Bieberology: understanding Justin Bieber
To understand what makes Beliebers believe in Bieber, you need to examine his hair, fans and even music
Justin Bieber, who plays at the O2 in Dublin tomorrow, is a Canadian pop sensation with big kitten eyes, a honking voice (inexplicably inaudible to adults) and an idiosyncratic, evolving hair style. Discovered on YouTube by the music manager Scooter Braun in 2008 and championed by Usher and Justin Timberlake, Bieber is now irresistible to a generation of tweens.
Online you can find communities of passionate Beliebers who suffer from Bieber Fever. They spend their time worrying about Bieber’s relationship with his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Selena Gomez, discussing his humble origins as the child of a single mother, and writing fan fiction that involves Bieber falling in love with them.
Sadly, I am not a Belieber. I do not belieb. Arguably it is impossible for me to become a Belieber, because I am in my late 30s. But I want to understand. So I have recruited an array of experts to help explain. I call this cross-disciplinary approach Bieberology.
Stephen Graham is an Irish musicologist and visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths College in London. I ask him why Bieber’s music is so popular.
“Baby [Bieber’s biggest hit] is classic doo-wop, a familiar 1, 6, 4, 5 chord sequence which you find throughout pop history. Initially he was playing on those classic ideas of pop. But in his latest album, Believe, he’s done something typical of modern r ’n’ b artists: a mixed-genre record with aspects of pop and up-to-date hip hop. He’s brought in producers like Max Martin and Diplo.”
What’s different about this? “Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake were in boy- bands for a long time before making a break for what they saw as credibility. But the idea of credibility or authenticity seems to have completely collapsed.
“So within two albums Bieber has gone from really pop stuff to up-to-date r ’n’ b. People like Nicki Minaj, Ludacris and Big Sean guest on his tracks without losing any sense of street credibility.”
What’s unique about him? “He has a particular persona in the music and the idea of this rags-to-riches rise. He was discovered in a grass-roots way, so he has the hallmarks of being an authentic artist despite making what some would call manufactured pop.”
Colman Noctor is a child and adolescent psychoanalytical psychotherapist.
“Justin Bieber is marketed to appeal to the anxieties of tweenagers experiencing the early onset of sexuality. What Bieber offers is a clean-cut nonthreatening sexuality, and he sings of love and devotion and [unconditional] romance . . . Fandom is healthy if not taken to extremes.”
Eoin Devereaux is the head of the sociology department at the University of Limerick and co-editor of a book called Morrissey: Fandom, Representations and Identities.
Is this obsessive behaviour a bit crazy?
“I prefer to think about fandom in terms of the obvious creativity that many fans engage in. In the past fans might have been seen as slavishly following The Beatles or The Clash or The Bay City Rollers; nowadays the focus is on their creativity. Increasingly, many are media ‘prosumers’ or ‘produsers’ who write blogs, make and circulate fanzines and take part in virtual communities.”
What about the general shrieking, fainting and hyperventilating?
“Many writers have pointed to the strong parallels between what you might witness at a rock or pop gig and evangelical religious events . . . Fandom can provide a sense of community, of belonging, a means of escape and sometimes transcendence.”
Dr Chris Luke specialises in emergency medicine at Mercy University Hospital in Cork. We discuss the outward manifestations of Bieber Fever.
“It’s not new. Donnie Osmond and David Cassidy elicited the same kind of responses at concerts: hyperventilation, dizziness and pins and needles around the face, mouth and fingers. Fans can become sick and dizzy and fall to the ground en masse,” he says. “Thirteen- and 14-year-old girls are particularly susceptible, as they’re prematurely precocious adultoids just discovering the opposite sex and want to be the same as one another. It’s a type of mass hysteria.”
Is it dangerous? “It’s part of life. As long as the venue is well run and the proprietor understands that with crowd hysteria, crowd contagion and irrational exuberance there’s the potential for mad behaviour. If it’s anticipated and expected it will peter out and they’ll be exhausted, worn out and have had a great time.”
Dr Scott Henderson of Brock University in Ontario is executive director of the Popular Culture Association of Canada.
“He doesn’t really fit in with Canadian pop culture. I think even in his YouTube stuff he had an eye to America, and he was quickly picked up by Usher’s crew and groomed into this very American star . . .
“Canada has always had a strange relationship with global pop culture. It’s not like Bieber’s completely forgotten here, but I don’t think Canadians see what he does as Canadian. Often artists who make it in film or television or music are remembered as Canadian occasionally, as though it’s an accidental part of their past.”
Gary Kavanagh is a hair stylist to the stars who works at Peter Mark. I ask him about Bieber’s floppy hair helmet.
“Hair is obviously a big part of the impact. When he appeared first he was like the boy next door with the long sweet hair. Now his hair is in a quiff, and he looks older . . . Every generation of young people are waiting for the look that’s them. Clients say, ‘My son wants his hair like Justin Bieber. Would you do it for me?’ And kids do it themselves by cutting a chunk off the front. There’s not a lot to it.”
Dr Aoife McLysaght works at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin. She stresses that she knows very little about Justin Bieber.
How did we arrive at Bieber evolutionarily speaking? “You wouldn’t arrive at Justin Bieber. You have to think of a species as a collective. I can talk about how music may have developed.”
How did music develop? “One idea is that the arts and music evolved because they were a way of showing off to a mate . . . Music most likely came from sexual selection. These things often started out being practical but then ran away with themselves and became a self-selecting loop . . . Just as birds’ shiny feathers might have been an indication of good health, but then it turns into big blue feathers and a big peacock tail.”
Is it possible that Bieber has a big blue peacock tail? “Sexual selection can lead to impractical stuff: big feathers and colours that are really conspicuous, things that would normally make you really vulnerable to predators, but the girls like it.”
And Justin Bieber is really conspicuous to predators but the girls like him! Where do a thousand females screaming for one male fit into evolutionary biology?
“That’s a cultural thing or a psychological thing, not an evolutionary thing. A thousand girls competing for one bloke means 999 will be disappointed and have no mate.”
From Julie, a teenage fan, via an adult: “I love Justin Bieber because, because . . . *sigh* . . . he came from a poor background, and he’s so inspirational, and he’s really nice, and he makes class music, and he’s so good looking.” There was also, reportedly, a lot of squealing.