Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would find ourselves writing an article about Justin Bieber – especially since we have never featured ANY of his music on our radio station ever since we launched back in early 2007. It is highly unlikely that we will feature any music by him UNLESS he starts creating music that stands on its own as opposed to on the huge and imposing shoulders of the media machine that has plastered his face on every piece of advertising “real estate” (including the music award shows in the US). This article is inspired by the “booing incident” aimed at Justin Bieber at the most recent Billboard Music Awards held in Las Vegas. Some people felt it was well deserved. Others feel sorry in light of Justin Bieber being a 19-year old. We do not want to take a stand on whether he deserved it or not. We just want to explore the dimensions that may have led to this somewhat embarrassing incident.
Every decade has had its share of “child stars” that are essentially “created” by media machines with the sole purpose of exploiting a relatively untapped market. Sometimes, these child stars are solo artists. Sometimes, they are boybands and/or girlbands that churn out largely lightweight and forgettable pop that fails to stay relevant past the prime of the artists/groups that create them. The relatively untapped market in almost all of the cases is the teen and pre-teen market that require not only music aimed exclusively at them but someone to idolize in their own age group. In the late 80s, New Kids On The Block served this demographic, and being the only conventional boyband around at the time, they had a “100% share of voice” for this market. In the 90s, in the world outside the US, British boybands Take That and East 17 split the teen and pre-teen music market in two. In the late 90s, the Backstreet Boys and N Sync split the market. Of course, they also had to share that music space with Britney Spears. Hence, child or teen stars have been a fairly regular fixture for generations. There is nothing new about their existence. Given this reality, why is the negative sentiment that revolves around Justin Bieber so intense? Here are some of the reasons which combined together might explain the negative sentiment (outside of his core fanbase of course).
Artist/Song Fatigue: There is data that indicates that terrestrial radio plays a substantially lower variety of artists and songs today than it did prior to consolidation in the radio industry (i.e. 4 conglomerates taking over 80% of the radio stations in the country and removing local DJs from the playlist programming process). This phenomenon has led to songs being overplayed in a given day thus leading to “song fatigue” or “artist fatigue”. Justin Bieber’s artist fatigue extends beyond the realms of terrestrial radio. Very often, he pops up in the pre-roll video advertising that is shown right before the videos many of us choose to watch on Youtube. American Award shows, which in recent years have become a television extension of US terrestrial radio’s limited artist showcase, also do their bit to give viewers an overdose of Justin Bieber. This is not unusual for child stars. It never has been. Hence, artist/song fatigue alone cannot be a compelling reason for the negative sentiment against Justin Bieber.
Displacing veteran and adult artists in favor of child stars: In the past, child stars and adult artists were able to co-exist just fine. Each set of artists catered to their respective demographic and the music ecosystem (at least the promotional part of it) survived just fine. What is different in the case of Justin Bieber is that he is thrust in the face of millions of peope that DO NOT fall in the teen/pre-teen demographic. It gets worse when his music and image is overexposed AT THE EXPENSE of those of adult or veteran artists (who arguably have a wider demographic owing to their music transcending generational boundaries). People that do not care for his brand of music are made painfully aware of him at the expense of their awareness about artists or bands that might actually cater to their tastes. One might even say Justin Bieber is given a disproportionately high “share of voice” even among music listening demographics that he absolutely does not belong to. This dimension is probably where most of the bitterness towards Bieber stems from.
The perceived lack of humility: Bieber’s acceptance speech for the “Milestone award” (a newly created award) at the Billboard Music Awards sparked the booing from the audience. His exact words were:
“I’m 19 years old, I think I’m doing a pretty good job and basically, from my heart, I really wanna say it should really be about the music. It should be about the craft, the craft that I’m making.”
I am sure the words “pretty good job” and “craft that I’m making” alone acted like the icing on the “cake of resentment” that has built up with the first two dimensions we addressed above. Bieber undoubtedly came off as arrogant – when in reality, his real mistake was probably being delusional – a basic human weakness in people of all ages – not just 19-year olds. Anyone with a fanbase as large as his would interpret the response to his music and persona as being positive and serve as a validation of whatever it is that Bieber is creating. Hence, it is understandable that he thought he was doing a “pretty good job”. He should have just kept that thought to himself.
For better or for worse, Justin Bieber is the face of a pervasive media machine for whom he is merely a puppet. His only crime in this situation is being delusional and broadcasting that weakness on television while accepting an award (i.e. The “milestone” awards) whose name would suggest that it belongs to an artist that transcends generational boundaries through his or her music. He is only responding to the feedback he gets, which from his large target demographic is largely positive.
In the grander scheme of things, we really hope that artists like Justin Bieber are not put in a position where they get a disproportionate slice of the spotlight. It is not good for the music industry or for music consumption. Neither is it good for artists like Justin Bieber in the long run. They will suffer from burnout and will always be remembered as the “stars” that the media forcibly thrust on people. We do not hate Bieber. The decisions he makes are those that any of us in his position would make. People need to isolate him from the media machine whose muscle he is riding on. The media machine is the real culprit here – not Bieber. Interestingly enough, every decade and every generation will have a Bieber-like figure. This figure will have scores of fans as well as detractors. Years under the spotlight will give them enough credibility to be a part of “nostalgia-based” television shows once they have passed their prime. We just hope this breed of “artist” does not become the predominant one in the commercial sphere of musicians. It is a self-defeating phenomenon – one that will undermine the sacred art form of music.
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