Let me get three things off my chest before I start this article:
1. I have absolutely no opinion whatsoever on Justin Bieber.
2. I find it a tad creepy that so many people above the age of sixteen actually DO have an opinion on Justin Bieber.
3. I think society needs to find better ways of using its time than tormenting celebrities over their personal foibles.
That last point is particularly important because, whenever I scroll through the news, I constantly encounter various genres of celebrity news. Note that I didn’t write “celebrity news” — I wrote various GENRES of celebrity news. After all, what is our national gossip circuit if not a series of ongoing narratives which, like all stories, can be “characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” In this case, they include:
1. The Art of Pop Culture Genre. This includes any news about movies, television shows, literature, comic books, video games, or music that focuses on learning more about and appreciating aspects of our pop culture as works of art. It usually involves thoughtful and layered commentary that, while at times overzealous (see fans of the Star Wars or Tolkien universes), is nevertheless rooted in a perfectly valid desire to have one’s life enriched by “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination.” Naturally, this is the type of pop culture news that receives by far the least attention from the mainstream media, as it is viewed as “highbrow” and “boring.” Examples include anything that is followed by people who are labeled “fans,” “fanboys,” “nerds,” “geeks,” etc.
2. The Sex Scandal Genre. This one involves turning the personal life of a celebrity into a public soap opera, one in which millions of people feel a strong personal investment despite having no actual connection to the famous individual(s) in question. The lure seems to be based partly in schadenfreude, partly in the need to fill a vacuum of melodrama and significance in one’s own life, and partly in the wish to feel superior to individuals who are have achieved meaningful success or are otherwise socially prominent. To the extent that the moral outrage professed on these occasions is genuine, it is usually based less in a sincere concern for the “victims” of said sex scandals (cuckolded men, spurned women, scarred children) than on a desire to hold famous figures to a quasi-Puritanical ethical code. Could it be that the Calvinist ethos identified by Max Weber as the key to understanding American capitalist culture also applies to our sexual culture? Examples include Tiger Woods, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Kristen Stewart.
3. The Weight Gain Genre. This entails picking on a celebrity (usually female) who has committed the unpardonable sin of putting on a few pounds. Sometimes she has merely gone from “thin” to “normal” (but has to deal with “normal” being deemed “fat”), sometimes she actually has become fat, and sometimes she’s just pregnant. Regardless, however, the underlying message is that (a) a woman’s social status is primarily determined by her physical attractiveness, (b) once a woman receives the designation of being “fat,” she is no longer physically attractive, and consequently (c) celebrities who have been deemed “fat” are tragic figures who have lost their social desirability. Anyone who claims America doesn’t desperately need a feminist revival need only look here to understand why they are wrong. Examples include Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian.
4. The Meltdown Genre. This is when a celebrity is perceived as screwing up his or her life and has the tailspin closely observed by a disturbingly gleeful public. Like the Sex Scandal Genre, there is a great deal of schadenfreude and moralizing involved here, although the salacious element is usually replaced by (or at least subordinated to) the larger interest in watching spectacular acts of professional and/or personal self-destruction. Every imaginable form of downfall is covered by this genre – severe drug and alcohol addictions, psychological illnesses (as distinguished from addictions), burgeoning small-time criminal records, and (the media’s personal favorite) actual major crimes (usually murder or rape). Examples include Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, O.J. Simpson.
5. The “I Can’t Believe He/She Said That” Genre (Sub-category: Hateful Prejudices). This encompasses all of those bigotries that remain hot button topics, including racism against African Americans, racism against Latinos, racism against non-whites in general (as opposed to against a specific group of non-whites), sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia… you name it. Sometimes the prejudice is implied (such as a rape or similarly insensitive joke) and sometimes it is overt (such as the use of a slur), but on all occasions it is roundly condemned by the pundits and defended by online message board commenters, in no small part because the former are accountable for what they say and the latter have the advantage of cowardice — <cough cough> woops, I’m sorry, anonymity. Examples include Rush Limbaugh (who I count as a celebrity, not a political pundit), Michael Richards (i.e., “the guy who played Kramer”), Mel Gibson.
6. The “I Can’t Believe He/She Said That” Genre (Sub-category: General Stupidity). This is the category for celebrities who are being criticized for saying something that “shouldn’t be said” but just so happened to not be bigoted. More often than not, these are comments that are either (a) ridiculed for being unintelligent or (b) denounced as revealing a negative personal trait, such as being an egomaniac, elitist, or “not a nice person in real life.” Sometimes this is covered because of the legitimate comic value of the comments in question – and when the remarks come from politicians, a strong case can be made that they should be covered (see George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden, and the greatest gaffe master of them all, Dan Quayle) – but more often they draw attention because it happens to be a slow news day. Examples include Paris Hilton, the cast of Honey Boo-Boo, and…
… well, and now Justin Bieber.
As you may have noticed, I haven’t actually discussed the details of the new Justin Bieber-Anne Frank controversy. That’s because I can say with a great deal of confidence that most of you probably already know about it (and if you aren’t, 30 seconds on Google will solve that). Indeed, I am equally confident that – despite having listed more than a dozen random celebrity gossip stories throughout this article – the vast majority of you will instantly recognize most or all of the scandals to which I am referring.
Why is this? It’s because America — the same country which can’t identify Iraq on a map and is startlingly uneducated about the histories and beliefs of major world religions (including their own) — is glutted with celebrity gossip. Even people like me, who try their damndest to avoid these stories, become aware of them against their through sheer osmosis. After all, they pop up no matter where you turn. Even if you aren’t a news junkie like me (it’s a safe bet that every single one of the celebrity gossip stories mentioned in this article was introduced to me by the headlines of CNN, MSNBC, or Google News), they are constantly referenced in movies and television shows, in the monologues of late-night talk show hosts, on the glossy magazines we see when we buy our food at the supermarkets, and in the conversations of people we pass on the street. They are so prevalent, so all-pervading, that they have become fixtures of our cultural zeitgeist in their own right, no less prominent than actual works of art themselves. Indeed, they are so ingrained into our collective psyche that they have become veritable mythologies, the sort of thing that one could see being meticulously chronicled by some Thomas Bulfinch-esque figure three centuries hence… and which, tellingly, can be broken down by their elements and analyzed with taxonomic precision in an article like this one.
And that is my defense of Justin Bieber. To dismiss celebrity gossip stories as stupid wastes of time, which is undeniably true, is in a sense to miss the point. Just because something is pointless doesn’t mean that it can’t be understood, assuming you place it in the right context. These celebrity gossip stories may embody some of our culture’s most petty, mean-spirited, empty-headed and unjustifiably sanctimonious attributes, but clearly we crave them too – if we didn’t, they wouldn’t be so impossible to avoid. We are indeed a fast food nation, connoisseurs of empty calories be they in the food we consume or the news we choose to follow. Since we don’t get outraged when Dunkin Donuts decides to release a glazed donut breakfast sandwich, why bother when Justin Bieber provides us with the cultural equivalent of a new type of Big Mac?