The Musical Talmud: “One Less Lonely Girl” by Justin Bieber

While the rest of the internet was busy deciphering Lady Gaga’s latest music video “Telephone,” my attention was turned to a far more relevant and, dare I say, revolutionary, piece of video-music art. I am, of course, referring to Justin Bieber’s treatise on American renewal, “One Less Lonely Girl.”

[For those of you who may not be familiar with Justin Bieber, I direct you to this summary of his life and accomplishments to date. In short, he’s a young pop star who is adored by pre-teen girls to the point where a cancellation of his concert caused a riot in a Long Island mall. Also, he is a trending topic on Twitter. Every day. At all hours. Which I suppose makes him less of a “Trending Topic” on Twitter and more of an “understood topic at all times.” But I digress.]

Have you watched the video all the way through? No? The silky-smooth auto-tuned voice and baby-faced good looks were too much for you to handle? Not an excuse. Suck it up and watch. I’ll even embed it again for your convenience:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXUSaVw3Mvk

Finished now? Good. If this was your first time watching, I wouldn’t blame you for missing the political message and only seeing the maudlin (not to mention slightly creepy) love story at play. To summarize, Justin Bieber is hanging out a laundromat, where he makes eyes with a girl who, judging by the lyrics of the song, has recently exited an unsatisfactory romantic relationship. The girl intentionally leaves the scarf as a signal to Bieber to pursue. Rather than return the scarf immediately, Bieber leads the girl to him (and the scarf) through arrow signs and Polaroids promising future romantic satisfaction. The arrows and Polaroids lead the girl back to the laundromat, where she and Bieber share a romantic slow dance.

Admittedly, this plot is pretty weak. The system of arrows and Polaroids at first seems like some sort of Robert Langdon-esque series of clues, but the messages with the Polaroids are nothing but romantic platitudes without any hints as to the next step on the journey. All direction is left to the arrows–there’s no ambiguity as to where the girl should go next.

Now, let’s dig deeper, shall we?

American Tradition

As I mentioned before, this song/video offers a treatise on American renewal, not just a nice little love story involving two tweenagers. Let’s start with the setting. Did you notice those strategically placed American flags dotted throughout the video?

U...

...S...

...A!

As Fenzel astutely noted in his analysis of the placement of Vespa scooters on the set of the music video for “Morning After Dark,” these sorts of details aren’t accidental. Somebody had to spend a day finding American flags and placing them such that they’d appear in the video, and as such, they’re important to our analysis.

The flags clearly tell us that the setting is designed to reach beyond its specific locale and represent all of America. But not just any America. Did you notice that the overall setting is that of a typical small town “Main Street”?

Can someone cue the John Mellencamp?

Or that the newsstand (in itself slightly anachronistic) carries vintage comic books and has an old-school mechanical cash register?

"Kid Cowboy" was an actual comic book from the '50s. Look it up.

Or that the door to the laundromat sports a 50’s era vintage sign?

Not sure what the significance of the misspelt "Kleen" is. If you have any ideas, hit me in the comments.

Or that the girl’s laundry basket is wicker, not plastic?

Sometimes, a laundry basket is just a laundry basket. This is not one of those times.

These details aren’t bashing the viewer over the head, but when put together, it’s surprising the lengths the video director went through to convey this sense of nostalgic Americana. This is a Justin Bieber video we’re talking about–most 12 year old girls who comprise his audience could care less about these sorts of details–yet someone chose to put them here. I repeat: it’s no accident.

American Struggle

Now, let’s dig a little more into the circumstances of the characters depicted in the video. The girl is doing laundry in a laundromat, which is never the most desirable place to do laundry. Outside of college campuses and New York City, laundromats are seen as the place to do laundry if you’re one of those unfortunate people who can’t afford to live in a place that offers the most basic of amenities, a washer and dryer.

In other words, the girl is poor, which is why she’s at the laundromat.

There's a black guy in the background. I repeat: it's not an accident.

This little piece of setup casts the heartache described in the lyrics in a totally different light. The girl’s suffering is less about romance and more about her economic well-being:

How many I told you’s
And start overs and shoulders
Have you cried on before
How many promises be honest girl
How many tears you let hit the floor
How many bags you packed
Just to take ‘em back, tell me that
How many either or’s

There’s a recession out there, not just for this girl, but also for this quaint little main street. Notice anything about these shots?

Storefront, interior...

Storefront, exterior.

The lights are off inside, and the woodwork outside is worn down and in need of repair. It’s clearly a vacant storefront, another sign of hard times.

