Justin Bieber, Usher, and Asian Cultural Themes in “Somebody to Love”

Forget Bieber Fever. Let’s talk about Yellow Fever.

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:

From the "Baby" music video, which is worth watching for no other reason than to watch Ludacris embarrass himself.

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.

The dancing in this particular scene is extremely awkward, by the way.

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!

9 Comments on “Justin Bieber, Usher, and Asian Cultural Themes in “Somebody to Love””

  1. wendyd #

    I wonder if they included the Asian theme because they used the winners from America’s Best Dance Crews 5, the Poreotics, in this video. The Poreotics is an all Asian California dance crew. They also used the runners up from ABDC 3, Beat Freaks, an all girl group.


    • Redem #

      Didn’t they have an Canadian crew in that one that manage to get to number 2? just imagine what would have happen if they had use that one



  2. stokes #

    Hey, don’t knock Tabasco sauce on potato chips. The taste combination is good, believe. The problem is, though that if you sprinkle it all on at the beginning, the chips get soggy. So you have to sprinkle each individual chip as you eat it, which makes you look like a crazy person.


  3. Darin #

    I’m going to posit that this is the most subtle OTI comedic relief. You know when we expect an item or situation to be carrying on a theme, but instead the item is just what is.

    My favorite example is when James Bond is walking through M’s playground of guns and weapons. He picks up a small tube expecting it to be the next cool thing because the last three have, but M replies that it’s his nasal inhaler.

    Or… maybe it’s not comedic relief. Maybe… it’s “… 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.”

    My dad once said, “Don’t confuse creativity with ignorance”. lee, I think we’ll have to leave J.B. till later.


  4. kwongfucius #

    Or…it’s their misguided attempt to break into that huge untapped market across the pacific? Bieber in Asia anyone? He has Jay Chou’s hair cut from 3 years ago.


    • Rob #

      Yeah, commercial reasons make sense. And didn’t Bieber do that song for the remake of The Karate Kid? Which for some reason was set in China? So maybe this is also a subtle attempt at cross-promotion with the impending DVD release.


      • Simber #

        My thoughts exactly. TKK was a pretty big hit in China when I was there this summer – It’s called Kung Fu Kid there. Overthinking opportunities abound.


  5. richies^ghost #

    The only thing I know for sure about professional music videos of this sort is that they’re manipulative vehicles for selling images and ideals which fans can identify with to fill gaps and live out fantasies, towards making profit….

    Scratch the surface of a cynic and you’ll likely find a disillusioned idealist…

    As such, I can’t imagine that the entire video is purely to satisfy the whims of the Biebstar (though am willing to concede he may have come up with the Asian theme). Unfortunately my playback of the video visuals jumps every second, so I can’t watch it as it was intended; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as a salient feature jumped out. The ladies featured in the clip don’t seem to be the same demographic as I’d expect i.e. “teeny boppers”. Now isn’t that something worth overthinking?

    The first lady (with brown hair and a white jacket) is notably older than Justin, say about 30, and seems quite confident in handling him. Speaking of which, did I imagine her hands climbing up his torso for a split second? I may have also imagined one of the dancers looking at the camera shortly afterwards, head lowered but eyes raised in almost catlike *cough*cougar*cough* way. The second ladyfeatured (not counting the dancer mentioned) is the lead Geisha – I’d put her at being 40 years old, and whilst still beautiful she is perhaps past the prime of those we’d normally find in such music videos. Again I may be imagining things, but it seems as if the Geisha’s who follow her are successively younger. I can’t tell which is doing what at 1:17-1:18 but it seems a tad suspicious for a video where notions of “sex and lust” are not okay…

    Though isn’t it sweet how Justin humours the girl in yellow? She seems a bit young though, and he doesn’t seem all that interested in her, but it’s nice they get along. I don’t have much to say about her at present, except for a split second towards the end where she seemed awfully enamoured with her hair – seemed a tad subliminal that bit. Finally, there is a girl dancing next to Justin at the end. Brown hair, white jacket, though unlike the first lady this one is Justins age. Unfortunately, whilst at his side he doesn’t seem to notice her…


    My immediate thoughts on what this video is trying to sell (gotta love confirmation bias) is the image of an accessible Justin in various forms. For the main audience, the teeny boppers, he’s accessible in that he’s looking for them. Not only that, there’s no competition they have to deal with (no girls similar to them in the video, save for the last one who he doesn’t seem to notice) plus it looks like he’ll get along with their mother, and their kid sister. He’s like the totally perfect boyfriend!

    Mothers though, don’t worry about locking up your daughters around Justin – he’s such a sweetie! Plus if you like, you could always… you know, there are rumours that he likes older women. Of course, if you’re a little older you might prefer Usher; point is that the idea is there if you want to explore it at your leisure. So, if you have to put up with your teenage daughter having a crush on someone, it might as well be Justin, who you can admit is both safe and attractive. Plus you know, he’s good with little kids too, so he could always babysit while you go off with Usher.

    More things to overthink:

    1) Hot pink shoes and fans? Why hot pink? Is this an age thing, a gender thing, or a happy color thing?
    2) The lights hanging from the ceiling. Straight and uniform, bright and futuristic: a harmony of form and function which is a metaphor for collectivist Asian culture?
    3) What’s the deal with the group dance scenes towards the end? Was that just tacked on there because they ran out of budget? Why is the girl dressed similarly to the woman at the start anyways?

    So yeah, the idea that this video was made to satisfy Justins Asian fever without further overthinking by those who created it as an investment, doesn’t hold water with me. Of course, I am biased in that I think most music videos are overthought more by marketing departments more than the artists they feature, so it’s more than possible that my cynicism on commercialism is corrupting my appreciation of Justin’s obvious brilliance ;)


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