hate the playa...hate the game.

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Mike Bischoff said...

Don't worry, TMZ's got enough pictures of him grabbing his girlfriend's ass to sully up that squeaky-clean image, haha. I really think the backlash is an aggressive mutation of exactly what our generation went through with boy bands. I don't know what that says about the current generation or their future ability to mellow out as we eventually did, but I think it ties perfectly into the tribalism you describe inherent in cultural phenomena. "Us vs. Them" seems to be the prevailing theme across most aspects of contemporary culture.

3:42 PM  

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