Corey Heiferman

Justin Bieber, Martyr


ISSUE 60 | SEE AMERICA | JAN 2016

Dullness is always an irresistible temptation for brilliancy, and stupidity is the permanent Bestia Trionfans that calls wisdom from its cave. To an artist so creative as the critic, what does subject matter signify?—Wilde, “The Critic as Artist”

Abstract

The most revered young man since Antinous, Justin Bieber is a self-declared Christian of the Hillsong denomination, frequent reciter of the "Shema," and author of penitential lyrics. Bieber’s acolytes are called “Beliebers.” Belieberism's sole rival is Footballism, though only if the USA and International sects are counted together. Thus, Bieber would interest William James almost as much as Henry.

Justin Bieber will soon “see America” yet again on his "Purpose" tour through the continent. Will he conclude each performance by levitating himself and crying for our sins, as he did at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards? Or must we rely on YouTube’s low-res testimony of this miracle?

McLuhanist Gibberish

In this age of the pocket-telescreen, our Superstar lives differ from Bieber’s not in kind, but degree. We poperoticize each other and ourselves. We have realized not only Andy Warhol’s prediction of 15-minute fame, but also the dreams of Huey Long and Hamlet: Each of us is indeed a king, over infinite space in the palms of our hands. We are not Global Villagers, but petty posers. We gossip and are gossiped about on a scale and with a permanence that the Sun King could only have dreamed of. Nous sommes tous Justin.

Liner Notes for Purpose:
The Movement (songs and videos)

A Miniature Kuzari: Some Perspectives on the Cover Art

Pitchfork Cognoscenti: A bad breakup and brushes with the law humble a teen idol into a straight-edge phase. So predictable. What’s next?

Appreciators of male and butch beauty: …

Mystics: Are those ankhs? If so, what do they signify? If not, what are they?

Daesh Mujahideen: It is the will of Allah that this Kafir be captured, castrated, and brought to the Caliph’s harem in otherwise unharmed condition.

Scholastics: This naked heathen has adopted some Christian icons and observances, yet he locates the source of Purpose not in Heaven, but in the bilious region between the heart and genitals.

Aesthetes: A vain, jealous angel aspired to the form of Christ. He sought the aid of the second-oldest profession: personal training. He is gradually morphing into the form of Anti-Christ.

Tattoo Artists and Hair Stylists: Where can I find this in high-res?

Talmudists: Assuming he is a Jew, ought he to recite the second verse of the “Shema” in an undertone like a man, or aloud like an angel?

Christian laypeople: As Saint Paul would say, all publicity is good publicity.

Jewish laypeople: It gets cold at night in the desert. Isn’t he scared he’ll freeze his little tuchas off?

Mark My Words

This conversion narrative would have gotten Justin shunned by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and heckled by Alcoholics Anonymous, but would likely qualify as Recorded Ministry in the Society of Friends. He begins not with the penitent “I’m Justin Bieber, and I’m a sinner/alcoholic,” but with the mesmeric, “I could just…I could feel people’s energy.” It’s all about what he felt, never what he did or said. The most memorable line, “trying to rekindle lust” comes out of a scandalously frank brochure for an evangelical couples retreat. In a nod to Dalí’s “Necrophiliac Fountain Flowing from a Grand Piano,” he stands alone atop a piano in the desert. Burning Man has failed to resolve Davos Man’s problems.

White people in American pop music are all inevitably what Norman Mailer would call “white Negros.” Even so, Justin’s Auto-Tune scatting is the aural equivalent of Al Jolson’s minstrel paint.

