Justin Bieber has been getting the media into a feeding frenzy by dishing up tiny bites of the video for his new song “Boyfriend”. Is it too raunchy for tweens? Well, from the snippets that the Bieber marketing behemoth has been teasing us with, it certainly seems that they are aiming for a more mature demographic, as Bieber himself grows up. Shadowy lighting, whispering suggestively in girls’ ears, pimpy comments about having handfuls of cash that he really wants to blow on his girl. See what you think: they play the teaser for the clip during this interview I did about Bieber’s image makeover, for Channel 9’s Mornings.
I was disappointed when I saw the teaser. It’s just so predictable. Even the squeakiest of squeaky clean teen idols has to turn 18 eventually — but I get the sense that when the Bieb did, his management hit the panic button. Quick! We need intense “Blue Steel” poses. Put him in a leather jacket and have girls pawing at him. Make sure they’re pouty girls wearing dangerous-looking jewellery that subliminally makes you think of S&M and ’90s Madonna videos (and maybe a trip to Emergency … seriously, those rings could take an eye out!). Make sure there is a wind machine sexily blowing the girls’ hair the whole time. (Honestly, I don’t know how the rest of us ever manage to be alluring given that we are tragically denied fans blowing at head height in every room. It’s possibly a global crisis that needs to be rectified, stat!)
What really strikes me about Bieber’s new image is that for him to cause a stir by showing a more adult sexuality, he has to do so very little compared to female stars the same age. He gets to keep all of his clothes on; he doesn’t have to thrust or grind anything; and he doesn’t offer to degrade himself. Actually, if you listen to the whole song, he says, “I can be a gentleman, anything you want.” He says he wants to talk, and he promises to love his prospective girlfriend, treat her right, never let her go and make sure that she is never alone. He vows to make her “shine bright”. A couple of years ago, Bieber was quoted as saying, “I’m just a regular 16 year old kid. I make good grilled cheese and I like girls.” And the new “raunchy” 18-year-old Bieber? In “Boyfriend” he has graduated to a romantic scene in which he imagines him and his girl “chillin’ by the fire while we eatin’ fondue”. Cute! Biebs is such a non-threatening, pro-dairy gangsta. *Swoon*
Compare this to female stars who have transitioned from tween to teen, such as Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus. For them it was all about how they were gonna get dirty, how they needed to be “rubbed the right way” and weren’t “that innocent”. It was about getting wasted and flashing their knickers (or lack thereof), doing pretend big-O-style panting and offering to do anything sexually.
In music video world, all too often the message is: when a young guy wants to show he is now a man, he can get a leather jacket and pout; but for a young woman to show she is grown up, she has to get it all off and grind. If you haven’t seen the latest Ricki-Lee video, it pretty much encapsulates the image of female sexuality I’m talking about. Sexy equals wearing your undies in public (hello?) and doing stripper moves. Getting an anonymous food vendor on the street all hot and bothered is actually an awesome self-esteem boost. And the most important thing about sex is that he likes it when you “do it like that”.
Compared to the gymnastics, not to mention the waxing regime, Ricki-Lee had to go through to project a sexy image, Justin Bieber got off pretty lightly, didn’t he?
The music industry is selling its artists and fans short by continually falling back on the old cliches. Yes, sex sells. But the sexuality we are being sold is so narrow, so confining. It doesn’t represent the range of real sexuality that real people experience. When I discussed Bieber’s new image on Facebook, Jenn Lane wrote that her daughter said to her:
Mum, I hope there aren’t really any girls who do think that’s what sex is because they will only end up hurt.
Enlighten Education’s Catherine Manning made this point:
Teen idol crushes are often also about sexual desire — I don’t see anything wrong with that at all — it’s natural. . . . Of course, the problem with music-industry-manufactured sexuality is that it’s often one dimensional and digitally manipulated, so in reality, without the lights/effects, direction, etc., a real sexual encounter is nothing much like the video clips. I think this is what parents should be discussing with their kids . . . it’s up to us to make sure our kids are media literate so that they can put it all into perspective.
Yes, sex sells. But so does honesty and authenticity and raw talent. Just look at Adele. Never once has she relied on creating a raunchy image, or in fact creating any particular image: she is herself, she sings from the heart, and people respond to that. She sings about being a young woman, about real youthful experiences of love and desire — and she doesn’t need to conform to a narrow definition of sexuality in order to do it. I wholeheartedly agree with what Pink wrote of Adele recently for Time‘s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World:
Her success renews hope in me that the world I live in has good taste — that we still occasionally come back to what’s simple, and simply amazing.
Integrity is the new sexy. I for one am hoping that whenever Team Bieber finally releases the whole video, we see a scene of Justin not sitting by the fire twirling a fondue fork but bringing his girl a nice cheese toastie instead!
It’s hard not to make fun of this — but it’s not Justin himself or his fans that I intend to mock. Many of his fans, now growing into older teens along with him, will love his new video and song, and the last thing I want to do is belittle their very real feelings. Catherine is so right to point out that there is an element of sexual desire — and I would add fantasy — in girls’ teen idol crushes. That’s normal and natural.
It’s the entertainment industry that I intend to mock — its predictability, its lazy thinking, its near-total reliance on using sex to sell. Let’s be honest, if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry, right? If your daughter loves Justin Bieber, don’t make him a forbidden whisper. Just help her deconstruct the images on the screen, and maybe soon she’ll not only be singing along and swooning, but also giggling at the cliches of the entertainment industry.