I hereby nominate Justin Bieber documentary “Never Say Never” as the time capsule for our millennial moment. It is the film that cuts closest to The Way We Live Now, plus it’s the only sign-of-the-times that’s been remixed and retrofitted as an all-singing, all-dancing 3D extravaganza.
Though it lacks obvious artistic ambition, “Never Say Never” is a genuinely groundbreaking experiment in convergence-media aesthetics: part concert documentary, part reality-TV contrivance, part social-media playspace. Though it never strives for social significance, it offers more inadvertent insights into our Newest Economy than “The Social Network,” a classically constructed tragedy that superficially touched on topical issues.
That’s not to say “Never Say Never” is a better film (it’s not), only that this carefully staged pseudo-documentary is a documentary in spite of itself. Combining multiple discourses and mediated realities, it’s a Rosetta Stone for 2011. Time to get out your decoder rings, gang.
On its face, this is the familiar story of Justin “Just a Regular Boy” Bieber: a born entertainer whose raw talent and rawer footage inspired a grassroots movement, an industry outsider who proved that the corporate gatekeepers and their manufactured megastars were a relic of the past.
But “Never Say Never” is also a shamelessly self-aggrandizing vanity project by the music industry’s most lucrative young star: His name is Scott “Scooter” Braun, the talent manager-turned-media mogul who famously discovered Bieber by “accidentally” clicking on a video of the YouTube star in 2008. The then-unsigned tween had a button-nose, a sweet falsetto and an installed base of social-media superfans just begging to be monetized. It was love at first sight, and it sounded like ka-ching. Bieber’s discovery went viral as the superstar origin story of the Internet age and “Never Say Never” now repackages that legend as a worldwide new-media 3V3NT! But an entirely different story is written between the lines: an acid deconstruction of the film’s central fantasy, a doppelganger drama where Braun is the hero.
A 2006 profile of Braun in Creative Loafing supplies the background for this self-described “power player” from Atlanta’s entertainment industry. Braun began his career as Emory University’s party monster/undergrad entrepreneur, graduating from the small-ball of fake I.D. sales to straight ballin’ as a party promoter for high-profile hip-hoppers. Dropping out his junior year (much to the dismay of his parents, lovely Jewish dentists from Greenwich, Connecticut), Braun steadily parlayed his Gen Y-market insights into a client list that included Pontiac, Ludacris and the Atlanta Hawks.
“Never Say Never” is thus a monument to Braun’s greatest marketing coup, a coordinated cross-platform campaign whose relentless advance is the pop-promotional equivalent of shock-and-awe (the shock is all subtext, focus on the awww). “This isn’t some manufactured corporate event,” Braun said at the $30-per-ticket Times Square preview, one of several major-city presentations designed to stack on a high-end price tier, double as a bright-lights publicity op and juice prerelease anticipation with buzz by Bieber’s biggest fans. Braun, however, was right: this wasn’t a corporate event. This was a coup d’état of capitalism.
Part of the fascinating contrapuntal complexity of “Never Say Never” is Braun’s narcissistic need to be recognized for what he technically must disavow. He appears in every scene the way that “a Mark Zuckerberg production” once appeared on every Facebook page, yet he can still look straight to camera and say, “I hope we stay the underdog forever.” Which would be a strange thing for a manager to admit, if you didn’t know exactly what he meant.
Viacom, the conglomerate that owns Paramount and is distributing this Scooter Braun Films production, may have lost its high-profile court battle against YouTube. But “Never Say Never” suggests they might just win the war. When this film (an insta-production announced only seven months ago) becomes the first concert doc to break $50 million at the box office, it will send an unmistakable message to legacy entertainment industries: Social media can’t be crushed, but it can be co-opted. And Scooter Braun can show you how.
