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Music Bed - Justin Bieber
I didnât watch the 2015 VMAs. It wasnât because of indifference, nor was it some sort of personal stand against award shows/what they represent. There was just something more entertaining on TV for me that night. However, I did follow the VMAs through my Twitter feed while the bigger screen in front of me was occupied by not-Miley-Cyrus.
What Do You Mean
Experiencing an event through only live tweets is interesting because the commentary is inherently biased. Like a first-person narrative, you need to evaluate the narrator and understand their perspective to come to a valid conclusion about the surroundings. But the important distinction to this literary analogy is that the Twitter user has chosen their own narrators for the story. You willingly followed your friends, favorite celebrities, humor accounts, and journalists. In doing so, youâve already become acquainted with the narrators of each 140-character story: Celebrity X has had some of the funniest tweets youâve ever read, so-and-so is a high school acquaintance that retweets those annoying faux Wiz Khalifa accounts, Mr. Journalist has written some insightful articles you agree with, you take that one friendâs words with a grain of salt because they drink Kanye West haterade. The Twitter narrator is seen through a filter that reflects the followerâs preconceived opinions of that narrator. And human nature suggests that these people are likely to share similar views to the follower.
This results in a personally tailored experience that is easy to forget is a tailored experience. For a while during the VMA bonanza, I forgot that my timeline was biased, so everything was fitting into my preconceived notions. Kanye West is awesome, Justin Bieber does dumb things with his hair, cultural appropriation has manifest itself in human form through Miley Cyrus, etc. Aside from taking the time to watch Kanye's beautiful speech, I had formed my opinions on the VMAs without actually seeing more than six second Vines of the show. Obviously, a lot of the experience was lost on me.
When I returned to Twitter the next day, I came across something I missed the night before: Justin Bieber cried! As a longstanding Non-Belieber, this was obviously important to me in some weird, petty sort of way. Expecting to come out of it with more Biebz ammunition, I ignored my disdain for celebrity gossip headlines and tapped on the crybieber video.
After toying with the idea of skipping to the end for the waterworks, I decided to watch the full thing because it was only five minutes long and I actually like that Jack Ã "Where Are Ã Now" song. In my head, I made fun of his awkward Eminem hand gestures during the slow intro, and cringed when he tried to whip (luckily the camera panned to Rebel Wilson mid-whip so we weren't subject to the full thing).
But at the same time I also had to appreciate the fact that he clearly wasn't lip syncing most of the song despite the exhaustive choreography of the performance. Even a light jog forces my attempt at singing to sound more like someone mouth-breathing too loudly over the phone than anything that resembles a melody, so I respected the fact that he held his own while flailing his limbs around for consecutive minutes.
Then something odd happened. I realized he had switched to a different song. I also realized that I really liked the new song he was playing. This immediately launched me into internal crisis Code Red, because I liked a Justin Bieber song.
For starters, I tried to rationalize my knee-jerk self disgust by recognizing it as elitist bias. Pop music in general is often looked down on, and relegated to a "guilty pleasure" rather than something truly enjoyed by anyone over the age of 15. While a lot of warranted criticism can and is made of heavily manufactured, commercialized sound that panders to the masses for profit rather than art's sake, this criticism tends to foment full blown "rockism." This bias was effectively defined by Kelefa Sanneh in his 2004 New York Times article "The Rap Against Rockism":A rockist is someone who reduces rock ânâ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.The argumentative/dismissive nature of rockism is what makes it such a controversial and uncompromising bias. Rockism is part of the reason why family members expressed their concern for my health when I told them I liked a Justin Bieber song. It's also part of the reason why my roommate recently refused to acknowledge Carly Rae Jepson's "Call Me Maybe" as a fantastic song from our formative years.
There's a lot to dislike about bubblegum pop and its hooks that often veer quickly from "catchy" to "annoying." But it's also important to form your own opinion on the quality of the music, and not to dismiss something as inferior just because it is pop.
Quality modern pop music exists, whether it is a bit disingenuous at times or not. Justin Timberlake and BeyoncÃ© are two of the most talented artists in the world. Depending on your perspective, Taylor Swift may be a calculating, walking PR stunt, or an angelic role model, but either way 1989 is good. Carly Rae Jepson's Eâ¢MOâ¢TION is a fun, catchy album. Ryn Weaver's The Fool is an impressive debut from an incredibly talented artist, whether or not Benny Blanco, Charli XCX, Michael Angelakos, and Cashmere Cat support from the get-go caused some "industry plant" speculation and labels. But at the end of the day, this paragraph is essentially my opinion.
