Justin Bieber has gone from North American idol to tragic cliché in less than a year. It’s all very sad. It’s also very familiar. Countless others before him have endured this third act. The most disturbing part of Mr. Bieber’s story, however, is not what it tells us about him but what it says about us. Truth be told, if I’d had his money, his talent and his phenomenally bad parenting when I was 19, I probably would have done precisely what he’s doing. Not a few of us would, I’m sure. What disturbs me more than the well-known fact that 19-year-olds make bad choices is the fact that many people seem to derive some satisfaction from watching them do so.
Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Macaulay Culkin—the list goes on and on. We pay these kids millions of dollars to entertain us. We celebrate them, emulate them, sometimes even stalk them. (Those prowling photographers outside Mr. Bieber’s hotel—some of whom undoubtedly would have chased Princess Diana into a Parisian tunnel—work for us) We then buy those photos and plaster them on billboards and T-shirts. Justin and his friends become our vicars to a world of glamour, money and celebrity that we ourselves cannot inhabit. Through them, we learn what it’s like to be them. Their triumphs become our triumphs: We glow with self-satisfaction when they tell a reporter: “Really, all that I have achieved I owe to my fans.”
The relationship changes, however, when the inevitable fall begins. The celebrity transforms from model citizen to shunned scapegoat just as quickly as TMZ can post the mug shot. The very person we all aspired to be the day before is now the “other,” a pathetic laughingstock. And the photographers and yellow journalists on our payroll now go to work crafting a narrative in which the celebrity does nothing right. The irony, of course, is that we shun and scapegoat the celebrity just at the moment when we realize that he or she is really just like us, a sinner, a fellow exile from Eden. We take no comfort in that, of course, because in a perverse way, deep down in places we don’t like to talk about, we enjoy the tragic spectacle. For in addition to everything else, we secretly resent their glamour, their money and celebrity, and we quietly delight in seeing them get their comeuppance.
This sounds really harsh, I know. But if this weren’t at least partially true, then why would we pay $226 million to watch “The Wolf of Wall Street”? After all, this sex- and drug-fuelled orgy “doesn’t end with the ‘lesson,’ the moral of the story,” as Jim McDermott, S.J., writes in this issue. The main character “does indeed lose pretty much everything, but he’s still got a room full of strangers hanging on his every word. Two crowds, in fact: the one onscreen and the audience.”
And isn’t the disassociation between love and sex that Anna Nussbaum Keating writes about in this issue also an attempt on our part to emulate the lives of our celebrities? One of the privileges of celebrity, after all, is the power to determine who matters and who doesn’t.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on us. But Justin Bieber is only the latest in a long line of broken young performers. My hope is that he will not become the latest in a long line of dead ones. In order to prevent that, Mr. Bieber needs to take a good hard look at his life.
But we also need to examine our role in all of this. And our role is subtler and much more powerful than you might think. As Father McDermott concludes in his film review: “Real temptation is a lot more attractive; it hides its victims and its consequences, and for a long time it’s usually a lot more fun.”
The fun, however, inevitably comes to an end.