At his recent Atlanta concert (yes, I was there and loved it) Justin Bieber was amazing but also his usual petulant self. He asked for a microphone stand. The adjustment mechanism on it broke. He became frustrated and hurled it across the stage.

A crew member came over to fix it. “Why don’t you get me a new one before you fix the broken one,” barked Justin into the microphone so that everyone could hear. He finally began the song but cut it early. “I forgot the last verse, so let’s stop,” was how the song ended.

Kind of insufferable, right? Yes. But he was also remarkably brilliant. In the concert I attended, there were times while singing, in the thick of a song he loves, in which he would look out among the 20,000 gathered fans and let his voice soar to filled up the gigantic space. His countenance became elevated, even ethereal, and the warmth of his emotion, the mastery of his art, and enthusiasm for what he does washed over the crowd and elicited from within the multitudes a collective swoon of adoration.

Awesome Power as a Performer

And so it has been for Justin for the last 6 years, ever since his talent was discovered on a youtube when he was 13-years old, and later recorded his first international smash hit. His presence is followed by the press. The voyeuristic masses can’t consume enough gossip. If he snubs a fan, the headlines light up. His appearances are worth millions. For a 21-year old, he wields uncommon amounts of authority — commanding everyone around him. It’s not a normal life to be one of the world’s most valuable human beings.

How much power does he have? It might seem like it is unlimited. Thousands dote on him. Millions want his attention. His music sells in unprecedented amounts. To say that he behaves like a spoiled child would be to observe nothing particularly interesting. I’ve not read in detail, but it wouldn’t surprise me if members of his staff can tell gripping stories of the difficulties of working for him. He has had famous run-ins with police, has been accused of reckless driving, and famously caused thousands of dollars of damage to a neighbor’s house by throwing eggs at it.

All that silliness aside, the source of his value is his art and his passionate desire to share it with people. This is what drives him. It’s on display night after night through an exhausting, almost superhuman schedule of appearances, interviews, and gigs. When it works, it is awesome. And it is working right now for him, thanks to masterfully navigating out of the bad reputation he developed in 2014 and soaring to new heights in late 2015 with his penitential turn on his new album.

The Substance Behind the Fame

I’ll admit that I’m a huge fan. I’ll defend his talent all day.

Consider his song “Sorry” which seemed to arrive at just the right time to tap into the evangelical penchant for a good sin-and-redemption story. It begins with a chorus of angels (electronically produced from Justin’s own voice) and moves to a text-driven island rhythm of verses with words like “I just need one more shot at forgiveness.” This is interrupted by a blare of trumpets with divine intent to become its now-famous refrain: “Yeah I know that I let you down; Is it too late to say that I’m sorry now?”

The structure draws from a deep cultural memory of Psalm and antiphon with roots in the monastic rituals from middle ages. We plead Miserere Mei and Kyrie Eleison, hoping for redemption through confession. We are weak, admit our guilt, and trust only in freely granted mercy. And, sure enough, the world not only offers forgiveness but flocks to his person and music, inviting him back into the fold.

My friends, this is genius.

It Can Be Lost

Those who put Justin Bieber down seem to not understand what it takes to be able to enthrall millions by dancing and singing into a microphone. One bad night can devastate his career, costing his enterprises (including his cologne line and other product endorsements) millions in revenue.

He can’t just decide not to show up. He can’t be under the weather (he has often performed feeling sick). He can’t determine his own schedule. He is a metaphorical slave to his fame with as much responsibility as a CEO feels to keep the stock price of his company high. The difference is that it is all on his shoulders.

So, yes, as a result of his successes he might seem to have power. It’s not real power. His is the authority to demand, not the power to command, as Richard Lorenc of FEE puts it. He has no sword or special legal privileges.

Who gave him authority? His fans. And they are free to come and go. You can become a fan, pay hundreds for a concert ticket, be among those who buy his latest album. Or you can eschew his music, like most everyone I know among the intellectual elite does. You can put him down, disparage his music, and find his entire cult following to be a disgusting display of teenage gullibility.

There is no downside to taking this view. He can’t hurt you. He won’t punish you. You won’t get on anyone’s no-fly list. Not to like Justin Bieber is a human right that you can exercise with complete free will as an extension of your own preferences.

The Difference Between Justin and the Nation State

And this is one reason that people feel such passion about their views on Justin Bieber and every other pop star out there. We all enjoy the freedom to love, to be indifferent, or to hate. We can join the community of fans or we can secede entirely. Our choice here is a perfect reflection of our individual tastes.

And our tastes can change. We can loathe him one day and love him the next. There is no set calendar that is outside our control. We don’t campaign for his election and then get stuck with a disappointment for four years, and then replace him with someone else. For that matter, our relationships with pop stars is not either/or. They can exist on a graduated scale, so that Bieber is a 10 for now, Adele is a 9, and Taylor Swift is 8. And these can change, with consequences affecting only our lives.

A decisive moment in modern history occurred in the postwar period when an entire generation discovered that their choices over art were more determinative of their lives and the communities to which they belong than the politics of the nation state. Pop became an art and art became the muse of our lives.

That moment was Woodstock and it took place in 1969. It was the beginning of the end of the myth that politics is what brings us together and shapes our sense of the world. A generation suddenly realized that their own tastes and preferences mattered far more. Nothing has been the same since that event. Each year that passes, there is less about politics that enraptures us and more about art and commerce that does, and this is true regardless of ideology.

Politicians, to say nothing of the minions who populate the bureaucratic class, can only pray for the level of authentic public affection we show toward pop stars like Justin Bieber. He might be a jerk from time to time but it is his talent we admire and we are free to withdraw that admiration at any time. Politicians can only trick us into thinking they will improve our lives and then hold on to the results as long as the law allows. It’s no wonder that they are less popular than ever, and, in contrast, we cherish pop stars as we do.

So, yes, there is a redemptive quality to the cultural phenomenon called Justin Bieber. He has my vote, for now.

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