A story has been doing the rounds today about young Courtney Barrasford, a 15 year old girl who was informed about Justin Bieber’s new acoustic album. It not only made the Sun and Daily Mail, but also the Independent (also see here). Miss Barrasford tweeted that she wasn’t a Bieber fan, but that the album was, in any case, really rather good. Justin, for his part, retweeted this small item of praise. According to the news stories, some of his young female followers then went mad with envy: Courtney had said she was not a fan and yet she was getting attention from young Mr Bieber. One 12 year-old supposedly tweeted, “Jus tell her to die… and leave Justin alone!” Other fans complained that they had been dedicated for years, but that Justin had never noticed them. One supposedly said that Courtney was pregnant with Justin’s child.
I find this popular story fascinating for a range of reasons that I want to dissect in this post. On the “minus” side, suppose that this story is true: that these fans are so hung up on Justin, they are willing to issue insults at a moment’s notice – just because his attention is misdirected in their view. Their comments raise the issue of celebrity appeal and I have argued in various recent pieces that such appeal can be connected with Durkheim’s concept of totemism. To the tweeters, Justin is socially “worth” his fan base – well over 30 million Twitter followers and counting. There is only one Justin, but there are millions of fans: only so much attention to go around. Personal attention from Justin is itself therefore a rare and highly-prized object: a kind of desired quantity that the young star can confer on others as he sees fit. How can such a rare thing ever be equally divided? If Justin smiled at each fan for a split second, then maybe he could dispense attention with justice for all. That’s not going to happen, so the argument goes that perhaps the most dedicated fans should get more attention. Competition between them is therefore immense. Seeking increased intimacy, Bieber fans head towards the front row, wait for autographs, send fan letters, socialize, fantasize, live in hope and make things happen. Their public spite at Justin’s attention to one non-fan seems to raise an obvious question: Has totemism gone too far? Is fandom turning otherwise sane young women into specimens filled with envy, hate and spite? Do we need to put a framework of social responsibility around the practices of stardom and fandom? Or is this something that can be addressed under the more usual laws on hatespeak and online harrassment?
I am struck by some thoughts on this. Perhaps we must consider the story itself as a media commodity. I would argue that it exemplifies at least two tropes from mainstream journalism. The first is the generic convention of misguided youth. The ages of the young tweeters have been carefully mentioned. Both Courtney and her detractors seem to have strayed into a territory that they did not expect, one in which their actions have had unwanted consequences in the public sphere: cyber-bullying, a media circus. This is a tragic story about saying too much – going too far before realizing what has happened. The micro-minority of spiteful tweeters may not have meant their words to be taken literally. They were, perhaps, sarcastically performing their longing for Justin in the context of like-minded girls. The worst comment sounded like the sort of bitchy, back-stabbing aside that might be heard in any school playground. The difference here is that it in an era of social media it is world-wide, public, and between total strangers. This frames youth as straying into trouble: innocence lost as comments misfire and cannot be taken back.
The second trope here is that of fandom itself: these fans are supposedly obsessed (with Justin) and insane (with envy). The premise of their fandom – Justin’s totemic pull – becomes a pretext for comments that seem particularly off colour. However, what such stories forget are the legions of anti-fans who themselves seem to gleefully spew out online hate Justin and his followers, and who create Facebook pages saying as much. Their comments are rarely news, yet one or two tweets from a fan base of 30 million that rely on stereotypes to create good copy receive international attention.
For his part, Justin was simply using this re-tweet as an advertisement for his new album. After all, if the record can attract a non-fan, then it must be really “good”; in effect, he has potentially won someone new to the fan base. Adding to the Bieber fan base can only be a good thing, in totemic terms at least; I expect that almost all the fans would see that (and some have therefore offered “welcome to the fan base” type comments). It is the tiny micro-minority of those who don’t see it that I am rather surprized about. In a sense, they represent selfishness in the face of community, and perhaps that is the multiple horror of their acerbic tweets: the hate-tweeters fail to recognize Justin as a free agent, fail to support the growth of the fan base, and – ultimately – fail to consider the public image of his fan community. One might therefore justly wonder: are the negative tweeters really fans at all? What kind of “love” is it that so quickly turns to hate? I have a feeling that the answer lies with what the media want to show about fandom. What we can say is that the envious tweeters have become a symptom of the media’s social uneasiness about what it sees an overly popular young star – an objectified male one at that – who has an overly vulnerable audience. Justin’s “normal” fans are seen as too young, too female, too “obsessed” with their hero – and it is the abnormal, insanely jealous ones who are now used to prove it.