Jul 29, 2020
The Hegemony of Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber isn’t like you and me. He’s too rich. He’s so rich that his brain doesn’t work the same as ours. It doesn’t react to dopamine the same way. He doesn’t do drugs or go jogging like you or I would do drugs or go jogging. He’s broken.
When you throw that much class mobility at people that fast, it’s traumatic and permanently damaging. It tears apart the molecular structure of their interpersonal relations, the way they feel, the way they touch. Money doesn’t quite change the air they breathe, but it comes pretty close. It is in this way that he is an atomic age monster. Justin Bieber is Project MKultra in a Bugatti Veyron. Justin Bieber is a collective, a team of producers and handlers and lawyers, a division of the Universal Corporation.
It’s almost impossible to write a compelling article about Justin Bieber the person, who for all I know died years ago. Such an article would need to be wildly conspiratorial, the work of an 80 year old parapsychology enthusiast, or the drunken confessions of a disgruntled primary source (a bodyguard, probably).
And I’m not the one to write it. All I know is he lives in Calabasas, which is ground zero for all “white people” jokes, a town for those fake families in car commercials who buy Acuras for Christmas. Besides, I’ve never heard a Justin Bieber song. The last popular singer to cross my aesthetic borders was Alan Jackson. I thought Taylor Swift was an Australian guy until 2010 when I got a free subscription to Rolling Stone. I take no pride in this, I’m just showing how disconnected I am. Writing about Justin Bieber is for me the equivalent of writing about space travel: the end result would be a fiction sourced thirdhand from movies and liars. Criticizing him just feels pointless, like writing a blog post about how AT&T’s service sucks in Modesto. It’s yelling down a mineshaft and it’s totally self-serving.
But there’s something quietly incredible about Justin Bieber the archetype. As an idea, he has achieved something resembling monoculture popularity. In a time where the internet has turned all entertainment into niches and subforums, where there is no performer/audience divide and you can’t hope for anybody to share your reference points at the water cooler, that’s a major accomplishment. The idea in question is “inauthentic,” always used as a pejorative, but it’s still pretty impressive in terms of sheer market penetration.
I won’t talk about authenticity in music here, because after reading Carl Wilson’s “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste,” I have no idea what’s real. Maybe lying is good. Maybe what we think of as sunlight is a mass psychogenic illness. Maybe I’m 9 years old. But I do know that “Justin Bieber” and “inauthentic” are interchangeable terms.
Especially on YouTube. I obsess over YouTube comments – it’s the only reason I use the site anymore. I seek out really old bullshit, minor cultural relics that aren’t kitsch enough for the Found Footage Festival, anything likely to have a comment section full of stories. Old country songs, or footage of “Town Hall Party” – stuff where somebody’s likely to say something about going to Compton in the late 50s to see Bob Wills. Places Justin Bieber has never seen. Places Justin Bieber will never go.
And Justin Bieber has gotten there.
Almost no YouTube videos are immune from the possibility of somebody writing “wow, back when music was real, unlike that fraud Justin Bieber.” Fifties honky tonk, forgotten bar bands, itinerant bluesmen at the beginning of the folk revival. 78 rips of artists who have no Wikipedia entries. Justin Bieber’s name drifts through all those places.
And it always goes the same way. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is so authentic that there’s probably a law against watching clips of her on a computer. Justin Bieber, meanwhile, is so inauthentic that Sister Rosetta should kick his ass. That’s the basic idea, anyway – that’s why his name comes up in places it shouldn’t. Justin Bieber is so culturally significant that dead people should kick his ass.
He’s cracked markets no living person should be able to crack. That’s a superhuman feat. It’s magic. “Justin Bieber = not real” posts are ubiquitous, inescapable. I’ve seen his name float through so many historical music comments that I half-expect to see him in my 1976 World Book as a representation of plastic pop, unbound by my linear conception of time. If culture ended tomorrow and all societies became agrarian, his name would probably stick around as shorthand for “fake.”
Granted, it’ll get bizarre in a few years, long after he dies in some Universal-affiliated skydiving accident paid for in non-consecutive bills. When these comments live on and all that’s left of him is one idea. Undiluted, tyrannical fakeness.
Justin Bieber’s YouTube dominance is so thorough that I’ve even seen him pop up in completely non-entertainment capacities. Last year, I was searching for videos of gravel quarries. I was looking for background noise for a – actually, never mind why. I was looking at videos of gravel quarries. And I looked at the comments, hoping for some insight into the lives of people who watch videos of gravel quarries.
There was one thread. It was the uploader, talking to his cousin. They exchanged formalities. Paraphrasing.
“Get back to town sometime.”
“Haha, we’re talking to each other on YouTube.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Trying to find good music videos instead of that tool Justin Bieber.”