News Column

Justin Bieber Is Online Gold, but Not Newsworthy

January 28, 2014

Michael Wolff, theguardian.com

justin bieber
Justin Bieber's mug shot after his recent arrest in Miami

The way down seems now to be as energetically charted as the way up. There is some justice in that. The media inflation of the Justin Bieber bubble is being matched by the determined media deflation, perhaps restoring a certain balance to the universe.

It is hard, though, to imagine that writers of the current Justin Bieber hosing take this story very seriously. It's anti-news news. It's dumb news. It's down-market news.

The subtext of the current Bieber story is that celebrities, no matter how successful, nevertheless remain economically and culturally backwards. Bieber's father is to blame! Others muse that child stars who emerge out of trailer parks will never actually emerge. This seems to be especially true of pop stars whose stardom was exaggerated by the media itself – in a way, these stories are a kind of mea culpa.

The story to date – a story sparked by a thoroughly minor incident – is that Justin Bieber is a creature of primitive origins, a mass media oddity, now on a path, well charted by other Neanderthal pop stars, that ends in ever-more tawdry self-destruction.

This is not, suffice to say, the tragedy of genius, or of even flying to near the sun. It is, rather, the inevitable trajectory of a low IQ and bad parenting. This is a story, in a sense, of class conflict. Everybody appears to look down on Bieber. No person able to write a grammatical sentence about Justin Bieber actually thinks him worthy of the sentence.

Still, it is hard to imagine that the millions, or hundreds of millions of Justin Bieber fans also consider him to be mere cultural detritus. On the other hand, they sure do not seem to be rising up to defend him, either.

This possibly argues for a level of dual meaning in the story. The press, along with perhaps most college graduates, see him as joke, or, at best, mass market flotsam and jetsam. But, in the same story, fans and a multitude of other causal observers, many, perhaps, with tattooed parents themselves, can see him as a cut-up and a dashing figure with an appealing human dimension.

It is highly possible the star himself is complicit here. Given a slight recent dip in his career, he and his handlers might well have thought to inject some edginess or danger or signs of adult pop star character into his image.

There are, on the one hand, the clearly self-destructive pop figures, and, on the other, the obviously more strategic ones. It is not necessarily clear, at least initially, which is which. It is also not clear what is merely bad advice, what is genius advice, or what is no advice at all. It is not yet clear, in other words, if Justin Bieber is rising or falling, rebranding or self-immolating.

Bieber is the first mega YouTube star, born inexplicably out of a novel and disruptive medium. It has, of course, always been so for pop culture: feverish bubbles, silly novelty acts and disconcerting new forces impose themselves on a reluctant and condescending media. But the rules of this game change with the new exigencies of traffic aggregation.

Well, OK, the rules changed long ago. The entire popular magazine business redefined itself over the last generations around celebrity covers. Big celebrity stories get big numbers. But digital reality expands these numbers by a quantum leap and further levels, if not obliterates, hierarchical and cultural distinctions. We're all tabloids.

In the ever-more competitive search for traffic, in the near scientific ability to parse and exploit momentary traffic trends, you can not afford to ignore Justin Bieber.

In an older media model, Bieber enthusiasm would have directed itself to tried and true celebrity outlets. They would then have benefited from Bieber interest the way CNN benefits from hurricanes and sudden mayhem. But now, with a free-floating digital audience without much brand interest or even awareness, every news site or content collection or traffic aggregator can participate in the Bieber bonanza.

And that's why, regardless, pretty much, of whether you believe Justin Bieber signifies anything at all, you go with this story. It's traffic. Lots and lots of traffic. Not only do you get a welcome surge of pre-adolescents and tattooed families that might otherwise be outside your demographic group, but the nature of this tale lets the more upwardly mobile readership reconfirm its stay-in-school and good-parenting bias.

Lost at the lucky intersection of this fanzine stuff and morality tale, is the fact that there is really no story here at all, except a smiling mug shot.

Yet, the story moves the story. Not only do celebrities naturally play to type cast, but it's hardly risky to count on further bad behavior – nor on the multiplier traffic effect of compounded bad behavior. This story ought just to keep on giving.

While the big story involves antics with supporting video or photos, there is too a rich business story. The media will most benefit from new chapters in the arc of the progressive meltdown of Bieber's character and career. But Bieber and his handlers will be hoping to manage the downside effects and turn the traffic momentum in their favor. Will current endorsement deals collapse? Will new endorsements come their way?

This is media life at its most thrilling.

(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

Original headline: Justin Bieber's not newsworthy, but who cares? He's online traffic gold


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Source: (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.


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