The video has created a portrait of a struggling American in a struggling All-American town. Remember, those details–the flags, the sign, the laundromat–aren’t accidental. They’re there to provide the context for the delivery of the message of American renewal.

American Renewal: Communitarianism, Fiscal Responsibility

Fortunately for the girl, the town, and our nation, the video demonstrates how we have the capacity to lift ourselves up and out of our predicament.

Although the town may be facing hard times, it retains both a vibrant street life and a communitarian spirit. The social fabric of the community remains strong and is essential to Bieber’s plan to woo the girl; without willing cooperation of strangers, his plan simply would not have been possible.

By the way, in case you didn't catch it, the Polaroid camera is another intentional call to nostalgia.

The message is clear: America can only be redeemed through collective action and a strong sense of community, not through rugged individualism or a fractured public space.

One less lonely girl, indeed.

But in addition to communitarianism, sacrifice is also required to redeem America. Specifically, America must be willing to accept a lower standard of living, or at least reject certain luxuries, to achieve a more sustainable prosperity. The video communicates these through three subtle plot points:

1. Hershey’s = “expensive chocolate”:

Side note: continuity error in the way he's holding the chocolate bar in his hand.

2. Bieber’s flower of choice is a single humble daisy instead of a more decadent bouquet of roses:

I'm pretty sure she sells roses at this stand. But the poor kid couldn't afford them.

3. Most importantly, the humble laundromat and not a fancy ballroom or club, serves as the site of the couple’s romantic slow dance:

Later he shows her his "spin cycle."

American Renewal: Regime Change Starts At Home

This call to communitarianism and fiscal restraint is well reflected by the video, but less so by the lyrics. In fact, they convey a far more singularly focused message:

Don’t need these other pretty faces
‘Cause when your mine in the world
There’s gonna be one less lonely girl
One less lonely girl
One less lonely girl
One less lonely girl
There’s gonna be one less lonely girl
I’m gonna put you first
I’ll show you what your worth
If you let me inside your world
There’s gonna be one less lonely girl

At first, this seems at odds with the visual message: the video preaches community, but the text preaches singular devotion. However, this singular devotion is actually part of the same prescription for American renewal as are communitarianism and fiscal responsibility. Many have argued that a major factor in America’s recent decline was our government’s undue attention towards foreign, and not domestic, concerns (“those other pretty faces”). This includes expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the increased economic competition brought on by globalization and free trade.

When Bieber says “I’m gonna put you first,” he advocates for our government to prioritize its domestic concerns above all others. Without expensive overseas wars, nation-building, and destructive global capitalism to distract America and siphon away it wealth, people can reconnect with each other, rebuild their communities, and return to a simpler way of life.

Conclusion

None of the individual components of this message are by themselves novel. David Brooks has been preaching the need for a renewed sense of American communitarianism for years in his columns. Annie Leonard’s recent book, The Story of Stuff, criticizes the vicious cycle of American consumerism and advocates for a simpler way of life. And countless leftists have railed against free trade, globalization, and nation-building wars for decades.

But few have brought these disparate ideas together in such a compelling way as Justin Bieber. And none have certainly applied auto-tuned vocals and baby-faced good looks to conveying this message to an unwitting and highly receptive young audience. His ideas have the ability to influence a whole new generation of political thinkers and leaders. Once they set forth to make this vision a reality, there truly will be one less lonely girl:

America.

HOPE. ZOMG.

Postscript

OK, I’m not seriously suggesting that Justin Bieber, his music video director, or any of the other people involved in the making of this video were trying to advance a political agenda through a high-concept allegory. But I do find it fascinating that so much of the imagery seems to advance this idea that in traditional, small town America, ordinary folks live a modest life and achieve their goals through cooperation and trust. This stands in stark contrast to the heroic individualism and material excess of most pop music narratives.

I would say that the message of this video is somehow connected to Bieber’s humble origins and some sort of attempt to introduce him as a safe, non-threatening entertainer, but that theory is mostly contradicted by his first music video, in which he throws an unauthorized party a the house of R&B legend Usher:

As for what’s going on in this video, well, that’s another topic for another day.

Post-Postscript

ZOMG JUSTIN BIEBER IS SO HOT AND I WANT 2 HAVE HIS BABIEEES <3<3<3333333

16 Comments on “The Musical Talmud: “One Less Lonely Girl” by Justin Bieber”

  1. Aaron #

    Is your contention with the second video that pinwheels (!) and silly string represent threats to the youth of today?

