Where is Justin Bieber Now?

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The new Justin Bieber video, which recently hit one-hundred million views on Youtube, is astounding. It’s remarkable, really. Go watch it before we go on. It is proper art, I think, and it might be the only artful thing left for Justin to do (or at least for Justin’s team of persona-makers to do).

In the opening frames, the camera flies through an art gallery to see the trademarked Bieber being his trademarkable self in several of the photos on the gallery walls, crooning and staring into the lens, wetting his lips between lip-synced words, walking around an empty, backlit stage. None of this is interesting, I know. Typical pop music video material.

But once we are out of the first verse, the video begins to tell a story. The camera retreats from Bieber’s empty stage back into the gallery to find the space crowded with people, paint brushes in hand, marking on the frames of Justin dancing and winking. The next shot of Justin reveals that he is being literally consumed by this act, the paint creeping up and around his neck like a poison. Then the beat drops and Justin is bombarded with doodles, messages, colors, scratches, deformations, etc.–fully at the mercy of those with creative access to his video. Obviously, each frame only lasts for a split second, but these add up to a type of manic animation, engulfing and surrounding the idol.

The story, then, is that the director opened an event to the public wherein fans could stop by, grab a frame from the video, and draw whatever they wanted. This participation between the fans and the footage coincides with the aim of the song. For the description on Youtube, the artist collaborating with Bieber (Jack Ü) writes:

Justin wrote this record during a tough time in his life and it comes to us that sometimes, as artists, we are also just objects and we have to take that as much as we have to use that to create. We all do this for you, respect that you put us here and it’s Ü that made the video.

Here’s the thing: in a bold move, they’ve included every altered frame without an ounce of censorship. While many frames include doe-eyed letters to Bieber or snarky comments about his ex-girlfriend, others are downright offensive, depicting him as a clown or an instrument of the devil. There are a few middle-school-bathroom-stall phalluses in there too. Thanks to Youtube’s new slow-motion functionality, the video becomes infinitely more interesting to comb through with hopes of finding some hidden gems. There are several.

I don’t mean to claim that the video is art because of the comment it hopes to make on the dependency that these artists have on their fans (cf. the video description). In other words, the video probably isn’t artful in the way that it’s makers intend it to be. I mean to say the video is the perfect representation of who the contemporary pop superstar is and what he must become if he hopes to hold the attention of the public.

The public doesn’t want Bieber to say anything. We only want to use him as a platform, as an avatar for ourselves. If this video is evidence, he knows that, and knows the only way to keep people looking is to become faceless and in turn empty his celebrity status of whatever humanity or idiosyncratic meaning it had in the first place. The video is a depiction of pure celebrity. It typifies Bieber’s career–a career stitched together with a pretty face, platitudes, a great voice, more platitudes, and celebrity drama.

So, in the music video, we find the star as he truly is: dancing behind whatever adolescent projections might be thrown his way. Without those projections, what would he be?

Pop music is defined by its palatability. Contemporary top-forty radio has very little space for risks, and Bieber is the quintessential safe play for producers. Therefore, the burden rests on the tanning-bed-tanned shoulders of stars like Justin to be the smooth, vanilla voice void of any character or imperfections to please the masses. And he has come through. However, as time has told, the public can’t live on vanilla alone. Without personal drama to keep their names in the rumor mill, these stars fade decade to decade. It makes for an interesting balance: just enough ironed-out sugarcoating for mass-market consumption and just enough transgression to keep it from getting too boring. The career move is tired by now. Britney Spears, Chris Brown, Miley Cyrus. With this new video, though, there has been an interesting break in the cycle. While Bieber has had his fair share of personal drama, his imperfections have been laid bare within the bounds of his own art. His own music video testifies to his own imperfections. Not a tabloid, not a news release. His own music video points to his absurdity as an “artist,” and therefore possibly validates him as one, signalling a critical move toward self-awareness and truth in the midst of pop’s fantasy-world landscape.

One of the frames in particular captures the vulnerability of video. Right before the four-minute mark, Justin, who has his hands clasped in front of him, has been manipulated by the artist to look like a cartoon pimp with cane in hand and an orange top hat. Saintly gold rings emanate from behind him. In the ethereal smoke surrounding him, the fan working on this frame took the time to imagine a chilling letter from Bieber’s perspective. I’ll do my best to interpret the handwriting and record it here:

One day, kid, you can be a pimp like me, get mad biddies [girls] by snapping your fingers and people will take pictures of you on their cell phones and stuff when you are just trying to buy underwear or something but nah that ain’t true, cause you ain’t got scratch like me. You ain’t got dese precious baby blues and flat cut…abs with hip tats and all. Man, boy, you ain’t never gone be like me. I’m twenty-one and already can’t tell who finds me actually interesting and who is just talking to me because I’m famous now…

This is the second-to-last manipulated frame of the entire video. The last frame shows Justin in the same pose, but this time a halo floats above his head and his clasped hands are folded in prayer.

I don’t know if the lack of censorship is conscious…I don’t know who made the difficult, beautiful call to leave all manipulations to the frames, offensive or otherwise, intact, but I’m glad they did. It seems that, despite himself, Justin Bieber has said something important by permitting his output to undergo the influence of others. A bold but unwitting collaboration with a critical audience unlocked something truthful about what it means to lose art in the shadow of the celebrity-artist.

(See also the video for this current top-ten hit by The Weeknd, where the singer is burned alive to grab the attention of a disinterested audience.)

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