‘Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art,’ said Ruskin, the nineteenth-century art and culture critic, about the remnants of Venice’s golden age some centuries earlier.
This division covers most of the important things in history and culture – but not all.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell suggests the central importance of idols, a category not clearly within Ruskin’s tripartite classification. For instance, Elizabeth Windsor may represent the English nation – or some aspects of it – but she is neither a word, a deed nor a piece of art, and so the cultural assemblage surrounding her does not so neatly fit into Ruskin’s categories. Following Campbell’s line of thought, we may not only acquire a better understanding of England by learning about ‘the queen’, but perhaps we could also better understand the difference between England and the United States by comparing Windsor to the American celebrity who is famous only for being famous – Kim Kardashian.
With this ‘fourth book’ in mind, I would like to offer an analysis of one of our foremost idols. The person with the second greatest number of twitter followers and the fourth most googled in the world is Justin Bieber. In Twitter he is bracketed by Katy Perry (1) and President Obama (3), although Bieber’s feat is even more astounding, since his music has become, for some time, secondary to his police reports, making him one of the purest forms of celebrity.
Moreover, while he trails Perry by 1.5 million followers, he tweets at roughly five times her rate, making him possibly the most heard person in the world and the leading author of the digital age. During our epoch’s high noon of the idols, to shine as its true zenith is no slight accomplishment. Why does he so thoroughly enter our consciousness? The answer, I think, is that his story mirrors the greatest of all idols – Christ – while totally reversing the values of the Christ story.
Both Bieber and Christ are understood by the particularities of their conception and birth. We are told that Mary was impregnated by a profoundly ethereal act of God, thus avoiding the sin of bodily contact. The story is meant as evidence for Christ’s divine nature and his redemptive potential in the context of original sin. His birth was anointed by the heavens and wise men following this celestial map celebrated his corporeal entrance into our cosmos.
In the setting of modern celebrity, Bieber’s conception and birth are unusually central to his persona and narrative for both him and us. The tragic childhood of his mother, Pattie Mallette, led to drug abuse and a grim relationship with his father, Jeremy Bieber. While pregnant, Pattie was pressured to have an abortion or give her child up for adoption.
For both Jesus and Bieber, the narrative of conception and birth are central to their status as idols, although the content of the stories are nearly diametric oppositions.
The childhood, adolescence and adulthood of Bieber have often overshadowed his musical and professional output. Like Christ (and, unlike, say, Jay-Z), he is an idol who is both message and messenger, as evidenced by importance given to his biography in his first documentary Never Say Never (2011) and its sequel, the more poorly received Believe (2013). Bieber is a type of ‘revealed religion’ in which the actual unfolding of events leads to the truth in and behind the message.
So what are the elements of the Bieberian gospel that follow but reverse the key aspects of Christ’s narrative? Beyond conception, gestation and birth, the list is eerily long. During the first few years of Bieber’s celebrity, he was known for hypersexualisation of adolescence just as Christ’s desexualisation of adulthood was central to the Christian message. Christ was the abstract (god) made flesh while Bieber was flesh made abstract (digital) via his earliest medium – Youtube. Both were brought into the public consciousness by a senior figure bearing the name of their act: Christ was baptised by John ‘the Baptist’ (a name retroactively given) in an act of purification. Bieber was ‘ushered’ into popularity by Usher (a name that itself was a prolepsis). Christ could magically bring the dead to life by his presence; Bieber could kill while absent (a photographer was struck by a car while photographing Bieber’s Lamborghini). Christ kneels to wash the feet of his followers; Bieber spits on them from above. Christ warned rich men that their chances of getting into heaven were those of a camel passing through the eye of a needle – an alternative translation is that of a camel through a tiny gate in the walls of Jerusalem. Bieber, tired of walking, has his employees carry him on their shoulders to the top of the world’s greatest wall. Christ asks that we be our brother’s keepers while Bieber famously eggs his neighbors’ homes. Christ purifies the sullied while Bieber sullies the pure (Selena Gomez). Bieber turns water used to clean the world (a janitorial bucket) into a vessel of filth by urinating into it. Christ turns profane water into sacred wine. Christ redeems the sin of Adam who sought inappropriate knowledge whereas Bieber rescues the fallen star of Michael Jackson who sought inappropriate affection. When Christ got into trouble with the authorities, his Father forsakes him. When Bieber was caught driving on Xanax, he told the police he got the drug from his mom, thus forsaking her. Nonetheless, both have followers who carry their names: Christians and Beliebers.
In these vignettes, we see the following themes explored in pseudo-biographical narratives: sexuality and innocence; purity and profanity; the respect or disregard for others (especially those symbolically lower than one’s self); providence; the story of the progenitors; economic inequity; and the complexity of adult relationships between parent and child.
So what does all this mean? Do we still adhere to the same narrative devices and symbolic tropes during the fifteen centuries following Christ? Yes, to some extent, we do. We certainly remain interested, albeit unconsciously, in the narrative formula of Christ –even if (perhaps precisely) because the values displayed by Bieber and Christ are perfect contrasts.
Nonetheless, we are deeply confused in how we approach Bieber: we revel in how appalled we are by him and such a display is a relief for us. In an age of such cultural and moral ambiguity, we are so burdened by the search for the good that seeing the bad brings a reprieve and the possibility of existential decompression. This is the final inversion of the Christo-Bieberian narrative. In his own way, Bieber is a type of savior for the vagueness of the modern condition. In the words of Campbell: ‘if you are falling … dive’. As we experience communal vertigo, Bieber etches across our fourth book in our mother tongue.