And, at the end of Bieber's performance, my opinion was that "What Do You Mean" seemed to be a *gulp* good song. I took to Spotify for the CDQ version and, yep, I liked a Justin Bieber song. Now, I had liked Bieber songs before, but "Where Are Ã Now" was really Skrillex and Diplo's track, right? "Confident" was a great song, but I mostly listened to it for Chance The Rapper's verse, right? "Baby" was funny to listen to ironically a couple times, but it's actually just annoying, right?
Naturally, I decided to look around on some music blogs I frequent to see if they had an opinion on Bieber's recent output. Pitchfork predictably had next to nothing on Biebz, aside from when other artists mentioned/mocked him and a begrudging review of "Where Are Ã Now" in two paragraphs (Not that I was expecting them to do as they were depicted in Portlandia for JB). Pigeons & Planes' last three articles mentioning him were his Comedy Central roast, potentially working with producer/icon Rick Rubin, and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys calling Biebz a "fucking moron." PopMatters hasn't written about him since 2013. Stereogum, though, had a post on "What Do You Mean," calling it "just a straight-up great song, no qualifiers necessary." (I'm not alone!!!)
However, Pitchfork's aforementioned review of "Where Are Ã Now" is written in a key perspective, one that takes into account the artist as a human being. The very first sentence of Ryan Dombal's review is "I am not a Belieber" while the rest of the first paragraph calls Bieber a "scourge" and notes how the author "experienced casual schadenfreude every time he was skewered on TMZ." These qualifications and one hundred other words come up before the song is even mentioned, at which point the opinion of the music seems to be positive, but never goes further than calling it "unexpected in all the best ways."
At its best, Pitchfork is a knowledgable source for (generally) good music, and reviews that offer a good learning experience. At its worst, it's a hive of self-important writers dabbling in elitism and pretension. And though public opinion often considers Bieber in a similar light as Dombal, outside of three sentences that address the song, the review wasn't much more helpful than someone telling you "yeah, it's actually pretty good" after a deep sigh and hand wringing. After all, even if they did publish Meredith Graves' insightful piece noting the actual "emotional abuse" in the Sun Kil Moon/War On Drugs fiasco, they certainly didn't consider Kozelek's curmudgeonly temperament when they forwarded Benji to "Best New Music."
That's not to say artist personality doesn't factor into the enjoyment of an artist's work, it just calls for the question of whether or not it should. Take President-to-be Kanye West, who is reviled in many circles for his ego and unfiltered outbursts. It all came full circle at the 2015 VMAs during his heartfelt, unscripted Video Vanguard acceptance monologue on remorse for the infamous T-Swift mic grab, the love he has for his daughter, confusion with award shows in general, and more. Yet, some still managed to take a moment of honesty and sincerity, and spin it out as "insane" or "ridiculous," as if any of them would know how to convey such complicated emotions to millions of viewers. Even through genuinely likable moments, his reputation is forever tarnished in the minds of many, and that vehement hatred spews over into opinion on his music. "Haters" can be found pontificating in comment sections across the internet, but none are so brash as those about Kanye West. A favorite cry of such justice warriors is to denounce the fact that West's creations are even "music" (LOL!), as if its definition could be manipulated. Meanwhile, blatant racism runs rampant, disguised by musical opinion, as if those speaking on his music had even given it a chance.
Inevitably, assholes pepper the entertainment industry. Kanye West is not one of them. It may be too early to label Bieber as one given the extreme pressure of fame at such a young age, but his petulant past is far too extensive to worry about reserving judgement. As he works toward an image revitalization, his art and his character should be treated as two distinct entities.
In the modern age, social media, blogs, and pundits tell people what to think of what artists are trying to show at such an alarming rate that it's easy to forget to discern opinion from fact, and normal to parade recitation of opinionated content as your own mindset. If I've learned anything from not watching the VMAs, it's that a collection of other people's thoughts/tweets on a subject does not an experience make. "Be a free thinker, and listen for yourself."
I don't like Justin Bieber. I like some of his music.