Culture And Criticism

Don't Get Too Comfortable: The Permeable Membrane Between High And Low

Justin Bieber performs at the White House Easter egg roll on April 5, 2010.

hide captionJustin Bieber, seen here at the White House Easter egg roll, is the first subject of a new series.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

You may have noticed that today's Song Of The Day at NPR Music is from Justin Bieber. That's part of an exploration of pop songs that you'll hear more of in coming weeks — be sure to listen to the Morning Edition piece in the audio link at the top, which has more of a discussion of the Bieber phenomenon in context than is included in the essay about the song, "Baby."

It was not difficult to predict that there would be a lot of horror about the idea of discussing Justin Bieber. Justin Bieber is perhaps this cultural moment's greatest embodiment of the idea that some things are Over Here, and other things are Over There, and I only like things that are Over Here, and I don't want to hear about what's Over There, and I don't want to talk to the people who are Over There, because if I did, I'd be Over There instead of Over Here. I came Over Here; why are you telling me what's Over There?

Pursuant to this paradigm, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears and American Idol are Over There, while, say, Animal Collective and all unsigned bands are Over Here. Treme is Over Here, but CSI is Over There; the Coen Brothers are usually Over Here, while the Farrelly Brothers are always Over There.

Why this doesn't work, after the jump.

The first problem with this approach is that something being Over There doesn't mean that there's nothing interesting to be said about it. Consider the discussion in the radio piece of how Bieber is and is not his generation's Pat Boone — you don't really have to care about Justin Bieber's music to get something out of that.

The other problem, of course, is that the membrane between Over Here and Over There is entirely permeable, and people and things move across it all the time, so what you didn't bother finding out about last year might surprise you this year. As that Morning Edition piece about Bieber discusses, he seems to have a somewhat wicked sense of humor about himself as a phenomenon, which is not entirely consistent with the idea that he's an empty-headed hack. It suggests a slightly more mature mind in there somewhere, which may be part of why Jay Smooth argues that he might — might — be doing something more respectable in five years.

If you look back across cultural history, this kind of progression happens all the time. Justin Timberlake doesn't carry nearly the "all sizzle, no steak" baggage that he did when he was a member of 'N Sync or, let's say, on The New Mickey Mouse Club. Julianne Moore got her start on As The World Turns. Alanis Morissette was a Canadian teen pop star before she came, you know, Over Here. There are countless examples of this — people who are now highly respected in their fields who cut their teeth on projects that might have seemed like throwaways at the time.

I'm not saying don't be discerning. You should absolutely be discerning. You should absolutely have standards. But just be careful about the breadth of the sweep of any dismissals you might make, because who knew Michelle Williams was a serious actress when she was on Dawson's Creek?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: