Justin Bieber Has Already Destroyed Pop Music!
As I'm fast approaching 40, I find my interest in pop music waning. Whereas the music manias of my youth --- hair metal, grunge, gangsta rap etc. --- seemed monumental and everlasting, current trends barely earn my notice and end as quickly as they start. By the time I register that a band like My Chemical Romance exists, the kids have already moved on.
One result of my disinterest in modern music is that Justin Bieber, current lord of the pop charts, slipped under my radar until quite recently. It was only after a friend commented on how atrocious Bieber was that I became curious and pulled up some of his videos on YouTube. As each image of his scrawny, vanilla frame striking "gangsta" poses flashed across my screen, my stomach tightened and I realized that unalterable damage was being done to the pedigree of pop performance.
At first listen, Bieber's assault on contemporary music might seem benign. Sophisticated listeners, such as myself, are tempted to dismiss his antics with a chuckle and go back to trolling the Internet for Asian pornography. This is a mistake. To understand why, we need to take a look at some of the archetypes of pop music and their impact.
First, let's narrow our terms a bit. I've been speaking of pop music, but I'm really focusing on what might be called "soul" or "urban music" or "R&B." Despite the fact that the precise definition of those terms has become vague over the years, I believe they are clear enough for this discussion. Let's at least understand that there's an element of race affiliated with such genres. Conventional wisdom (which, in this case, is correct) states that these music forms were originated by black artists and then embraced (or co-opted, depending on who's telling the story) by whites.
Integral to pop/dance/urban/R&B has always been the archetype of the romantic male crooner. The crooner is confident, sexually potent, hip, fashion conscious and virtuosic, but --- contrary to many traditional male personas --- also vulnerable and in touch with his emotions. He is capable of having not just a sexual relationship with a woman, but an emotional one as well. (Loser!) To more macho members of the male sex, the crooner seems a bit gay. Examples of this archetype are Marvin Gaye, Mick Jagger, Barry White, Prince and Usher.
It's no accident that most of the examples I list above are black men. For various reasons, the crooner's combination of swagger and sensitivity has always fallen more comfortably into the domain of black artists. And it provided them with a needed escape hatch. During the 20th century, the image of the virile, sexual black man enraged white men and terrorized and intrigued white women --- so much so that black men were often targeted for harassment or violence. By channeling this character into music and stage performances, black crooners were able to strut their stuff in a comfortable environment; the public has always been more accommodating of flamboyant behavior when practiced by its its pop stars as opposed to regular folks.
The target audience for the crooner was largely late-teens and young adults e.g. people who were (or could be) sexually active. In the 1960s, the music industry realized there was an untapped market: pre-teens and early teenagers. Like their big brothers and sisters, they were prone to idol worship and could be sold pop idols as romantic crushes. But it would be inappropriate to market these idols as sex objects so a new archetype was created: the imp. The imp possessed one half of the crooner's character --- the sensitivity --- but not the sexuality. In place of the crooner's gyrating loins, the imp projected a certain boyish charm and innocence. Examples of this character are early Michael Jackson, Sean Cassidy, Leif Garrett and Kriss Kross.
Justin Bieber is the most current manifestation of the imp character. But, for whatever reason, the music industry decided the imp archetype needed updating. The imp, as personified by Bieber, is still unthreatening (Bieber seems physically underdeveloped for his age) but reinvented with an urban edge. His clothes are a combination of hip-hop and skate punk, he throws pseudo-gang signs in his videos and utilizes hip-hop nomenclature, perhaps best illustrated by his endless abuse of the term "shorty" (girl.) In his videos, he's always paired with a female of vague, but clearly nonwhite ethnicity, a technique utilized to downplay his suburban vanilla flavor. (And, to drive home the point that Bieber is harmless, the girls are almost always taller than him.)
The result is comical. When first watching the "One Time" video in which the 16-year-old Bieber does his best impression of an urban pop star like Usher*, the audience can be forgiven for thinking they are watching a Saturday Night Live parody. Clueless white kids attempting to act black have always induced chuckle but Bieber so thoroughly embraces his character that viewers have to fight back tears. However, once the initial comedy fades, sobering realizations surface.
* Usher has been integral to the development of Bieber's career, acting as a mentor.
Mike Greensill, musician and historian, once denigrated rock 'n roll music as, "music for the crotch." And, of course, he was right --- rock 'n roll is sexual music. And rock's influence on pop music from the 60s onward was to sexualize it. It can also fairly be said that the most sexualized form of pop music is the urban/dance/R&B genre that serves as home to the crooner. But the music industry, in allowing an imp like Bieber to take on the characteristics of the crooner, has effectively castrated modern pop music. When we, the audience, interact with the pop music world, we engage in a certain suspension of disbelief. We're willing to indulging in pop music's fantasy icons as long as they are grounded in reality. When they offer us Prince or Usher as superfly crooners we go along with it because it seems possible. But when they dress up Bieber in the same clothing it doesn't pass the smell test.
How do we know Bieber is a phony? It comes down to, as the kids would say, "skillz." Bieber doesn't have them. Vocally, while Bieber can effectively duplicate the rhythmic cadence of modern hip-hop, his tone and range are middling, and even while auto tuned he occasionally falls flat. (This might seem a minor point, but part of the ambience of the crooner character is that his vocal virtuosity attracts women like a siren luring sailors.) Secondly, Bieber simply doesn't command the necessary sex appeal. If you question this, contemplate the following: if Marvin Gaye happened to find himself in bed with an attractive woman (as he did, many a time) he would doubtless have no problem providing her sexual satisfaction she'd likely never experienced. Now pair Bieber with the same woman. He'd probably flop around on top of her like a fish out of water for a couple minutes, scream out something like, "Glllleeerrrrrkkk!" and then start to cry. (Of course, the power of Bieber's celebrity will no doubt ensure that the number of women he disappoints sexually in the coming years could rise into the thousands.) Music is an extension of the self. The music of the classic crooners --- from Gaye to Prince to Usher --- was pulled from deep within them; there's a reason it's often called Soul music. Bieber, even covered with accoutrements of urban culture, is clearly devoid of the necessary inner substance*.
* It's worth noting that Bieber's deficiencies here are not simply due to race. Justin Timberlake very ably navigated the transition from impish boy band leader to libidinous sex object. He did this partly by devirginizing the then current queen of pop, Britney Spears, but also by understanding his place in the realm of urban music. He was influenced by black artists, but never attempted to overtly emulate them.
This is why, simply put, Bieber must be destroyed. And by destroyed I don't simply mean that Justin Bieber himself must be eradicated, I mean that every mark he's made on our cultural consciousness must be wiped clean. Every album, every People magazine cover story, every video must be scrubbed off the earth, like a rape victim cleansing herself of the dirt and blood of her attacker. I would then advocate that the population of Earth undergo a mass hypnosis and have the very memory of Justin Bieber removed from our minds. Only then can we begin to repair the damage that has been done.
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