I’ll Show You

Justin plays Frodo on the last leg of his journey. We, the multitude who at last count have watched this video 109,970,947 times, hound Our Precious over crag, rill, and dale via surveillance drone. The lyrics are Bieber’s best on the album, and could be the words Christ wrote in an apocryphal diary just burnt by Daesh:

My life is a movie and everyone's watching
So let's get to the good part and past all the nonsense
Sometimes it's hard to do the right thing
When the pressure's coming down like lightning
It's like they want me to be perfect
When they don't even know that I'm hurting
This life's not easy, I'm not made out of steel
Don't forget that I'm human, don't forget that I'm real
Act like you know me, but you never will
But that's one thing that I know for sure
I'll show you

These words fit our imagination of what it feels like to be Justin. Omnipresent cameras and social media perpetually watch and judge us. When viewing the video alone on an intimate device, we almost feel like we’re with him in Iceland and can understand. Yet every viewing adds one more click to the YouTube tally, further enhancing Jusin’s fame and worsening his alienation. Justin can never find closure like Frodo, and seems stuck in Romantic brooding like Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” He escapes by merging into the sea like Venus on rewind.

This song would likely have made Dave Wallace’s do-rag wet. I could imagine him writing an essay called “Artifice and Sincerity in the Age of Auto-Tune.” I can be sure of only two things about such a lofty topic:

1. Cher’s “Believe” is one of the few works of human art likely to resonate with the transhuman AI civilization that will someday supersede ours.
2. Tisch-trained Lady Gaga’s ability to carry a tune has condemned her to a Catskills act with Tony Bennet at the ripe age of twenty-nine.

Calvin Klein placement is a given with Justin, but the glacial bathing scenes are a bona fide ad. Given Justin’s metaphysical preoccupations and 20-something-inch waist, I suspect he wears 2(x)ist when off-duty.

What Do You Mean?

“So you really wanted to say …” – We use this phrase in order to lead someone from one form of expression to another. One is tempted to use the following picture: what he really ‘wanted to say’, what he ‘meant’, was already present in his mind even before we articulated it.”—Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 334, tr. Anscombe, Hacker, Schulte

The first time I listened to this song, it reminded me of Wittgenstein. After listening scores of times, it became, for me, the very essence of Wittgenstein. The lyrics play many kinds of language-games, two of which I’ll discuss.

First, what I’ll arbitrarily call the Red Language Game, in which the listener understands the opposite of what s/he hears, but pretends not to understand:

What do you mean?
When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no
What do you mean?
When you don't want me to move
But you tell me to go

Second, what I’ll arbitrarily call the Blue Language Game, in which syntax breaks down into nonsense:

You’re so indecisive, what I’m saying
Tryna catch the beat, make up your heart
Don’t know if you’re happy or complaining
Don’t want for us to end, where do I start?

[…]

You’re overprotective when I’m leaving
Trying to compromise but I can’t win
You want to make a point, but you keep preaching
You had me from the start, won’t let this end?

While “make up your mind” is a common expression, what is it to “make up your heart?” Is the speaker, the person addressed, or both parties unaware of whether the person addressed “is happy or complaining?” Why must happiness and complaining be mutually exclusive? Are the folks in the Woody Allen joke necessarily unhappy while they complain about how the food is bad and the portions are small? How could there be an “us” that can end when “I” has yet to start? Don’t people preach precisely because they want to make a point, and the most important point in the world at that?

The sonus ex machina on this and the other radio-worthy tracks was arranged by Skrillex and Diplo, who as a duo go by Jack Ü, which sounds like either a friggin’ school for libertines or a substance banned by Major League Baseball. Jack Ü is the Pixar to Bieber’s Disney. Their great innovation on this album is a sound halfway between the toot of a water organ and the whinny of a porpoise.

The video tries to show what lesbians actually do in bed – tease each other with grants and refusals of consent until the Eyes Wide Shut cult shows up and shit gets real. Is that a mastectomy scar on the left of Justin’s chest at 1:21?

Lives are saved by a giant blow-up cushion. Much merriment ensues at a warehouse party. Everybody but Justin performs skateboard tricks. Somewhere off-camera Lena Dunham is making a fool of herself.

Sorry

Is this apology addressed to ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez? To the inhabitants of the jurisdictions in which Bieber has been caught breaking the law? To everyone he’s ever hurt? To everyone on Earth? To God?

There are two official music videos of note, one that I’ll call the “main” video and the other titled the “lyric video.”

