When I gave Justin Bieber his first proper OverthinkingIt.com treatment back in March, I feel like there were many observers (outside of the target demographic of pre-teen girls) who didn’t quite know who exactly this kid was or what he’s all about. Fast forward a few months; by now, all of you should have at least a passing familiarity with his works and his contributions to the pop culture dialectic.
So with Bieber Studies 101 behind us, it’s time to get into some dangerous territory in Bieber Studies 201. If you haven’t seen this yet, take a look at his latest video, “Somebody to Love”:
In case you can’t bring yourself to watch a Justin Bieber music video all the way through, here are the two visuals from the video that we’ll be focusing on. First is a fan dance:
And the second is a large Chinese character displayed on the way. It’s the character for “love”:
Fan girls & a massive Chinese character?
Now, some of you out there may be groaning and saying to yourself, “Here goes Lee on another Angry Asian Male Rant about how Asians are poor victims of prejudice in pop culture.” I could do that, but honestly, I’m more confused than anything else.
Let’s start with the fan dancers. What’s going on here?
Facile sexual objectification of Asian women? Are the fans meant to be evocative of stereotypical images of geisha girls?
If I were going for the pure, unadulterated rant against racial stereotyping, this is where I’d go. But let’s not get too excited; it probably doesn’t make sense for the video producers to try to appeal to Justin Bieber’s target audience of 14 year old girls using geisha stereotypes. It’s useful to remind ourselves of how women girls typically appear in Justin Bieber music videos when there’s no “Asian” theme present:
Attractive, photogenic, but not sexy. Notions of love and romance are OK for a Justin Bieber music video, but not sex and lust. So that part of the Asian stereotype isn’t at play. Obvious, perhaps, but worth stating because it allows us to focus our attention on the more important matter at hand: what is this all-Asian troupe of dancers doing performing a decidedly Asian dance style in this video that, aside from the huge Chinese character for “love” as a prop (more on that later), has absolutely nothing to do with Asia or Asian culture?
The best answer I can come up with is that someone–probably Justin Bieber, given his age–just recently discovered this whole “Asia” thing and really wanted to give it a whirl in this music video. Allow me to explain. Remember in the early 80’s, when Van Halen’s virtuosic two hand tapping technique was brand new and blowing minds? Quincy Jones wanted a piece of that for Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” and now the world has a metal guitar solo in the middle of an R&B dance song.
Here’s a better analogy. I remember when I was a kid and I first discovered Tabasco sauce. For a few weeks I put it on everything I ate that wasn’t breakfast cereal. I mean, everything. Kind of like an 80’s music producer putting two-hand tapping guitar solos on everything he can get his hands on.
Back to Justin Bieber. Here’s my hypothesis. He’s a young man, still learning all of the different cultures of the world. Perhaps recently he stumbled across a kung fu movie. Or a Wu Tang Clan album. Or this clip on YouTube:
Whatever the source, he became so enamored with the novelty of Asian fan dancing and stylized Chinese calligraphy that he insisted on including these elements in his next music video.
And the next thing you know, he’s dancing with Usher in a room on fire with the Chinese character for “love” on the back wall.
Quincy Jones discovered shred metal guitar solos and put it on a Michael Jackson song. I discovered Tabasco sauce and put it on potato chips. Justin Bieber discovered Asian stuff and put it in his music video.
The whole thing reeks of naivete. Whoever put this together wasn’t sophisticated or aware enough of the hegemonic discourse to make it a racially exploitative exercise. Which makes it a little bit of a letdown for Overthinking purposes, I know. Believe me, I was looking everywhere for even the smallest hint of exploitation, but I came up empty.
Sometimes, a 16 year old boy dancing in a room with a 32 year old man with a Chinese character behind them is just a 16 year old boy dancing in a room with a 32 year old man with a Chinese character behind them.
Disagree? Want to go on your own rant against the blatant racism in this music video? Sound off in the comments!