Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Dr. Justinlove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bieb

On 9/11, I learned an important lesson: that I can’t protect my children from terrorists. Even before that, however, I learned that I couldn’t protect them from popular culture. Sometimes, I wonder which is worse.

My older daughter, Hannah, was almost five on 9/11. I had tried hard to keep bad influences from her. The worst of the bad influences, to my way of thinking, were Raffi, the singer of insipid children’s songs, and Barney, the dinosaur most in need of extinction. Musically, I raised her on a diet of Peter, Paul & Mary, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles: music that wasn’t jarring but yet was fulfilling. I sang her to sleep with gentle, kid-friendly songs by legitimate writers, such as Kenny Loggins’ “House at Pooh Corner”, Paul Williams’ “Rainbow Connection”, and Bob Thiele’s “What a Wonderful World”. On nights when she outlasted my usual repertoire, I sang a lentissimo version of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.”

But there was only so much I could do. At school, she learned Raffi’s “Baby Beluga”; from classmates, she found out about Barney. Though as she grew older we shared a love of singing soundtracks from musicals such as Grease, Wicked, and Hairspray, as a teenager she has become an avid listener of top 40 stations, and the strains of Rihanna, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Brittney Spears, Pink, Bruno Mars, et al, comprise the sum total of her listening interests.

Unintentionally but perhaps not without reason, I had a second daughter, Stella, 10 years after Hannah was born. Once again, I tried to manage her exposure to popular culture. But just as Hannah grew up faster than did girls of my generation, Stella is growing up even faster than Hannah. I never even got to the Beatles with Stella. She wants to listen to what her sister listens to. And so she has become, at the tender age of six, a fan of Justin Bieber.

Though she hasn’t asked for a Justin Bieber backpack, she has pointed out with some degree of envy a classmate decked out in full Bieberphile gear. And on a recent trip to the library, Stella insisted we borrow the Bieber documentary Never Say Never. I insisted she watch it with headphones on. She insisted I watch it with her. Because I love my daughter, I didn’t refuse her. But now I wish I had, though not for the reason you might think.

I remember years ago when Marilyn Manson was all the rage – and I do mean rage. Everywhere he performed, there were protests. Many of his shows were cancelled because local parents and authorities thought there would be violence or some kind of satanic ritual. I hadn’t heard Manson’s music and being apathetic to the whole situation, I tended to side with the censors, assuming there was nothing particularly worthwhile with his music anyway. Then I happened to catch a newsmagazine show in which the Manson mania was being investigated. I saw him, heard him, saw clips of his performance, and said, “Oh, he’s just updating the Alice Cooper thing. Completely harmless entertainment. Those parents and authorities are idiots.”

The same sort of thing attended any thoughts I may previously have had about Justin Bieber. That his music is not made for me is obvious, but his type – the young white teenybopper playing bubble gum love songs to young girls on the cusp of puberty – is something that comes along every generation. In my own youth, the role had been filled by the likes of David Cassidy, Donny Osmond, Leif Garrett, Andy Gibb, and Shaun Cassidy. At the worst, these teen idols were responsible for some exceedingly disposable pop music (and, I must admit, the occasional guilty pleasure, such as the Partridge Family’s “Echo Valley 2-6809”).

At their best, however, I always thought such music was a gateway drug of sorts. Before young girls got fascinated by the teen idols, they probably had little interest in music, little awareness for how a song can touch you and speak to you, little understanding that a musician can add meaning to your entire existence. People always outgrow their teen idols. But they don’t outgrow their passion for music. Having heard it plenty lately, I now realize that there’s not such a great gulf between Bieber’s “U Smile” and Journey’s “Lights”. A sappy ballad transcends ages and genres.

So I sat and watched Never Say Never with Stella. I’m glad it was more documentary than concert film, as I learned a lot about him. He seems to have had a natural talent for music, learning drums, guitar, and piano at a young age. He also seems to have always been extraordinarily charismatic, with no fear of standing out in a crowd and expressing himself. His truly meteoric success is not the result of an obnoxious, pressuring mother but his own deeply felt calling to be a performer. I can respect all that.

As a superstar, he seems pretty down to earth, still wanting to do the things that kids his age do. His entourage is quite diverse in terms of race, age, and gender, and he appears to have close relationships with everyone around him. His voice is still too young not to grate on my nearly half-century-old ears, and his music is indeed as lightweight when listening closely to it as it seems when trying to ignore it. But he’s very likable and there’s very little apparent pretense. The enormity of his success is as staggering as the fact that he’s really just a cute kid who can sing and dance a bit. He doesn’t pretend to be more than that and he’s not marketed as being much more than that.

To my great embarrassment, there is a sequence in the film that moves me to tears. It begins with his agent and manager walking around towns on show dates, looking for where young girls are congregating. They approach and say they’re with the Bieber tour, asking if they’re going to the show. When they find real fans with no tickets, they give them some. And not just teens and tweens; a disappointed mother who feels she let down her daughter explodes in teary gratitude when handed the ducats. I don’t exactly know why this should make me cry, but I think it’s something about my feelings of inadequacy, based on my income and life situation, in providing for my children the special things they deserve and desire.

These scenes are followed by a song called “One Less Lonely Girl” that becomes an interesting experience in concert. When he begins the song, Bieber’s people go out in the crowd and select a suitably cute and emotional girl to be the title character. Towards the end of the song, the girl is brought out to sit on a stool at center stage. Bieber comes out from the side of the stage, singing. He is handed a bouquet of long-stem red roses, which he presents to the girl and proceeds to circle her, singing only to her, occasionally touching her face and stroking her arm as she sobs into her hand. Rather than being jealous, the crowd eats this up and when the girls return to their seats, their friends hug them tightly. One girl all but screamed through her tears, “I just love him so much!”

Again, I’m not sure why it makes me cry, but it does make me realize just what Justin Bieber is: he’s a dream-maker. He’s made his own dreams come true, and he does the same for his audience. To me, that’s what being an artist is all about. His music may fall well short of any moderate aesthetic standards, and he may not have the depth of spirit of an artist, but he’s doing his job which is the job of the artist: to inspire, to heal, to enable the listener or the viewer to transcend the immediate reality and be propelled into the world of dreams. Now, I can’t do everything for my children, but I’ll be damned if I’ll jeer from the sidelines when someone is doing that for them, whether it’s Justin Bieber or even a dumb-ass purple dinosaur.