I’m not much of a Justin Bieber fan. Couldn’t tell you the title of one of his songs or hum a few bars if you put a gun to my head.
The news that the pop singer spent part of this past week literally barefoot in the park, shoeless and up a tree in the Boston Public Garden, does not rock my world one way or the other, even if it did send the gossip website TMZ into a tizzy. It just makes me kind of sad, for a poor little (obscenely) rich boy who wants to be left alone in public and for a celebrity culture that locks emotionally unprepared children in prisons of fame and then jeers when they bang on the bars.
This article is part of that parasite response, to be sure. Bieber gets hits, we get hits. But let’s see if we can turn this in a different direction.
Bieber is 22 and he came to fame when he was 13, after he posted videos of his singing performances on YouTube and was mentored by Usher. In 2014, he was the highest paid performer under 30 on the planet, making an estimated $80 million that year according to Forbes. You’re allowed to feel no pity whatsoever for him.
But he’s not acting out the culturally accepted script that says fame and wealth and the undying love of billions of fans will bring you happiness. On the contrary, Bieber has spent the bulk of his career saying remarkably stupid things and looking deeply confused — I’m not convinced he’s all that bright — and that confusion has now seemingly tipped into misery.
His concerts have sometimes devolved into snit-fits in which the star steps out of his intricately choreographed traces and just stands there. He’s announced he’ll no longer take photos with fans and that he feels like “a zoo animal.”
He arrived in Boston earlier this week for a two-night stand at the TD Garden. An acquaintance of mine took her 9-year-old son on Tuesday and told me that Bieber could barely bring himself to phone it in; her kid got bored and started playing Minecraft. Then social media went wiggy when pictures started circulating of the singer hanging out in the Public Garden minus his shoes one day and sitting in the branch of a tree the next.
He also table-danced at Storyville on Exeter Street and ducked into Lucky Strike on Ipswich Street for a pool game with a friend, where a family “harassed” him (the club’s wording) until he signed a bowling pin. Just your average unformed megacelebrity trying to clear a space for himself in the waking world.
If this were an un-celebrated 22-year-old, we’d call him a knucklehead and barely look at him twice. Because Bieber’s famous, it’s “weird” and worthy of appalled attention. As was the similar response when Britney Spears went off the rails, and Lindsay Lohan, and Miley Cyrus, and Shia LaBeouf, and Amanda Bynes. . .
All right, I’m going to put this notion out there: Immense fame visited upon the young is trauma. It is not something you should ever wish on your children. To become famous before you know who you are is asking for disaster, because who knows who they are when they’re adolescents? That’s when we’re trying on all the different available costumes and seeing which fits. To be locked into one costume, one persona, and be absurdly celebrated for it — to have an entire industry marketing the “real you” at a time when there is no “real you” — is a highly remunerative psychic cage.
But this is the payday toward which our kids are directed, isn’t it? If you’re not famous, you’re not seen; if you’re not seen, you don’t exist. Thirty years of Nickelodeon and Disney TV and the Internet have taught us that. All of our daughters are princesses and all of our sons are the Lion King; all are the next American Idol, Top Model, the Voice. To reject that dream, to be content expressing ourselves in private rather than the widest public sphere imaginable, is vaguely un-American.
I’ve spent a lot of years thinking and writing about fame, and I’ve concluded that it is a terribly double-edged sword. Some are born to handle the business of their business, whether it’s the silent-era superstar Mary Pickford or the 21st century supernova Taylor Swift. Many, many more wish for celebrity, achieve it, and have no idea what hit them.
We all want to be seen, but what happens when we can’t stop being looked at?
I’ve sat in a public place interviewing a major movie star and watched him interrupted every three minutes by well-meaning folks — you and me — asking for an autograph, a selfie, recognition. In each and every instance he was unfailingly gracious, and when I sympathized, he said, “It’s fine. But imagine this happening every three minutes for the rest of your life.”
Imagine your every move scrutinized on every international inch of social media when you’re a young dude who only wishes he had the luxury of being an unexamined bonehead. Yeah, Justin Bieber wanted to be famous and he got his wish and he seems to hate it. It’s OK if you don’t care. It’s even OK if you feel compelled to let others know you don’t care on random Internet comment boards, just to prove you’re better than him.
But hold this in mind. In a society that celebrates youthful celebrity rather than mature accomplishment, the Biebers and Britneys and Shias are more than just momentary flame-outs. They are the canaries in the coal-mine of our culture, and there will be many more of them.
As for Justin himself, I’d offer this humble suggestion: Quit. If it makes you that miserable, finish your tour, honor your contractual obligations, and order your lawyers to get you out as quickly as possible.
Disappear, grow a beard, write some conceptual cabaret songs that no one wants to hear. Get a real life. Find out who you are. Stop beliebing.
Trust me, we’ll find someone else to torture.