Ah, middle school. For most people I know, it’s a time of deep regret. When you’re old enough to do what you never did before — shop by yourself, stay home alone, babysit, get a job and countless other activities — but you aren’t old enough to do it responsibly. Social ambivalence. Peer pressure. Dare I say the P-word? Puh … pppuuuuhhhh … PUBERTY!
But perhaps the worst part of middle school for me was the sense of culture 12-year-olds have. Vacillating between watching South Park and the Disney Channel. Interrupting long afternoons of reading adventure novels with Nerf gun fights.
Music was more of the same story. In middle school, I found myself exposed to a wide variety of genres. I joined the school orchestra. Many of my friends fell in love with rap or classic rock. And my newfound addiction to the internet easily allowed me to find all of the EDM remixes I wanted.
However, amidst a diversity of sound was a constant demand for cheesy pop. Whispers in the hallway often included something about the latest song by Taylor Swift (who, in my opinion, is actually pretty good but also very overexposed) or Justin Bieber’s general perfection. There was also a brief moment when Rebecca Black was as much of a hot topic as higher-caliber artists, but I’d like to think most people who appreciated her music pre-2013 did so ironically.
Still, Justin Bieber was the prototype of pop music more than anyone else. Everywhere I looked, there were people who both loved and hated him. Whether in the classroom or on the internet, Bieber was — and still is — quite a polarizing figure.
I was caught in the middle.
It only took a small dose of perspective to realize that he was just an ephemeral, rampant fad, the object of obsession from both his fans and haters for a brief time. Just like Silly Bandz or the sarcastic use of “wow,” Justin Bieber was never going to last. And personally, the fans and haters alike irked me.
I remember waiting in my middle school’s band room in 8th grade before an orchestra concert. The room served as a kind of holding room for acts before they performed. My orchestra was one of the last to go on, though, so I got to listen to Justin Bieber’s “Baby” played on loop on one of the school computers for a little over an hour. Sometimes, when I’m alone in my room, I spontaneously pretend to strangle the girl who was blasting Bieber that night. In fact, if she hadn’t switched to private school the following year, I would probably be in jail right now.
Joking aside, it was easy to see why some people liked Justin Bieber. He was often seen as a role model (albeit not a very insightful one, but not quite the bad influence of Katy Perry). People felt connected to him through his music. And for some, he initiated a kind of sexual awakening.
But were these qualities really enough to make up for his annoying pre-pubescent voice, uniform song themes centered around a utopian idea of love, and artificial public image? For a lot of people, the answer was yes. After all, at least his image then was untainted by crime, gross displays of arrogance and the like.
But let’s take a step back for a second. I referred to Justin Bieber as an “ephemeral fad” earlier in this article, but that was really the 2010 version of me talking.
The truth is, Justin Bieber’s music career has been both consistent and successful between then and now.
Bieber’s music has improved significantly. Time has withered the child-like femininity of his voice away. He has successfully expanded beyond generic mediocrity, keeping both electronic influences and raw, emotional acoustic pop in his toolbox.
Perhaps this improvement is best evidenced by the daunting cleft between his videos’ like-dislike ratios from 2010 and today. Notice how the top comment on “Baby” is “Who else came here just to see the dislikes?” By contrast, the vast majority of people today who make it onto Bieber’s YouTube page are there to enjoy the music.
That means Justin Bieber is exonerated in the public eye, right? Wrong.
People still hate Justin Bieber. The evidence is everywhere: internet, classroom, you name it. This time, people have simply shifted their excuses to reflect Bieber’s more recent arrests, displays of conceit and other controversies. Spanning most of 2013 and 2014, Bieber logged a DUI, egged his neighbor’s house, was charged with assault multiple times and generally treated others with condescension, disrespect and overblown entitlement.
In fact, it was around the same time that negative portrayals of Bieber tended to focus on his behavior outside of the recording studio rather than in it. Observe how this video from WatchMojo opens with “Whether or not you like his music, there’s a lot to find objectionable about Justin Bieber.” Looks like his down-to-earth pretty lover boy image got flushed down the toilet.
But a young celebrity having a jarring image-shift is nothing new, is it? Justin Bieber rose to fame when he was in his early teen years. He was constantly pressured by managers, advertisers and business executives to look, dress and act a certain way. He was confused by the countless adoring fans juxtaposed with the countless online death threats. Having so much influence at such a young age simply went to his head. It’s happened before. If you’ve ever searched “child stars gone bad” online, you know there are a lot of options to choose from (yes, I use Bing. DON’T JUDGE!).
But perhaps equally as sad is that, as a popular celebrity, Justin Bieber represents an entire generation. And he has used such power to reinforce negative stereotypes about millennials, namely that they’re quixotic, social-media-obsessed narcissists, which is perfectly encapsulated by this.
There were red flags in the days of “Baby” too. Having PR-oriented adults manage Bieber’s image meant “a streetwise look that’s been concocted” and speech “mimicking his favorite rappers,” according to a 2010 LA Times article. When an otherwise sensible star gets manufactured to fit an abusive pop culture, he or she is only destined to eventually fit the prototype completely. And that prototype includes the arrogance. And the crime. And the other baggage.
Still, musicians like Taylor Swift and Rebecca Black have avoided this manufacturing and largely stay true to themselves. Rebecca Black now runs a popular YouTube channel, and has overcome the scarring disparagement of her early music career. Taylor Swift remains popular, yet down-to-earth and also somewhat relatable, at least if you’ve cycled through 15 boyfriends in the last month. In all seriousness, I deeply admire Swift’s character, sense of individuality and commitment to humanitarianism.
Even Bieber himself is starting to improve. He’s released extremely candid videos discussing his behavior, and has now effectively stayed out of legal trouble for about as long as he was consistently in legal trouble in 2013 and 2014. And it’s hard not to appreciate how last year’s single “Sorry” probably wasn’t merely an apology to whichever implicit girlfriend he treated poorly, but instead spoke directly to all of his fans who he “let down” with his actions.
I believe I mentioned that I don’t love Bieber or hate him. His music is better now. I think he has a long and prosperous career ahead of him. To a great extent, the “wild side” seen a couple of years ago was not his own doing. But it’s hard now for Bieber to sever his ties with a culture that’s proliferated his music and his character alike throughout the world. He’s the second most followed Twitter user. His VEVO channel has the second most views of any YouTube channel.
There are always going to be people who blame Bieber for this culture of corrupting talented young people. But I assure you that this corruption is no more Bieber’s fault than it is that of Lindsay Lohan. Or Gary Coleman. Or Macaulay Culkin.