     
  2. Joe #

    @Aaron: Do mean to say that pinwheels and silly string *do not* represent threats to the youth of today? Stay away from my (future) children!

     
  3. Jon Eric #

    So wait a second. He doesn’t write his songs. He’s not actually playing guitar in this music video (the camera strategically hides the fretboard, but it can’t hide the spastic motions of his left arm [hey! he’s a southpaw!], which are reminiscent of someone who’s never played guitar trying to mime the instrument in a game of charades). He sings them, but is auto-tuned beyond recognition. What is this kid famous for? His baby-faced good looks? C’mon, he’s actually a baby.

    Alright, done ranting. Here’s an interesting subtext in the video: do you really think Little Miss Love Interest is going to find her laundry still waiting for her after spending all day hunting for that scarf? Nope, she went out for that scarf (and the adorable scamp holding it hostage), and left the rest of her laundry in a laundromat patronized by mostly low-income folk. She can kiss that fancy wicker hamper goodbye. Also, I hope she didn’t have any other plans, because it goes from bright and sunshiney mid-afternoon to romantic night during the course of this video. That’s a huge time commitment for a guy whose only known traits are his muppet hair, his inability to play the guitar, and his creepy threats about a scarf.

     
  4. perich #

    Do you think a production assistant blacked out the H in HERSHEY’S for that chocolate bar he poses with, or is there a company that makes those special for just such an occasion?

     
  5. Tom #

    @perich: Probably the same company that makes the purple and orange “DONUTS DONUTS” boxes you occasionally see on sitcoms.

     
  6. DMG #

    What, no mention of how the girl looks to be at least 5 years older then him?

     
  7. Dwight #

    This series is fantastic!

     
  8. Mark #

    That flash back sequence contained one much more distressing continuity error than Bieber’s hand placement on the chocolate bar; at ~3:31 in the video, the girl is handed a puppy. Unlike the flower she receives from Friendly Neighbor #3, which is successfully carried back to the laundromat rendezvous, the puppy has up and disappeared.

    In the original run-through, the girl simply takes the note and continues in her pursuit of Bieber. Was her memory of receiving a puppy real? Or was it just another nostalgic look into the past, remembering things as better than they truly were?

     
  9. Caroline #

    When I see a lovely young couple connecting over a red scarf, all I can think it “Phantom of the Opera.” Good looking, well-connected young fella promising to rescue his love from her tragic past… it’s tenuous, I admit (especially without a phantom figure). But with some effort, it might be able to work.

     
  10. Hazbaz #

    I think that the Pet Store named “Archie’s” complete with cartoon dog also fails into the 50’s comic nostalgia theme.

     
  11. dock #

    Cant believe im the first to bring this up (which makes me fear that I am now “that guy”), but the “kleen” thing is an old ad for Kleenex. I believe.

     
  12. larissa #

    justin eu te amo d+!beijos

     
  13. AB #

    This is all well and good but what about the fact that Justin Bieber is from Canada? (to our everlasting shame, we have a lot of those musically). Where were the Canadian flags? Small-town Canada ideal etc.

     
  14. Ceiling #

    On the basis of talent alone, I don’t understand why this kid is so famous. I’d love to know the inside details of how this sort of thing happens. It’s like some people out there had plans to make some kid famous, and it just happened to be him.

    Perhaps child stars are the new boybands? He certainly seems like a one person boyband. He’s got the dance moves and the white outfit to prove it.

    How nice of the girl to pick up all of the pieces of paper that he left around the place. Very considerate of her to think of keeping the town nice and tidy. She’s in no great rush, just taking it easy and enjoying the moment.

     
  15. Rosa #

    Also note the carefully cast, ambiguously ethnic love-interests for Mr. JB. I’m sure that helps keep the fan base happy

     
  16. RadicalMilitantLibrarian #

    1) JB is Canadian, so I suspect this is a plot to infiltrate our great land with some kind of Socialist nonsense. All those vendors cheerfully sharing their time and posting signs without demanding any sort of repayment for services rendered or use of advertising space? Puh-lease. Why don’t they just post a big ol’ “from each according to his ability” sign right there in the town square?

    2) I can’t believe no one has mentioned JB’s appalling attack on the English language. It will be one FEWER lonely girl, little man… unless you mean to suggest that this one girl will only be slightly less lonely than she was before, once you get through with her. (ZOMG, maybe his grammar is a veiled threat! He’s planning to hurt her, too, but will cause slightly less pain than the last guy?)