So is this film just a simulacrum of grassroots enthusiasm, so much pop-culture Astroturf? Not at all. It is the irresistibly enjoyable, feel-good (feel-great!) story of a genial, videogenic star and his insanely invested, deliriously devoted fan base. Many have dismissed Bieber’s autotuned pop as bubblegum R&B with embarrassingly bad lyrics, or pointed out that he’s a less-than-stellar singer-dancer. They’re missing the point. Justin Bieber is a YouTube star. That’s not just how he was discovered; it is his ontological essence. His entire career may have been contrived as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but Bieber’s experience of that fantasy is as authentic as any straight-to-camera vlog post.
The Bieber persona is conventionally cute and disarmingly, unintentionally comic. As a snuggle-soft, tussle-haired YouTube tween, he looked like a hypoallergenic puppy purebred to its genetic limit. His preference for soulful R&B, yo-wazzup vernacular and urban-lite accessories (dog tags, rope chains, flat-rimmed sports caps at rakishly cocked angles) made him endearingly hilarious in a LOLkid kind of way: I HAS TUFF. But the overtones of swagger could never conceal the angelic innocence of his sound. In an age of cynical disaffection, Bieber’s ability to express pure, unembarassed emotion was like a ray of sunlight on a winter day.
Under director Jon Chu, “Never Say Never” skillfully translates both Bieber’s mythology and spontaneous naturalism to the big screen. It metes out just enough self-mockery to inoculate the audience from ironic ridicule, then floods them with the pure, unadulterated melodrama. “He gives us hope,” says a little girl in a moment that has weird echoes of the Obama campaign. (Lots of those.) It’s pretty funny, of course, but the unguarded earnestness of these kids just sneaks up on you — and then comes the embarrassing revelation that you are totally about to cry.
The 3D image of a singing Justin Bieber reaching out to the crowd to invite that special girl on stage feels like the most iconic image of our current stereoscopic era. It’s also a pretty good metaphor for the kind of illusory interaction fueling this digital wunderkind‘s success. Whereas movie screens suggest a strict partition between fantasy and reality, the Bieber craze draws its energy from a feeling that the Internet has opened a wormhole between these worlds — thus, the paneled montage of actual fanvids and @justinbieber Tweets. For every 12-year-old who has ever uploaded a YouTube video or commented on those of their friends, Justin is their star.
And he is! They can Tweet him and he often Tweets back. There is no greater joy for Bieber’s loyal fans than the email alert reading “@justinbieber is now following you.” It makes them so happy they spend the next few hours crying, tweeting about crying and watching the number of their own followers skyrocket as everyone basks in the electronic-network glow. Adding roughly 100 followers a day, the Bieber team stokes the enthusiasm of their fan base while keeping the numbers just low enough to maintain a sense of artificial scarcity, as well as the illusion that Justin himself is reading and responding. It’s an effortless gesture that means the world to the fans. And as Scooter surely knows, the ROI on a single click can likely be measured in tens, if not hundreds, of dollars. Welcome to entertainment economics 2.0, where impressions have been eclipsed by interactions, where Most Viewed is good but Most Responded is gold.
This core audience of superfans show devotion so deep, enthusiasm so hysterical that it literally cannot be expressed in words; the paradigmatic @justinbieber tweet is an endlessly exclamated, CAPS-heavy clusterfuck of pictograms, emphatic spacing and long strings of repeating characters. Are they convulsively mashing their keypads out of excess nervous energy? Or are these primitive attempts to phonetically render their feral vocalizations and bubblegum glossolalia?
Approving parents are easily fooled by Bieber’s squeaky-clean image and sugary sound. They’ve embraced this small-town Christian as a welcome antidote to the tabloid trainwrecks and general godlessness of mainstream entertainment. But to Bieber’s most devoted followers, the self-anointed Beliebers, the boy is Dionysus, Jr. As the pagan icon in their kiddie mystery cult, Bieber whips his faithful into a ravenous ecstasy — they call it “Bieber Fever.” They sob convulsively, scream like banshees, rage against the crowd-control barriers with rabid desperation. Their tiny tween faces are streaked with tears, but you can’t help but imagine maws soaked with blood. It’s very OMG.
Or as the Beliebers would say, in the cult-speak of their in-group memes: OMB!!!