Stamatakis: The cultural significance of Justin Bieber

By Nick Stamatakis

I’m kind of crushing on Justin Bieber right now. It’s not his adorable swoosh hairstyle or… I’m kind of crushing on Justin Bieber right now.

It’s not his adorable swoosh hairstyle or his sweet, pure voice that makes my knees buckle, but it’s his recent interview in Rolling Stone that makes me think about Bieber and what he means to us as a culture.

Beyond the looks and singing, the interview reveals a personality containing something often missing from popular culture, be it from entertainment, business or politics. He seems to be genuinely honest and seems to genuinely speak what he thinks. And now that his rather odd comments on abortion have been retracted as a journalism error on the part of Rolling Stone, we can view the piece as a simply a look at Bieber as who he is: a 16-year-old who says whatever is on his mind.

He doesn’t seem to have — how to say this nicely — very developed ideas about life. It seems like he gets most of his opinions from his mother, and he dutifully spits them back out when he is asked about them. These ideas, too, amount to little more than platitudes about good living and friendship and love. There isn’t anything notable about the content.

But something seems different about him than other young pop superstars of today, who all generally hail from the Disney factory of entertainment. The Miley Cyruses, Jonas Brothers and Hilary Duffs of the world were netted at a young age and then consciously morphed into caricatures of family values and wholesomeness designed to capture the hearts of moms and tweens in Middle America. They all began their performing careers before their teenage years and were thus more easily moldable.

Bieber, on the other hand, did not begin performing on a large stage until his teenaged years had already begun. Corporations and record labels couldn’t create a brand from him — his style and branding already existed, and he was too old to be transformed. Without a strong hand to guide the singer’s media development, he has a more organic element to him. This is his appeal. It’s not anything particularly special about his voice — which, while good, isn’t unstoppable — that makes him fascinating, but this genuineness that makes him appealing to adults from Conan O’Brien to Kim Kardashian to Usher.

Another pop culture phenomenon gets its appeal from the same source: the “Jersey Shore.” It, too, features eight people who seem, either because of their accents, editing or active “character” choices, to be very authentic. So although they act in ways no different than past casts of the “Real World,” they endure with stronger popularity because there isn’t that same level of produced personality. We feel as if we are witnessing people being very true versions of themselves.

This, I think, is why Bieber and the “Jersey Shore” enjoy their current levels of immense popularity. They serve as foils to the kind of produced imagery and personality we are accustomed to inside and outside of entertainment.

Politics is one such realm outside entertainment. Every election year, after all, brings us nothing but manufactured personality: The 2008 vision of President Barack Obama attempting to bowl to create a blue-collar image shines as a typical example. The same constructions will continue next year as Republicans descend upon Iowa and pretend to be interested in the livestock and fried Oreos at the county fairs to create an image of folksiness.

Even social interactions leave us to act as produced versions of ourselves. When we interact with people with whom we are at a stale, sterile level of familiarity — think aunts, acquaintances and certain professors — we all create personal images of hard working young men and women with a keen eye toward the future. When asked how we feel about our maturity, for instance, we may say that we feel like college has taught us lessons that have helped us move beyond our age with wisdom.

But in the land of Bieber and the “Jersey Shore,” the land of authenticity beyond what you see in the real world that we are all oddly drawn to, you don’t need to give such stale answers. You just say, as on the “Jersey Shore,” that other people are the ones that need to grow up and then punch somebody.

Or maybe, if you’re not feeling particularly noble or angry, you simply say the most honest reason why you feel like you are maturing, as did Bieber himself when he said, “I used to freak out at arcades, but now I’m like, whatever.”

Isn’t he adorable?

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