By Francois Badenhorst
Justin Bieber just polarises people. Depending on who you ask, he is either an awesome entertainer that sings charming pop ditties or a manufactured grotesquery that is a monument to an age where the lenders have become the temple.
Six years on from his discovery, the insanity that surrounds Bieber has expanded immeasurably. Insane fans, even more insane enemies – it’s a travelling circus centred on a small Canadian man singing syrupy pop music.
But forget about the music for a bit. When it comes to Bieber, there is something bigger at play. He is a living, breathing metaphor for our broken celebrity culture and the role we play in creating our social realities.
Just take a look at a story that got played to death in the media. After visiting the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, Bieber wrote this wholly inappropriate entry into the guest book: “Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a Belieber.” The media coverage largely followed the “haha Bieber is an idiot” narrative. But this is a great oversimplification.
Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt, it still smacks of a person that lacks any kind of gravitas. I would expect better from a ten-year-old, let alone a grown man – we often forget that Bieber is a grown man of 19 years.
If you were to take the Anne Frank example further, though, his behaviour is one that is endemic to modern celebrity culture. When he was confronted with the Holocaust – an event truly bigger and more important than him – his instinct was to draw the conversation back to his own celebrity. What it comes down to is that he is uncomfortable outside his own sphere of influence.
Bieber is not the only celebrity suffering from this 21st-century solipsism. But he is a shining example of it. It seems that for him, reality exists in the context of his own fame. People are just receptacles: there to receive, peruse and – most importantly – purchase whatever emanates from his pop factory.
When the French philosopher Henri Bergson thought about nothingness he concluded that it was impossible. According to him it was impossible because no matter how hard he tried to envision nothingness, he remained as an observer.
Bieber’s perception of himself seems in line with Monsieur Bergson’s thoughts. To Bieber, his fame is eternal, exempt from nothingness and annihilation. If the universe swallowed itself right now, all that would remain would be Bieber, cap tilted at a 45-degree angle, dancing in the dark, singing “Baby, baby, oh!”.
But before we get swept away in anti-Bieber hysteria, we should be taking a look at ourselves. We should remember our own role in creating the beast. Biebermania – and this loathsome celebrity culture as a whole – is kept alive by the masses. We are all complicit in perpetuating this awfulness.
But there is an argument to be made beyond Bieber himself. Addressing totalitarianism, Vaclav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia (as it was then known), said, “None of us are just its [totalitarianism’s] victim. We are all also its co-creators.”
Havel’s sentiment is an axiom for our age. Bieber’s fame did not just spring into existence by itself. It was forged in the celebrity culture we all helped to create.
This link to totalitarianism may seem tenuous, but the similarity to how celebrity and totalitarianism are cultivated and perpetuated is clear. Both are bad for us in the long term, both are buttressed on the sweeping power of hard-core fanaticism. More importantly, their true strength comes from the silent majority that fail to act on their misgivings.
Many try to ignore what is broken or repulsive. That is not the answer. The only way to fix the problems we see in celebrity culture – the consumerism, the immorality, the greed – is to change the nature of the conversation.
Here is where all the Bieber haters have gone wrong. Their derision focuses on the man Justin Bieber. Rather, the derision should be aimed at what he represents. Bieber is just a small, Canadian pop lothario – flesh and bone with a funky hairstyle.
It’s the machine behind him that is the problem.