Main Video

This video has no connection whatsoever to the song’s lyrics. Rather, it one-ups Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” just as “One Less Lonely Girl” surpassed “You Belong with Me.” ”The background is Apple® white instead of matte grey, and the Gold Diggers of 2014 have fully given way to the Twerkers of the Millennium. They can use “boo” and “bae” with the perfect level of irony. They consume Facebook and Twitter, delight in SnapChat and Instagram, and are intoxicated by Vine. Caveat microagressor.

Lyric Video

This is the kind of tasteful gimmick Korean MFA students submit to film festivals. It dramatizes what texting will be like whenever Google Glass catches on, or simply the feeling of walking through space but thinking about text messages. Clever camera tricks include fun with mirrors and a Warlock of Oz melting down from an Ice Bucket Challenge. The textual messages on all available surfaces brought on nostalgia for Ghostwriter on PBS.

Love Yourself

The track opens with Justin’s spoken answer to that question asked so incessantly by Haddaway and answered so creatively by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium: “What is love?” I transcribe:

“It’s all based off of love. I mean, love isn’t ‘do this for me and I’m gonna do this for you’—that’s not what love is. Love is just I’m gonna do this for you because I wanna do this for you.”

“Baby don’t hurt me,” will do for our purposes; dialectic never ends.

Two key translations from Hillsong Biblecampseak to Vernacular English:

“my momma don’t like you” = “you motherfucker”
“you should go and love yourself” = “go fuck yourself”

The video comes to a promising start with what could be a trans* Pacific partnership in bed, one member hogging blanket, the other wearing socks with stripes matching the bedside lamps. Then, a cis straight lovers’ quarrel plays out in a semaphore that looks like C-3PO doing Tai Chi. This represents the biggest gig for Benny Blanco and Matza Ball Productions since Drake’s Bar Mitzvah.

Company

The sex-striking women of Chiraq take a vacation to Universal Studios, Hollywood. Alternatively, a bouncer has taken the “ratio” concept into the undefined territory of division by zero. The album’s second video depiction of lesbians in bed is a writhing hotel suite orgy seemingly sponsored by Victoria’s Secret. Champion places its product brilliantly, with the trademark “C” enlarged by several orders of magnitude.

No Pressure

Justin could effortlessly sell most anyone a used car, but proves his ability to mix hard and soft sell techniques.

You ain't gotta make your mind up
You ain't gotta make your mind up right now
Right now, don't rush, no pressure

Big Sean’s plodding flow is redeemed by the single most misogynist line in the history of rap: “You supposed to be my uno Yoko Ono.” In a single phrase the speaker raises himself to the level of a demigod and lowers the addressee to the level of a Gorgon.

The video is the album’s weakest, featuring the frigid dance style of “Love Yourself” on an empty soundstage.

No Sense

The “Sorry” Main Video dance troupe has traded their school clothes and whiteout background for blue-collar chic runway fashion and tinted lights. The song doesn’t make any sense. Travi$ Scott’s lines are doggerel set to Auto-Tune.

The Feeling

The feeling evoked is Tinder melancholy. This is the song that comes on between last call and the deployment of floodlights and bouncers. You’re half drunk and half hung over. The stench of the person in your arms lacks pheromones. The nearest Über is forty minutes away and costs seven times as much as usual. Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” fills a similar niche. Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High)” isolates the despair of contemporary life with an intensity of Swedish Lutheran resignation unheard since ABBA’s “SOS.”

In the video, Justin is roughed up at the end of a warehouse party with choreography best described as a poor man’s Pina. He convalesces with nitrous hits in a ratty but comfy chair re-used from the Marc by Marc Jacobs Men’s Spring 2015 promo video.

Halsey, a rising star, is featured on vocals. Do she and Drake have a thing for admirals?

Life is Worth Living

This song has undoubtedly saved the life of at least one true Belieber, but is so unbearable as to hasten the demise of a true Aesthete. The video shows that life’s still worth living if you’re a fabulously talented dancer not nearly as gorgeous as Justin. This kind of stuff destroyed Donny Osmond.

Where are Ü Now?

