“Though I’m not the first king of controversy
I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley
To do black music so selfishly
And use it to get myself wealthy”
So sang Eminem what seems like a cultural lifetime ago, but in fact was only eight years. Well Marshall, I think it may be time to relinquish your crown; there’s a new prince in town ready to coronate himself. Arise, Justin Beiber.
The rest of this piece requires that you have heard/ seen the video for the song ‘One Time’ by Beiber – so have a quick watch of the link by clicking on Bieber’s beaming smile above. Ok, watched it? Yeah – I think you can tell where I’m going to go with this – it’s not going to be a glowing review. Actually, if you haven’t yet watched it, don’t waste four precious minutes of your life. All you need to see are the following moments:
- 13seconds – Beiber receives a call from his ‘buddy’ Usher – a shameless product placement of the i-phone ensues. Usher asks Beiber to watch his house (I think) whilst he is away (do I need to mention here that Beiber is 15 years old? He is.)
- 44seconds – Beiber holds aloft his index finger to the camera. The camera focuses in on the finger and holds the shot for what seems an inordinate amount of time. He repeats this gesture ad infinitum throughout the song.
- 1.13 – arguably the most insipid chorus ever produced unfurls its instantly forgettable self for the first time, accompanied by more finger pointing and a bizarre series of convulsion-like jigs from Beiber (who seems, at this point, incapable of not touching some part of his clothing).
- 1.51 – Beiber says the word ‘shawty’. He says the word ‘shawty’. He is a 15 year old, white boy and he says the word ‘shawty’. He is talking to a girl (in the world of the video at least) that is demonstrably taller than he is. He says the word ‘shawty’.
- 3.00 – Beiber begins the ubiquitous melismatic ad-lib warble over the final chorus. It is shit.
- 3.26 – some ‘Crunk n B’ – but watered down to the point of being ‘tipsy ‘n’ B’ at best (is this too contrived a joke?) shouts of ‘hey’ are heard. They are, I think, provided by Beiber himself – he is cheering on his own performance.
- 3.47 – Usher re-appears, as if to bookend the whole sorry enterprise. There’s just time, as the song fades into oblivion, for a few ridiculous poses and facial expressions from Beiber (along with some more unnecessary pointing) before the crowning glory of the piece.
- 3.56 – Beiber theatrically shrugs his shoulders. I think, given the context of the video (Usher has walked in on an illicit party thrown by Beiber), it’s supposed to be a cheeky ‘I threw a party at Usher’s house without him knowing. That’s the sort of thing kids my age do, right?’ sort of shrug. Possibly it’s a more defiant ‘that’s how I roll’ sort of shrug.
For me this parting shrug says more. To me, Beiber is looking right at me – looking straight into my eyes, the nonchalant shrug belying the sinister glint in his eye. “It’s 2010 and I exist” he says. “Explain that. Explain why this song, this whole sorry charade still exists”. And he knows I can’t. I can’t explain why the music industry still tried to find an ‘acceptable’ (read white) face for black music – music (R n B in particular) that has long since found acceptance in every corner of the world. Yet further, I can’t explain why this ‘acceptable’ face is always underage.
But in a sense, the more I think about this song, the more I love it. Actually, perhaps ‘love’ is too strong a word. In fact, it’s completely the wrong word. I hate this song. I hate everything that the song promotes; the shameless technological product placement, the transposition of a black voice (albeit one concocted by the music industry) into a white boy, the insistence of adult relationships in teenagers. But I appreciate this song for some reason. I think it’s because a song like this – and they come around all too often – helps to remove the veil of seriousness that I (and others with a vested interest in popular culture) place upon pop music. It serves to remind me that pop music – indeed all music – is a corporate art. It is full of the cynical and lampoons the genuine. But I find that a good thing to remember sometimes.
What I find refreshing to remember is not that I should ‘not take music to seriously’ – as must be patently obvious by now, I take Justin Beiber extremely seriously – but that music is not always the life-defining monolith – some of it can’t be justified. So Beiber provides a nadir from which the zenith seems all the more beautiful. That’s certainly a factor, but it is a factor of which we need to be wary. The dross of popular music and the ‘great’ are two sides of the same, much maligned, coin and are, as such, inseparable. We can no more disown Justin Beiber that the so-called ‘art music’ world can disown (or discount) the power of rock music. Music has for too long been involved in this discourse of binaries – from high/low art to rock/pop. To create another dichotomy between ‘high’ and ‘low’ pop is both ludicrous and anathema to me. By simultaneously lampooning the likes of Beiber, yet praising the likes of Jojo (yes, I fully appreciate the hypocrisy of championing an underage, white girl singing black music – but she’s good dammit!) it is not my intention to create such a dichotomy.
What I am aiming at it that bad popular music provides an opportunity to look at other music anew. Beiber provides a new lens through which to examine music that does ‘mean something’ (whatever that means). By finding something that lacks integrity, shown something as undisguisedly contemptuous as Beiber and this video, it forces us to re-examine the music that we think does have integrity – that is life affirming in some way. I am compelled to look again at what I consider great, analyse it yet deeper to decipher its greatness and find more meaning within it. Maybe what I’m saying it that the beauty of great pop music is that it emerges despite the system that manufactures it. Beiber shows you the system.
So really, in looking at Beiber, I see myself. Sorry, did I just wander too far into the plane of pretentiousness? Perhaps that’s the point. Why do I get a strange satisfaction out of deriding pop music on a website that is essentially dedicated to promoting the power, value and importance of pop music? To get all academic for a moment, Carolyn Steadman, makes the following point; “I want to laugh at my own pretentions, indeed, so that I may cut the ground from under the feet of those who bring that charge”. By recognising the foibles, follies and flaws of pop music, we who love it so can enhance its power. By making a joke about it, we emphasise its seriousness.
Except for all the pointing – the endless pointing. Why are you always pointing Justin? Who are you pointing at? What does it mean? Apart from all the pointing, I thank Justin Beiber.
 By this, I’m not bemoaning the fact that white artists have appropriated ‘black music’ – that has happened a lot. A lot. Nor am I saying that this practise is, in itself, is inauthentic. Some very good music has come from white musicians copying black musicians, from Elvis (and arguably before) right the way down to the present day. What I am concerned with here is that certain members of the music industry still think it is necessary to find someone white to sing black music. And before any Beiber apologists start bleating ‘oh, Usher is in the video – Usher discovered him, so it’s OK’ no. Usher – and this may sound a tad contentious – is not black. He’s not even a person. Usher has his own range of credit cards – Usher is not a person – he’s a bank!