Friday 22 November 2019

We should protect vulnerable tweens against 'Bieber Fever'

As kids the world over succumb to delirium, Eilis O'Hanlon wishes we would just let children be children

And they called it puppy love. Oh, I guess we'll never know... I certainly don't. Probably never will. In fact, I don't think I've been more insulted in my life than when the man in the office said: "You have young children, don't you? Your house must be awash with Bieber fever right now."

No offence to the Canadian pop sensation, who brought Dublin to a screaming standstill last week, but if my children were to regard The Bieber with anything other than scorn and derision, I'd consider myself a total failure as a parent, as a mentor -- heck, as a human being -- and put them up for adoption immediately.

Jedmania, I get completely. Jedward are as mad as the proverbial box of frogs, but it's hard not to take a liking to them. They're sui generis. They're funny. They're... Jedward. If they had eight million followers on Twitter, and their videos had been viewed more than a billion times on YouTube, I'd say fair play to them. And mean it. But if John and Edward Grimes are a hearty feast of fun, then Justin Bieber, by comparison, is a service station sandwich, made of rubbery, processed cheese, limp lettuce, and rancid margarine. It satisfies some temporary peckishness, but it's only going to make you feel sick later.

There's always been this craziness around pop idols. The girls went wild for Elvis. Beatlemania gripped the planet. The Bay City Rollers, Bros, Kajagoogoo... the world's been there, done that, bought the ridiculously overpriced souvenir T-shirt. Bieber sold out his O2 shows in Dublin in 20 minutes, but Donny Osmond could have done the same if he'd been around in the days of internet booking. Things are on a larger scale now because the pop industry is such a globalised machine, and the venues are bigger, and social networking is ubiquitous, but essentially nothing much changes -- and once Bieber's been dumped in the dustbin of pop history, someone else will rise to take his place on the bedroom walls of starstruck adolescents.

The fans don't know, or care, about any of that, because they're living in the moment, and so they should; but there's no need for the rest of us to get excited.

I realise I'm probably exaggerating when I say that Justin Bieber represents everything that is vacuous and evil in modern pop culture; but, well, he sort of does. He's a suburban white goody two shoes who's been remodelled and repackaged so that he can ape what's fresh and edgy about rapper culture without frightening any white, middle-income horses. To hear him talk about his "crew", or post his Twitter followers the news that he's "chillin' with my boy", is to enter a bizarre parallel universe where nothing is quite real, and everything is merely a reflection of a reflection, and so on ad infinitum, of something else.

Justin Bieber's pose is so inauthentic he makes Vanilla Ice look like Biggie Smalls. It's like watching a teenage version of Richard Madely dressed up as Ali G.

What makes it almost worse is hearing people seriously suggest that, because Bieber was discovered via YouTube, that somehow makes him a surprise success, or renders his dominance of the teen market more real, and therefore less offensive, than had he come through some manufactured X Factor/ American Idol-type process. This is nonsense. Bieber may have been discovered by accident by a record producer surfing the internet, but from the moment he was signed, his career trajectory has been as deliberately micro-managed as a Moon landing. Nothing was left to chance after that initial stroke of luck. Today's hysteria is simply the payoff for a brilliant faux-guerrilla marketing campaign designed to trick fans into thinking that they had found Justin by serendipity, too.

That this was done by tapping ruthlessly into an audience which, until a decade or so ago, had been neglected by the music industry, only makes it more creepy. Pre-teens traditionally bought toys. Once puberty kicked in, girls in particular then became more open to the attractions of pretty boy pop singers. What's happening now is part of a cynical attempt to knock down the barrier separating childhood from adolescence and make it all happen earlier.

"Every generation of teenagers needs an outlet for their raging hormones," said the man from the Irish Times in the crowd at the O2 last week, but surely that's the point? Most of the fans aren't teenagers at all, they're "tweens" whose hormones shouldn't even have kicked in yet -- and, if they have, it's because they've been socially, not physically, triggered.

What's wrong with just letting children be children until they're ready in their own time to move on to wider and wilder pastures? Leave them alone, and most children wouldn't mind; their parents certainly shouldn't. The only people who would object are the multi-media corporations who would have lost an opportunity to flog more tat to vulnerable consumers. That's why Bieber's in town, and why he's supported by Willow Smith, all of 10 years old, and already signed to Jay Z's record label. What's the rush? Willow's father, rapper/actor superstar Will Smith, was nearly 20 before he released his first album, and built up his success gradually. At this rate, the peak of his daughter's career could come and go before his even began.

Simon Cowell's even got in on the act by signing a 10- year-old Canadian girl called Heather Russell, whose videos on YouTube have prompted people not only to describe her as Bieber's natural successor, but as the "new Mariah Carey". This may be the future, as unstoppable as a runaway train, but I think it's disturbing; I think it's sad.

I'm just glad my own children remain immune so far from Bieber Fever. Maybe they've been inoculated by the regular injections of cynicism which I've been giving them secretly since birth; or it could be that those brainwashing techniques I picked up from watching The Manchurian Candidate have finally paid off. Either way, phew.

Sunday Independent

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