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?—The Gospel According to Matthew, 27:46

Like I said, you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.—Bieber, 9/15 interview with Complex magazine

This Song of Experience compliments “Baby,” Justin’s quintessential Song of Innocence. He’s dressed and made up like his younger self, but has recognized his loss as deep and irrevocable. It’s no longer just puppy love.

Jack Ü pulls out all the stops with their signature cetacean squeal and a cacophony of skips, bleeps, and beats--a sort of gateway drug for the kids who can’t yet handle Aphex Twin.

The video is High Art in both the Whitney Biennial and Vape + FinalCut senses of the term. A hip gallery party encourages attendees to scribble all over photos of Justin, who is doused in a strobing torrent of cultural effluvia. The concluding melanomic money shot is sure to please Justin’s gentleman admirers.

Children

American kids have become too gluttonous to trick-or-treat for UNICEF, but are down with a dance-a-thon. Their militarist gyrations and fist-pump salutes give us a sneak preview of what a Trump Youth formation might look like. Telethonish lyrics and saccharine sampling will make for a sure hit at LGBT charity galas.

Purpose

You know people definitely don’t buy albums anymore when the title track is the last and worst.

Pope Emeritus Benedict must be a Belieber at heart. What could he make of the Parable of Taco Bell, or of the following, most memorable line of this track?

“I’m not giving myself Grace. I’m just understanding how it is.”

The video returns to the post-Burning Man scene from “Mark My Words.” A group of scantily robed dancers have missed their helicopter back to San Jose, and approach Justin eagerly but not ravenously. Are they Mary Magdalene’s friends, Satanic temptations, drugged Beliebers, fever visions of Selena Gomez? What is their Purpose?

Additional Viewing (In No Particular Order)

“Same Old Love” by Selena Gomez

While all of the tracks on “Purpose” feel like they were “assembled,” this one feels like it was “thrown down.” The lyrics resonate both with Selena’s sassy graduated Disney Channel fans and with Zumba class Mesdames Bovary. The digital Vocorder steals the show a bit after the three minute mark

Note the contrast between Justin’s “missin’ more than just your body” lyric from “Sorry” and Selena’s “I’m so sick of that same old love. My body’s had enough.” The Son of the Great Awakening and the Daughter of the Sexual Revolution have irreconcilable differences indeed.

Spanish Inquisition, Part 1

The hosts of the Spanish radio program 40 Principales asked Justin to explain what he’s sorry for, and conjectured that he might be sorry “for being a superstar.” He responded (my transcription): “No--It’s just a broad term. Just of like whatever you guys wanna interpret it as. Um, basically it’s nothing serious or anything, not like a specific person. It’s just for, for everyone.” Thus spake the Bard of Stratford (Ontario).

The Inquisitors continued with interrogatories about his “disco” habits, understanding of women, and ability to dress himself. He walked out of the interview just before the nine-minute mark so the YouTube video wouldn’t turn into a re-make of The Passion of Joan of Arc. The interview is conducted in Spanish and translated into English.

Spanish Inquisition, Part 2

The hosts of Spain’s off-the-wall El Hormiguero TV show bring Justin to what they claim is the largest indoor sand castle ever constructed. Then, they give him the privilege of dynamiting it. Keynes would be proud of such a stimulus program in a country with close to 50% youth unemployment.

In other segments (easily found on YouTube), the hosts give Justin a water-jet hoverboard, have him choose two lucky Beliebers to play a game of pin-the-tattoo-on-the-Justin, bring out their creepy insectoid puppet friends, and ask probing questions similar to those of their counterparts on 40 Principales. Justin looks confused and more than a bit frustrated during these proceedings. He takes his feelings out on the audience by chiding them about their off-time clapping that accompanies his off-key singing of “What Do You Mean.”

This is Justin’s third career appearance on El Hormiguero. His changes in demeanor through the three appearances make for a fine demonstration of his professional and personal development. Everything is in Spanish, but there’s more than enough going on for those who don’t understand the words.

