The Miseducation of Justin Bieber

I'm not as put off by the existence of Justin Bieber as I think I should be. I think he's a talented young man who is being pushed to pursue music that doesn't suit him. Judging by the response I get when I try to be just a little kind to his career and pop culture presence, I'm doing something wrong.

Justin Bieber put out a new single yesterday called "Boyfriend." It sounds...exactly like what Justin Timberlake was doing eight years ago. It's homogenized hip-hop/R&B and it once again does not suit the singer performing it.

There is a long history of the mainstream record industry appropriating a specific style of music to package to a wide audience for a quick profit. I just wrote about how major labels are shoving random dubstep breaks into pop songs because club kids like dubstep. It's a combination of filling holes in the current marketplace and latching onto whatever might be the next big trend.

It goes back much further than that with more cynical intentions. Pat Boone owes most of his career to doing covers of R&B/early rock for a white audience. Labels began digging around for white performers like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley to perform, initially, covers of black artists' songs for radio. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips famously said, "If I could find a white man who had a Negro sound and a Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars."

Go back further and you see crooners on bigger labels doing jazz and ragtime covers. At the same time, you would have big name artists doing separate recordings of the big songs from a popular stage or film musical to sell as pop. Get closer to modern times and you see country songs reworked as power pop ballads to sell films and records. There are hundreds of stories of artists who had their singles taken away from them and given to an artist receiving a bigger push. Just ask The Script about that big Kris Allen single that stopped them from getting a third single on their US debut.

Does race play a role in these decisions? It depends on what you're looking at. The rise of rock-a-billy can easily be attributed to that quest for the shining white knight, but the same does not apply to a Rodgers & Hammerstein song becoming the signature piece of a vocal ensemble. I would argue the bigger issue is making less popular genres feel fresh, relevant, and safe for a wider commercial audience. The original artists might have more authenticity, but the manufactured artists are polished to a safe sheen for mainstream consumption.

Justin Bieber, like Justin Timberlake before him, is the R&B/Hip-Hop artist for the Disney demographic. Throw in a drum machine and some whispered rapping and little boys and girls will want to sing along with the charismatic young performer. His label could have, just as easily, pushed him as country, rock, or blues for a younger demographic. The style of music is not as important as the branding of the artist. Give a thin, conventionally handsome young performer a trendy look and easy to remember/sing along with songs and you've set yourself up for success if the branding takes.

In Justin Bieber's case, whoever saw his YouTube videos of acoustic covers of pop and rock songs decided they could make more money selling him in a hip-hop/R&B vein than in a pop/rock vein. His music is pop, but the basis of the crossover is hip-hop and R&B. Why else would Usher be his mentor and Ludacris appear as a guest on his breakout hit single "Baby?"

Justin Bieber BoyfriendIt's going to be many years before Justin Bieber is allowed to really push for career decisions on his own. He's too profitable as a perfectly manufactured recording package to experiment with different sounds. Despite his interviews to the contrary, the push for a more seductive sound right after his 18th birthday is not his choice. The only difference is the content of the lyrics, not the sound design, genre, or delivery.

Remember how Britney Spears had to be a school girl at 17 while Christina Aguilera could go straight to the more seductive "Genie in a Bottle" image at 19 when they came out at the same time? Record labels want fans to fall in love with pop stars, but they don't want to cross the line from crush to more until the artist is legal in all 50 states.

Will Justin Bieber ever try to branch out? Who can tell? If he's happy with his calculated career path, he might just stick with it. If he's not, he might not even get a shot at a mainstream audience with a genuinely different sound. Undoubtedly, this new single will do well on radio and the record charts. Bieber is still a hot property constantly put in the public eye. The more interesting question will be what his team is willing to do with him when the numbers inevitably drop in a few years. After all, the next big thing is only a makeover away from stealing his audience.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Link Rally: 27 March 2012

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