How Worrisome is Bieber Fever?

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 16 2011 9:49 AM

How Worrisome is Bieber Fever?

Last night's episode of Glee reminded us that the adorable, androgynous JustinBieber is today's consummate peddler of baby-faced teen romance. If any currentcelebrity belonged on the cover of Lisa Simpson's beloved Non-ThreateningBoys Magazine , it would be the Biebs.

When he lost the Grammyfor best new artist this weekend to jazz musician Esperanza Spalding, it was mostlypretty cute to see how personally his legion of fans took the news. Like inthis video, which Conan O'Brien aired during hisBieber interview on Monday:

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(See more reactionvideos here .)

But lots of fans reactedin ways that seem less sweet than scary. Spalding's Wikipedia page was attackedthat night , with one irate Bieber fan commanding the woman to "GO DIE IN AHOLE." Twitter lit up with viciouschatter in the same vein .

The Spalding incident isjust the latest in a string of Internet attacks on those who've been seen asthreats to Bieber—or to Bieber fans themselves. Members of Bieber Nation tweeted deaththreats at Selena Gomez when Life& Style published photos of the tween stars kissing; Kim Kardashian got thesame treatment when she tweeted a picture of her and Bieber hanging out inthe Bahamas. SydneyDalton , the non-famous girl who had the audacity to proclaim herself "over"Bieber in a YouTube video, was swiftlyand savagely trashed online by incensed supporters.

Bieber isn'tthe first teen idol to whip his young fans into a frothingmad frenzy , or the first to evoke an intense sense of proprietary feelingin roiling, adolescent hearts and minds. But he is one of the first huge teenpop stars whose career is unfolding entirely in the digital age—and that addsan interesting new wrinkle to the hysteria.

The same things thathave made cyberbullying a distinct phenomenon are at play here. It's so easy to shoot off a tweet orupload an angry YouTube video when you've been doing it all your life. Andwhile the line between celebsand their followers grows (or seems to grow) thinner every day, soldiers inthe Bieber Army don't really have clear senses of their targets: They may feelthey are spitting their venom at Esperanza Spalding directly, but none of themactually had to look her in the eye as they were doing so. None of them, I imagine,believe that they will face any real consequences for their actions. (At the same time,unlike in previous generations—when those expressions of hatred would havestayed confined to, say, a diary—Spalding has to be aware of the eviland doom these kids are wishing upon her.) Add in themighty, frightening force that is teenage emotion and the Internet's ability toturn a bunch of people at their computers into a Hydra-like mob, and you've gota pretty toxic soup.

At the same time, youcould argue that Bieber devotees are just acting out a key part of what itmeans to be a fan of something (if in a slightly deranged version). After all, fandomisn't just about celebration; it's also, ultimately, aboutcompetition —whether it's "my football team can crush your football team,"or "I can name more obscure Bob Dylan B-sides than you can," or "I love JustinBieber more than you do, and I'm going to PROVE IT." Plenty of us managed tooutgrow ourpre-adolescent passions and become relatively sane, normal adults.

So is the nasty side ofBieber Fever something we should be worried about? Or is it just a bunch ofkids going through a phase en masse, in public?

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