The Wounded Console Each Other

Jimmy Fallon, wounded from a freak finger accident asks Justin about his VMA breakdown. Justin rambles in a self-pitying fashion. The two agree that harnesses are uncomfortable. In a stark contrast to his Iberian humiliations, Justin “wins” a drumming contest with Questlove.

Sk8er Boi Wannabe Epic Fail

Justin can be just as angst-ridden and alone on the streets of Manhattan as in remote Iceland (“I’ll Show You”). In an impromptu sidewalk appearance, he repeatedly fails to execute a simple skateboard flip. A crowd gathers and breaks out into a mixture of encouragement and hysteria. You can feel the camera-holder’s jaw drop. A young man with a New Jersey accent insists to a bodyguard that his autism irresistibly draws him closer to Justin. This is literally the best show on Broadway and better than anything you’ll see at the nearby Museum of Modern Art, which has become a reliquary for Yoko Ono tchotchkes. Try as he may, Bieber will never land tricks like Sk8er Boi, nor quarter-tone trills like Avril Lavigne.

Mention of the Unmentionable

A paparazzo caught Justin nude by a swimming pool on Bora Bora. I see no need to post a link here. What was Justin doing alone by a chlorinated pool when he could have been frolicking in the sea with Gauguin’s progeny?

In the video, Justin discusses the fallout with interviewers Zach & Sang. He claims that the Beliebers have named his member “Jerry,” and that his father’s public response of “what do you feed that thing?” was perfectly normal.

Carl the (Hillsong Pentecostal) Baptist

And John bore record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he who baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bore record that this is the Son of God.”—The Gospel According to Saint John, 1: 32-36

I attended a Sunday service at the New York branch of the Hillsong megachurch a few years before Justin became a member. It was a night club open in the day time with no drugs or alcohol and a voluntary cover charge called a “collection”. I declined the Kool-Aid and Oreos that were offered as communion. All I’d like to say here about Justin’s involvement with the church can be connected to this photo with New York pastor Carl Lentz.

At first glance, this picture looks like it was confiscated in the Department of Homeland Security’s raid on Rentboy.com, a male escort website.

I’m sure Pastor Lentz would like to “imagine all the people” attending his church and paying him tithes, but does he really want his flock to “imagine there’s no heaven”?

Dianne Keaton is a Belieber

Keaton opens her appearance on The Ellen Show by kvetching about her root canal and pushing her eponymous red wine, which she herself drinks over ice. Her long-winded explanation of why she is or isn’t a “cougar” is mercifully interrupted by Justin’s entrance from backstage. Justin’s mere presence elicits an Orgasmatron reaction from Keaton. How far she’s come from Manhattan, where her character found Wallace Shawn, patron saint of the nebbishes, “devastating” Justin and Ellen could pass as twins in Middle America, or as a lesbian couple in Northampton, MA.

A Policeman’s Lot

Intake procedures are routine yet not routine when Bieber’s brought into a Miami jail on a suspected DUI. I recommend this as musical accompaniment to the silent video.

What do you Really Mean?

I am not alone in attributing deep significance to “What Do You Mean.” The conspiracy theory outlined in this video makes the “Paul is dead” interpretation of “Revolution 9” seem quaint and insignificant by comparison.

Advice from an Elder

In a 2011 interview, Donny Osmond estimates that Justin has two to three years left on top and warns that “you have to go to hell and back” as an aging teen idol.

Two Dreams

1. I hope to produce an adaptation of Dante’s Inferno set in Las Vegas and starring Bieber as the Pilgrim, Donny Osmond as Virgil, Selena Gomez as Beatrice, and Sheldon Adelson as Satan. Unfortunately, the time has passed for a Huckleberry Finn adaptation starring Bieber and Usher.

2. I once feared that Justin was fated to the decay of Willie Hughes or Donny Osmond, and perhaps even to the infamy of Michael Jackson. With his reformation in progress, I have high hopes that he’ll instead enjoy a fate closer to Prince Hal’s. His countrymen have already elected a lookalike Justin Prime Minister. Mark my words: when his bangs are gone he’ll be the Right Honorable Sir Justin Bieber, Governor General of Canada.