Beliebers and fan monocultures

I was recently interviewed for a piece in the Irish Times about Justin Bieber and his fans. I jotted down some notes for the interview…

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Bieber is really interesting because he and his audience embody aspects of the old and the new.

In one sense, the phenomenon of the ‘Beliebers’ (his fans) harks back to much older models of fan monocultures, from the Lisztomania of the 1840s to Beatlemania in the 1960s to the fans of bands like Take That and N-Sync in the 1990s. This kind of ‘monoculture’ shares some key characteristics with Hebdige’s seemingly anachronistic model of the subculture. Although the Beliebers aren’t united by their social class or by some sense of resistance to dominant ideologies (though we could talk about the latter) in the way that Hebdige’s subcultures were, they are nevertheless integrated and uniform in such a way as to suggest stable affiliation and on-going identification.

This kind of monocultural fandom allows individuals to posit themselves as being part of a community with shared tastes, affections, fashion sense, performative gestures (such as the shrine or the Twitter account dedicated to Bieber), and shared knowledge of codes and terms, all of which gets manifested and expressed in terms of competing expressions of cultural capital on message boards, forums, at concerts, and in other participatory contexts, e.g. You Tube videos or fan conventions or Bieber sightings (I found myself amidst one of these in Central London once – it was hilarious and fascinating). This monocultural framework allows fans to experience the self-in-process, where personal identity formation experiences itself as such, both in terms of individuation and sociality. Individuals can connect to something greater than themselves with the fan monoculture through an easily accessible repertoire of social codes and symbols, all launching off from the idea and image of Bieber and Bieberness.

The Beliebers’ kind of fan monoculture is also fairly anachronistic, however. Lots of cultural and social theorists came to reject the subculture because it didn’t capture the kinds of shifting allegiances common in the postmodern age. Instead, theorists like Michel Maffesoli came up with ideas such as the ‘neotribe’, where fandom and identity isn’t bound by geography, but instead sees people attempting to ‘recompose their social universe’ through things like the web, connecting by these sorts of means with other fans – of varying ages, ethnicities, genders, and so on – around the world.

As well as being unbounded by geography, these neotribes are unbounded by univocity. The people belonging to these postmodern neotribes are not beholden to them. Whereas in subcultures fandom is seen to be static, with members wearing only one mask, as it were, for the duration of their participation in that subculture, in recent decades, particularly since the ‘content’ and discursive/symbolic liberations of digital postmodernity (where identity hypertexts are soldered together from decades of present-at-hand pop ephemera and artefacts), individuals are understood to switch masks depending on the time of day or day of the week. I might listen to some Mego sound art one minute, the next be stoned by the colours of Enter the Void and a k-pop video the next, and then be reading a PDF of obscure occultural texts the next. Tomorrow would be the day for the Beatles…

The point is, due to digital ETEWAF culture, and still-present doubts about historical progress and epistemological stability, everything is permitted. (This applies across all levels of course, with artists and musicians themselves permitted to put on varying masks and uniforms as they see fit, as long as some guarantor or cue of authenticity is there.) It is rare for fans to subscribe to one ideology in the way that we see with the Beliebers…or is it? We can think of Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, Katy Perry’s Kitty-Kats, Boulez’s Ornery-Olds (ok, that one is made up)…whilst on the other hand, acknowledging that even if it seemed so in hindsight, 1960s fan culture, for one, was probably much less static than we would imagine. Maybe it is merely in the appearance of monoculture fandom that the Beliebers and others like them seem to recall earlier times, whereas in actuality those earlier times, as with now, probably saw just as much flightiness and tergiversation in fandom as postmodernity does. The difference is, that flightiness is now readily catered to by the tools and freedoms of digital culture.

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The newness that I mentioned at the start is evident in how Bieber seems to confuse notions of authenticity, or at least to manifest aspects of the flight from ‘authenticity’ currently taking place in popular music (though I have yet to be convinced that this re-configuration of what is authentic or not – where boybands are now allowed to be seen to be drinking and cavorting, for example – is anything other than an adaptation of capital to the market’s demands for a lip serviced greater transparency/modernity in its pop idols).

In many respects Bieber conforms to the older sense of an ‘authentic’ artist. He was discovered in a (albeit new, via YouTube) grassroots way; he played ‘real’ instruments; he wrote songs. But despite this, generally Bieber is seen as the acme of manufactured, commercial pop, since he makes pop music, has a feminised persona, and plays to largely female audiences.

However, this opposition between pop/authenticity no longer really holds, even if, as I said, cynical underpinnings might be read into the reconfiguraton of authenticity currently taking place. Everyone is part of the capitalist industry, and what ultimately matters now is success at all costs, style purity and ‘street’ credibility be damned. It’s no longer authorialsim, ‘real’ instruments, the album, or masculinity, which matter. Kylie, (new) Take That, Nicki Minaj and all pop have been taken to the centre of culture, whilst artists like Minaj have floating allegiances that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago, without the artist losing some credibility. Minaj and Ludacris can both collaborate with Bieber without suffering any loss of credibility. Keeping it real is now keeping it lucrative (though let’s not romanticise the past…)

Bieber himself, just like One Direction, collapses the traditional model of manufactured-into-‘credible, mature’ artist, since even on his second album proper he had a hand in writing a lot of the songs, he has always collaborated with ‘cool’ hip hop artists, he was always covering credible tracks (and thus showing cultural knowledge), he was aping Timberlake from the get go (i.e. the ‘mature’ Timberlake), he has long had a slightly riské and sexualised image (not in the safe pre-teen sense), and he makes typically up-to-date mixed genre music…

And this ‘old and new’ blend is reflected in the music, as I just said. Whilst some trad pop is in evidence, particularly on the earlier stuff (‘Baby’, ‘Stuck in the Moment’), in the main this is whizz bang mixed genre stuff. You have 1990s throwbacks (‘Catching Feelings’, ‘Beautiful’ with Carly Rae Jepsen), but in the main you have things like dubstep influenced future (hip) pop (‘As Long as you Love Me’, ‘Beauty and a Beat’), and state of the art electronic pop with hip hop guests (All Around the World).

So, in terms of the music and the persona Bieber is a curious blend of old and new, even though he is seen by many as being very much in the mold of traditional idols, whilst his audience likewise manifests aspects of the old and the new in a curious admixture that’s hard to parse. More on this, I’m sure, later!

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3 Responses to “Beliebers and fan monocultures”

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