Justin Bieber's Latest Videos Are Straight-Up Poverty Porn

And I'd like to know who told him this was a good idea.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Mar 26 2021

10 mins read

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I would like to start this newsletter by acknowledging that “Peaches” is a bop and the video is exactly the neon-hued vibe I have been waiting for. Cool? Cool. Beliebers, this means you can’t get mad me when I say that we’ve got to talk about some of Justin Bieber’s other recent music videos—and, yes, also those very strange Martin Luther King, Jr. interludes on his sixth album, Justice, which dropped on March 19.

I first noticed something was… uh, let’s say amiss back in September, when Bieber released the video for “Holy.” The theme was love overcoming hardship; in the video, he plays an oil worker whose girlfriend (Ryan Destiny) works at a retirement home. When video-Justin isn’t artfully covered in faux oil, hard hat perched on his tousled blond curls and gazing into the distance from the bed of his pickup truck, he’s doing other poor-people things, like getting laid off from his job at an oil “plant” (which I think is actually an oil well, but I’m not RuPaul, so what do I know?), staring into his girlfriend’s eyes during magic hour at the motel where they live because they can’t afford rent and also getting evicted from said motel, because they can no longer afford to even pay for that. But it’s okay, because a soldier (Wilmer Valderrama) driving home after his deployment spots the couple sitting in the parking lot surrounded by hastily-packed boxes of their possessions and invites them to join his family for a meal. Heart-warming 😐.

 

 “Anyone” dropped on New Year’s Day. This time, video-Justin is an aspiring boxer in 1960s California. He’s fighting to become some sort of champion, with the unspoken message that winning the next big fight will change everything for him and his girlfriend (Zoey Deutch). You can tell everything needs changing because he lives in a dilapidated house with weathered siding, a grimy kitchen and a rusted-out pickup truck in the backyard, which he uses for triceps dips because he… can’t afford a gym membership? Yes, let’s go with that.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Bieber released “Hold On.” This one opens with video-Justin riding a motorcycle down what looks like L.A. side streets, while a phalanx of police cars chases him. At first, I thought we were done with the poverty porn, but nope. Turns out he’s a working class guy whose girlfriend (Christine Ko) gets a devastating cancer diagnosis, and when they can’t afford to pay for her treatment, he goes with the obvious option and robs a bank.

 

It’s not actually “woke” to perform poverty

 

It’s clear what Bieber and his collaborator on these videos, director Colin Tilley, are trying to do here. Their goal is to make some unspecified statement about precarious work, affordable housing, the high cost of healthcare in America and/or poverty in general, which is an admirable desire, I guess. But in practice, these videos feature Bieber and a bunch of other actors pretending to be members of America’s downtrodden in order to tell a love story and to project some sort of nobility and honour onto "simple" lives. There’s no actual engagement with the systemic reasons why hard, dirty jobs are often the only option for young people in North America, or why so many young, and particularly racialized, women don’t have access to healthcare. And okay, maybe that’s a lot to ask of a music video. But without that context, what’s the final message of “Holy,” really? That people experiencing poverty and homelessness can depend on the kindness of strangers? That love overcomes all? These are glib platitudes, not reality.

I was also struck by the way poverty was curated into an aesthetic, from the close-ups of chipped countertops and grimy walls to the “simple” clothing—waffle-knit shirts, coveralls, work boots—Bieber's characters wear to a meat-and-potatoes dinner scene in "Hold On," all of which were carefully chosen to project the ideas of authenticity and grit. This isn’t unusual at all; in a 2002 takedown of poverty chic for the Guardian, Zoe Williams notes that, “all major religions have at their core some notion of the poor being inherently pious. All eras that placed creativity at a premium had consonant topoi about starving in garrets, as if going without takes you closer to a higher sensibility.” But this trope pushes the idea that suffering is necessary for authenticity, which is not only incorrect, it's lazy storytelling and also kind of offensive. (I guarantee that anyone who has actually struggled in this way did not worry about the purity of their experience.)

 

Pop culture has a long history of glamourizing poverty

 

Bieber’s not the first to dabble in “poverty chic,” of course. Google the term and you’ll find think pieces devoted to fashion's fascination with poverty dating back decades. John Galliano's 2000 spring-summer haute couture collection for Christian Dior is widely considered the starting point for the trend; the designer proudly proclaimed that he took inspiration from people experiencing homelessness and mental illness for inspiration. The result? According to Maureen Dowd’s New York Times review of the show, “[models] came down the runway… swathed in newspapers, with torn linings and inside-out labels, accessorized with empty little green J&B whiskey bottles, tin cups dangling from the derriere, bottle caps, plastic clothespins and safety pins.” In 2008, model and jewelry designer Erin Wasson told Nylon TV, “the people with the best style for me are the people that are the poorest. Like, when I go down to Venice Beach and I see the homeless, like, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’re pulling out, like, crazy looks and they, like, pulled shit out of like garbage cans.” (Charming.) I’d even argue the Olsen twins’ early aughts layered looks and Terry Richardson’s ‘70s porn aesthetic relied on remixing or referencing visual markers of poverty.

