Feb 21, 2011

Casting doubt on true Beliebers

The dust plumes in the Middle-East still settling, commentators of this side of the Atlantic have all started asking themselves: could it happen here? Which dictator is most vulnerable? Obama? Palin? Limbaugh? Beck? Maybe you think those trivial examples, a cheapening the very notion of dictatorship — conceptual decadence from the pundit class. In which case, The New York Times has news for you: from precisely such complacency are tyrants bred. Anyone who thinks the United States cannot succumb to the mesmerising flame of fascism need only remind themselves of the latest terrifying mass movement to sweep the nation: "everywhere, a screaming and devoted army, more emotive and compelling than the object of their affection", a tyrant who "holds sway over a certain cross-section of young women... like a cult leader, he rules largely through suggestion and iconography, not direct command." Who is this child emperor? This glazed Hitlerite? Why, Justin Bieber, of course, plotting world domination behind his fringe, according to Jon Caramanica, his tenebrous reach all too apparent
during the Grammys, when Mr. Bieber lost the award for Best New Artist to the relatively unknown jazz musician Esperanza Spalding. Within minutes, her Wikipedia page was crudely defaced, presumably by the viral swarm of Mr. Bieber’s young, Internet-savvy fans, clamoring to defend his honor. It’s not the first time the Beliebers have lashed out in defense of their idol. The last year has seen several outbursts of rage from Beliebers against enemies of the state, be they YouTube users deemed insufficiently respectful of the king, or Kim Kardashian, who claimed on Twitter that she received “death threats” from Mr. Bieber’s jealous fans after being seen with him in public.
You look in vain for some sign of irony to Caramanica's comparison of Bieber fans to totalitarian death squads. Caramanica clearly doesn't much care for Bieber's music, which he brushes aside with the same sniffy pop-sociology once visited on the Beatles:—
"What has Mr. Bieber done for these fans apart from inspire crushes? Does his music speak to their needs and interests as young girls? Is he someone who, a few years from now when they (and he) are all grown up, will appear in retrospect to have been a suitable receptacle of their adulation."
Seriously? Are we really going to do this all over again — the whole you-can't-hear-the-music-for-the-screaming thing? The answer to the first question is "record good pop records," the answer to the second is "yes," and the third shouldn't be answered by anyone serious about their music. Nobody decided whether to buy I Wanna Hold Your Hand by considering whether the Beatles "might appear in retrospect to have been a suitable recepticle for their adulation". (Could the broom be any further up the ass of that phrase?) They bought the record because it sounded like nothing they had heard before. The fact that it was something they could listen to in five years time was a nice bonus, but even if the record had turned out to be a source of lifelong excrutiation for Beatles fans, that, too, is the peculiar power of pop music, which pins you to the present with such power that listening to it many years later can bring a blush to the cheek — like leafing through an old diary. Of course some of Bieber's music is going to embarrass some of his fans in years to come: that's the point. And some of it may do a lot better than that: he has a sculptural grasp of melody, and gifts of phrasing — for divining a path for his voice through a song — as surefooted as Mariah Carey's. U Smile needn't bow to anyone. It doesn't suit Caramanica's purpose to get into a discussion of the merits or demerits of Bieber's music, though. The bulk of the article turns out to be the ill-advised comments on abortion that Bieber recently gave to Rolling Stone.
“I really don’t believe in abortion,” he said. “I think [an embryo] is a human. It’s like killing a baby.” The reporter pushed him, asking if that held true in cases of rape. “Well, I think that’s just really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I don’t know how that would be a reason.” Looking “confused,” in the word of the reporter, he added, “I guess I haven’t been in that position, so I wouldn’t be able to judge that.”

Carmanica adjudicates thusly,

Even if Mr. Bieber is heartfelt in his opposition to abortion (and there’s no reason to think he isn’t), his reply wasn’t the clearest or most sophisticated distillation of that position... like most kids, he no doubt wants to be treated like an adult. That means no minder on hand, presumably, when being asked these questions. He’s treated like an adult in other ways, too. Take the Rolling Stone cover photo, a rough-trade-style shot by the provocateur photographer Terry Richardson — or the recent tabloid photos of him kissing the Disney star Selena Gomez while on vacation in the Caribbean... as Mr. Bieber fills out as a man, he may or may not inspire the devotion that Justin Bieber the boy is capable of generating.

Caramanica isn't buying, but note what he isn't buying: his own crappy goods. First he sidelines the music, so he can accuse Bieber of being more than a musician, then projects onto him a set of aspirations ("he no doubt wants to be treated like an adult") so as to to crunch them cruelly underfoot ("his reply wasn’t the clearest or most sophisticated distillation of that position.") Actually I found Bieber's answer both perfectly clear and admirably nuanced: he is anti abortion but when it comes to rape, concedes that "I haven’t been in that position, so I wouldn’t be able to judge that.” That seems to be about as evolved and compassionate a pro-life attitude as one could hope for. His only mistake was to make his views public, if only because it allows columnists like Caramanica the chance to execute the old commentator switcheroo — accuse a subject of a sententiousness that you have just planted yourself.