The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson

THE ART OF
KEVIN BLYTHE SAMPSON

2/16/11

Brow Beat : How Worrisome is Bieber Fever?


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      How Worrisome is Bieber Fever?

      Last night's episode of Glee reminded us that the adorable, androgynous Justin Bieber is today's consummate peddler of baby-faced teen romance. If any current celebrity belonged on the cover of Lisa Simpson's beloved Non-Threatening Boys Magazine, it would be the Biebs.

      When he lost the Grammy for best new artist this weekend to jazz musician Esperanza Spalding, it was mostly pretty cute to see how personally his legion of fans took the news. Like in this video, which Conan O'Brien aired during his Bieber interview on Monday:

      (See more reaction videos here.)

      But lots of fans reacted in ways that seem less sweet than scary. Spalding's Wikipedia page was attacked that night, with one irate Bieber fan commanding the woman to "GO DIE IN A HOLE." Twitter lit up with vicious chatter in the same vein.

      The Spalding incident is just the latest in a string of Internet attacks on those who've been seen as threats to Bieber—or to Bieber fans themselves. Members of Bieber Nation tweeted death threats at Selena Gomez when Life & Style published photos of the tween stars kissing; Kim Kardashian got the same treatment when she tweeted a picture of her and Bieber hanging out in the Bahamas. Sydney Dalton, the non-famous girl who had the audacity to proclaim herself "over" Bieber in a YouTube video, was swiftly and savagely trashed online by incensed supporters.

      Bieber isn't the first teen idol to whip his young fans into a frothing mad frenzy, or the first to evoke an intense sense of proprietary feeling in roiling, adolescent hearts and minds. But he is one of the first huge teen pop stars whose career is unfolding entirely in the digital age—and that adds an interesting new wrinkle to the hysteria.

      The same things that have made cyberbullying a distinct phenomenon are at play here. It's so easy to shoot off a tweet or upload an angry YouTube video when you've been doing it all your life. And while the line between celebs and their followers grows (or seems to grow) thinner every day, soldiers in the Bieber Army don't really have clear senses of their targets: They may feel they are spitting their venom at Esperanza Spalding directly, but none of them actually had to look her in the eye as they were doing so. None of them, I imagine, believe that they will face any real consequences for their actions. (At the same time, unlike in previous generations—when those expressions of hatred would have stayed confined to, say, a diary—Spalding has to be aware of the evil and doom these kids are wishing upon her.) Add in the mighty, frightening force that is teenage emotion and the Internet's ability to turn a bunch of people at their computers into a Hydra-like mob, and you've got a pretty toxic soup.

      At the same time, you could argue that Bieber devotees are just acting out a key part of what it means to be a fan of something (if in a slightly deranged version). After all, fandom isn't just about celebration; it's also, ultimately, about competition—whether it's "my football team can crush your football team," or "I can name more obscure Bob Dylan B-sides than you can," or "I love Justin Bieber more than you do, and I'm going to PROVE IT." Plenty of us managed to outgrow our pre-adolescent passions and become relatively sane, normal adults.

      So is the nasty side of Bieber Fever something we should be worried about? Or is it just a bunch of kids going through a phase en masse, in public?

    Brow Beat : How Worrisome is Bieber Fever?