And of course, it happens outside of fashion, too. Remember the time Kim Kardashian posted a slew of new photos on Instagram, all taken in what looked like a grimy 1970s basement, complete with wood paneled walls and a sepia filter? (BuzzFeed’s Sylvia Obell made a pretty convincing case that it was actually super producer Rick Rubin’s home.) That was definitely some performing poverty bullshit. Her sister Kendall’s fondness for Von Dutch trucker hats (and the initial early aughts trend) probably comes from a similar place.

 

But of course, none of these people are actually poor, and that’s the problem. As Kat George explained in 2017, “the rich acting poor isn’t emulation or flattery. Indeed, the aesthetic [they are] glamorizing is a daily reality for many — often born out of cyclical patterns of institutional bias, social stigma, cultural abuse, and a whole system that is rigged to ensure that those poor stay poor, while the rich jealously guard their privilege.”

 

So, like those fashion designers, photographers and other celebrities, what Bieber’s doing right now is selectively and superficially reproducing an idea of what poverty means, with enough aesthetic flair to appeal to his fans—but no acknowledgement of his own privilege. In fact, by inhabiting the experience of poverty, he gets to brush that privilege under the proverbial rug. It's not that different from cultural appropriation, in that he's able to "put on" the parts of poverty that he likes without assuming any of the struggle. And it's not like he's reinvesting into the communities he's emulating for profit, either.

For the record, it did not have to be this way. There have been music videos that grapple with social videos in powerful ways, including "I Found You/Nilda's Story" a charity version of Benny Blanco, Calvin Harris & Miguel's song "I Found You" that tells the story of Nilda, a Honduran woman who is trying seek political asylum in the U.S. The musicians don't appear in this version of the music video at all, so they're certainly not pretending to be poor and disenfranchised. And the song and video explicitly raise awareness and funds for While They Wait, an organization that supports asylum seekers in America.

 

And about those Martin Luther King Jr. quotes...

 

Taken on their own, or even as a trio, Bieber's videos would be a slightly annoying artistic choice by a pop star—worth talking about, just as a reminder that we shouldn’t glamorize the very real struggles of poverty, but not particularly revelatory. But I think his choice to use social justice as a framing mechanism for Justice changes the conversation a little bit.

The very first voice listeners hear on the album is not Bieber’s, but instead Martin Luther King Jr.’s. The first track, “2 Much,” contains an excerpt from “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (“injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”). Later, Bieber includes a one minute and 44-second clip from King’s 1967 sermon “But If Not” as a lead-in to his song “Die For You,” which is about being so in love that you’d die for your partner. The sermon begins, “I say to you, this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren't fit to live.” Two things about this: despite the clumsy social justice-themed videos Bieber has released, those two MLK excerpts are the only parts of the album that have anything to do with the idea of justice. And King actually did die for this cause; he was assassinated in 1968.

 

Conflating the idea that you’d metaphorically die for someone with the belief that racial equality is a cause worth dying is a good encapsulation of the problem with Bieber's entire approach here. As Elamin Abdelmahmoud argued in his recent review of the album, “to say the justice theme on Justice is thin is to give it too much credit. It simply does not pop up anywhere else. It feels like a forced fit, a graceless attempt to inject the album into pertinent social justice conversations that are unfolding, but comes off like a Black Lives Matter statement by Gushers: Justice was less a framing device on the album, more of a hollow attempt to land a news cycle or two.”

 

Music videos are probably the lowest-stakes way to take a stance on some of the most important issues of our time (aside from posting black squares on social media, I guess), but it's much worse to realize that these videos weren't even really about taking a stance—they were about signalling progressiveness as a marketing tool. That's why this conversation has to be about more than just artistic choice. It also has to tackle how celebrities engage with social justice movements and whether they're making genuine statements of solidarity, or just trying to associate themselves with something they think their audiences like for fun and profit.

And you can guess what I think is happening here: Bieber's videos, and the overarching theme of justice on the album itself, feel calculated and disingenuous, like a way to score social justice points without really engaging with social justice at all.

 

And Did You Hear About…

 

Riverdale star Charles Melton’s powerful essay on embracing his Asian-American identity.

 

Elle’s excellent analysis on Framing Britney Spears and Kid 90, and how they both ask us to reckon with an era that we aren’t actually that removed from.

 

Meghan McCain’s latest ridiculous statement about diversity, which came two days after she had to apologize for defending Trump when he called COVID-19 the “China virus.” (Also, her hair stylist clearly hates her.)

 

Another recent article about new reports of rising anti-Asian racism in Canada, and how solidarity can help.

 

This wild ride about author Sara Gruen becoming obsessed with freeing a man from prison.

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