Late one Friday night at Princeton, buzzed and carrying packs of sour candy from Wawa, I wandered to a dorm room of a friend. As my host and I sat on her bed, alternating handfuls of Sour Patch and some other technicolor monstrosity, her roommate decided to show me a video for “Beauty and a Beat,” performed and directed by everyone’s favorite cultural punching bag: Justin Bieber.
Interestingly, his directorial debut features the one song off his album of which he didn’t write a single word. It’s the work of three professionals of the hit-generating business – Max Martin, Zedd, and Savan Kotecha, who co-wrote “If U Seek Amy” – and sounds like it, too. But Justin Bieber (supposedly) decided to go it alone in directing the video to this song. The result was certainly successful: no video has ever had more views in 24 hours than “Beauty and the Beat” did.
It’s unclear whether JB really directed the video, but it does provide startling insights into his life — intentionally or unintentionally. This video is, after all, his coming of age story. By directing the video himself, JB no doubt intended to signify he had come of age as an artist. One of the first clips shows him singing at the piano, in a shot reminiscent of Behind the Music. But in the main narrative, he’s the one controlling the camera.
The evolution of the main character — whether he is actually Justin Bieber or the singer Justin Bieber or a character played by that singer in this video — is manifested through the choreography as well. And because the video is set at a pool party, water serves as an important symbol.
Water often appears in music videos in the form of rain as it falls gently around the lead singer to express the melancholy of a breakup song. Here, the singer and his umpteen backup dancers are joyfully splashing in the kiddie pool. This might stand for childhood innocence: a worldview that is uncomplicated but also shallow. Throughout the song, the character progresses, or tries to: much of the choreography mimes running in place, its movement hampered by water weighing down. Eventually, he plunges into the water, a sign that he is metaphorically swimming in the deep end — he has “taken the plunge” — and emerges from the water in a kind of rebirth. It’s even possible this is intentional. After all, maybe even a teen superstar has time to read a few books, or at least have his storyboards done by people who have. Whether or not this teen superstar created this coming of age story, it happens to have particular resonance with his life.
The video opens with text on a black screen: “In October of 2012 3 hours of personal footage was stolen from Justin Bieber. The following footage was illegally uploaded by an anonymous blogger.” From the nod to the internet culture responsible for Bieber’s fame to the sensationalism of the “stolen” footage, this is a perfect framing device. It tells us that we are accessing something intimate (shared with 174,527,504 others) while reminding us obliquely of how hotly sought-after it is. And this introduction also pretends to classify the video as candid, which adds to the sensationalism and the intimacy. But because it is pseudo-candid, as faux-effortless as JB’s hair, we are to understand that everything we are seeing is what Justin Bieber wants yearning fans’ eyes to see. This is the version of himself he wants to show — a version we’ve all agreed to pretend is his real self. It’s not a very intimate portrayal, though: that promise was just a hook. In a long tracking shot, Bieber leads the camera through a wild and luxurious pool party. Taking the viewer on a trip into his private world is really the ultimate humblebrag: “Guys, I didn’t mean for this footage to get out. It’s so embarrassing that now everyone can see me having this awesome party.”
But just as obvious as the non-candidness of this video is the fact that it is fictional. This party is not a real party. So maybe its depiction isn’t meant as just some scenery for the song, but as a fiction. Maybe within the story of Justin Bieber’s footage being stolen lies a story about a fictional pop star named Justin Bieber, a modern Gatsby without the tragedy, whose life really is one big party. It’s the real Justin Bieber’s escapist fantasy about a place where the only price of fame is footage of his awesome life getting leaked to the press — no sex tape, no salvia-smoking video, just evidence that he has a supremely fun life surrounded by cool, attractive people in a world that bursts into song and dance to express his every emotion. And what perfect song and dance it is: The choreography goes from the kind of dancing you might do in the street to straight-up stunts, from striptease, aerials and capoeira to synchronized swimming … thus, performance becomes part of life. The inexplicable mid-song guest star appearance by Nicki Minaj is just another stunt proving that Justin Bieber can have whatever he wants.
But this gigantic spectacle is at odds with the (rather flat) lyric that asserts that “All I need/ is a beauty and a beat/ who can make my life complete.” So perhaps he’s just another pop star pretending to be down to earth with the rehearsed vivacity of Jennifer Lawrence claiming she eats a steady diet of fries. Maybe the sweet, simple sentiments encapsulated so neatly by Justin Bieber’s team of middle-aged professional songwriters are just clichés about teenage innocence that Bieber didn’t identify with, preferring a pool party with 5,000 of his closest friends. Going off of JB’s generally vapid persona, one could argue that he lacks self-awareness to the point that he doesn’t fully realize this contradiction, but that is sad in its own way and made even sadder by the seeming earnestness with which he performs in both the song and the video.
Or maybe the contrast between his talk and his walk shows that he’s unsatisfied by this extravagant existence that is not what he needs. Far from being complete, his life is empty. “All I need/ is a beauty and a beat.” All he needs is music and his girl. So where is this girl? “It’s all/ about you, when the music makes you move.” If it’s all about her, where is she? The real emptiness in Justin Bieber’s life is the void left by this girl, who appears to be the Daisy to his Gatsby. This entire party is just to put on a show for her, to make her notice him. Maybe he wants to make her jealous by grinding up on Nicki Minaj.
Seen through the prism of unrequited love, this wild party takes on an air of melancholy, as though the person whose eyes we see it through is distanced from it by that strange yet familiar feeling of remembering a moment even as it is happening. This nostalgia for the present, a particularly teenage emotion, is intensified by the video’s aesthetic, which approximates MTV’s Spring Break if it were more wholesome and filmed more like a Levi’s commercial. It is almost as though JB is taking a step back from the period of his adolescence, appreciating its glory and sadness and the ways in which this already momentous stage of his life has been complicated by his extreme fame.
I never expected to feel any sympathy for the artist responsible for “Baby” and “Boyfriend,” but every teenager can feel somewhat oppressed by his or her melancholy sense of the passage of time, even Justin Bieber. Actually, especially Justin Bieber. His career has an expiration date – the moment he ceases to appeal to 12-year-old girls–and so he knows that every day, he’s probably the most on top of the world he’ll ever be again. This 18-year-old’s coming adulthood probably carries far more promises of fading away than of exciting new possibilities. There is no way he couldn’t know that, and what must it be like at 18, with your life ahead of you, to have the headiest of your days behind you?
Thus, oddly enough, this fluffy, cotton-candy video made me realize that even though Justin Bieber is a purveyor of drivel, it seems he has a soul.
This article originally appeared in the Princeton University newspaper the Nassau Weekly.