Finally got around to watching the music videos for his singles, as I was curious why he attracts so much hate on YouTube and elsewhere. In today's culture, that doesn't mean anything since all that the vocal critics listen to is total shit as well. In fact, maybe it meant that he was actually good!
Well no, he does stink, but no more than Linkin Park, Ying Yang Twins, and all the other garbage that's come out since the death of pop music in 1991. I had no desire to listen to any of the songs a second time, and about half of them I just stopped half or three-quarters of the way through. That's still farther than I can get into a techno or nu metal song, though.
Here's what I notice as the major differences from the heyday of R&B boy groups (like that of rock, also from the late '50s through about 1990), ending with New Kids on the Block... maybe Boyz II Men. I'm using Bieber as the contrast, but it applies just as well to the boy bands of the late '90s and early 2000s.
- He smiles way too much, making him look infantile. Kids who grew up after the crime rate started falling after 1992 have encountered little danger personally, have had no sense that the rest of the society was about to fall apart, haven't had an early relationship or sexual experience, especially one where they got burned at a young age, didn't see or participate in much drug use, and can't remember visiting or living in cities where parts where taken over by prostitutes, junkies, and crazy homeless people. As a result, they don't ever get that look like they've been through some heavy shit.
Even the youngest New Kid looked more mature than Bieber, if you check the video for "Please Don't Go Girl" (the one with the older black chick, not the one with the young white girls at Coney Island). The 1980s were the most dangerous decade for children and adolescents, so that little dude likely saw and lived through things that Bieber won't until he's at least 30 or 40, and it shows in his facial expressions. (This is also why you don't see Slavic women smiling brightly in pictures -- their societies have been much more violent than Western Europe for awhile, including today.)
- Somewhat related, there's no attempt to look manly. I don't mean doing a Marlon Brando impersonation, but hell at least project that you're in control of the situation and give orders rather than take them. Once more, even the New Kids had the token bad boy song "Hangin' Tough," and you see them with ripped jeans and black leather jackets in several of their videos. Or look at Michael Jackson's videos from the Thriller and Bad albums; he didn't go for a macho image, but you can still tell he's making testosterone.
- He doesn't swing his hips, thrust his pelvis, or do anything with any part of his torso when he dances (nor do his backup dancers). Most of his moves are footwork and hand movements, with whatever leg and arm moves that they require. That's how teenage and college guys dance in night clubs when they try to dance for an audience, although some of the goofballs do pelvic thrusts when they're joking around.
Again even as recently as the New Kids, white guys knew how to move their torso, including their pelvis, whether or not they added some choreographed footwork as well. Since the level of wildness among young people began plummeting in the early '90s, it's as though guys don't want to let go and show their sexual nature while dancing -- the focus of movement goes away from the core, and out toward the most peripheral areas. Distract the viewers with all that frenetic stuff going on in your feet and hands, and they won't even notice that you have a dick. With Elvis, Mick Jagger, Prince, Michael Hutchence, etc., it's hard not to zoom in on their butt or crotch when they dance. Dancers who don't move their core a lot and focus so much on the hands and feet look like wooden puppets, not real people.
- Why don't you ever see him driving a car? Since the early '90s the fraction of 16 or 17 year-olds who have a license has been falling, and within the past few years it reached the point where the median 17 year-old does not have one. I got my learner's permit as early as possible, at 15 and a half, and he turned that age last fall. Plus the video doesn't have to be that realistic -- show him driving even if he is too young to do so in real life. If you can't drive and don't have a car, you're stuck in childhood -- simple as that. That's why when young people used to have a life, getting their learner's and their full license was a rite of passage they dreamed of for years in advance -- "finally I won't have to have my mom drive me around or sponge off my friends who can drive."
You guessed it, even the youngest New Kid is shown driving in the video for "You Got It (The Right Stuff)". They're all cruising around unsupervised, and succeed in picking up some girls. I don't remember which video it is, but the Wahlberg guy is shown driving a motorcycle, and not one of those itty bitty ones either.
Despite all of the signs of the further infantilization of young people that began nearly 20 years ago -- including one video that opens with him and his dorky friend shackled to an Xbox -- there are still some things that are nice to see, especially compared to the rest of the garbage heap of recent pop music:
- He's a high schooler, and when was the last time you saw one of those making music? Hanson? (Miley Cyrus if we count girls.) At least he's unsupervised enough to be a music star instead of drowning in the Japanese cram school environment that North American high schools have come to resemble. And there are lots of teenage girls in his videos -- again, when was the last time you saw that? They can't be beat for giggliness and being incapable of faking their feelings -- very refreshing to take in.
- Most of the dancing in his videos reflects the near total segregation of the sexes during the past 20 years, that is where each person is dancing unaccompanied and generally near people of the same sex. However, there is one where he and a girl he's been pursuing share a slow dance, and she's looking him dead in the eyes and fighting back a smile. Now that might actually go somewhere, unlike the grinding that characterizes the post-'92 era of "dancing near" rather than "dancing with."
- Even though he comes off as infantile and a bit corny, at least he maintains a sincere image the whole time, unlike the general trend of the past 20 years toward mockery, caricature, and meta-ironic dweebery. As far as I could tell, there were no duckfaces or kabuki faces, emo contortions, or other display of smug self-awareness. Neither do the legions of high school cuties in the background -- unlike most pictures that girls that age post to their Facebook, Flickr, and (earlier) MySpace profiles.
Overall, nothing I would have missed if I'd never heard or seen it, but then that's true of pop music in general since about 1991. He does show the sorry infantilized state that young people have been in since that time, but at least he lacks that aggressive smugness that other loser musicians have had, Fergie probably being the worst case there.