Bieber, the Stains and the triumph of the false pretender

by on Mar.01, 2011

Over at Big Other, the marvelous Tim Jones-Yelvington wrote first a response to the Bieber movie, Never Say Never, that wonderfully captures the uneasy desire the film and its subject invoke; and second, a review of sorts. He pretty much articulates my own responses to the film: euphoria, confetti!, realization.

I don’t think the Biebs’ performance of nonsexuality is as much the same-old as Tim and other critics have said — in general I think any kneejerk dismissal of repetition and difference in celebrity cycles is unfortunate — Gaga’s “just copying” Madonna, Bieber is this moment’s Backstreet Boys — it’s all the same, no it isn’t. Cintra Wilson in her essay collection A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease discusses boy bands and “the unhealthy love of rock stars by little girls,” pointing to the “amorphous nonsexuality” of the Monkees as the crucial difference between then and now, where teen stars are “possessed of a mature, diabolically supercharged megasexuality.” “Now” for Wilson’s book is 2001; now, ten years later, post-Britney/Backstreet/nSync, teen pop megasexuality is pretty much boring, and Bieber’s nonerotic loving fits in well with our cultural moment of Twilight abstinence porn. In his first piece, Tim writes, “And the climax of this infomercial will be when I remember I have no sexual interest in Justin Bieber whatsoever” — and then imagines fucking Justin’s biological dad, rewriting the asexual narrative. Likewise, plenty of Bieber fans rewrite the asexual narrative in their own ways, just as Twilight fans have done.

Others are content to express romantic nonsexual desire, which tends to involve marriage — which for these girls generally means ownership. At one point in the film the camera locks in on a particular group of fangirls arguing over who’s going to marry Justin first. When one of them, obviously the most powerful in the group at least in this territory, claims it — “No, you’re not, I’m going to be Justin’s first wife” — the others shut up and sort of smile in uneasy support/defeat. If the film shows quite clearly that Justin’s priorities are, unsurprisingly, hardly romantic, it also highlights the ways in which his Beliebers are pretending. The screaming, the crying, the unhealthy love and simulation of desire: all obligatory aspects of the role of the committed and competitive megafan.

*

Watching the Biebz movie brought to mind another film featuring hysterical tween/teenage girls, except in this one their mania-object is herself a teenage girl. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN THE FABULOUS STAINS (1983) follows the rise and (plot spoiler!) fall of (fictional) girl punk band The Stains, whose lead singer Corinne “Third Degree” Burns (played by Diane Lane) becomes a fashion statement and feminist icon, inspiring a horde of female fan-clones. Her fans become her, mimicking their desire-object through hair and dress. Corinne (who is only fifteen, I think, maybe sixteen) becomes the site of their desire and hope: for something else, for more power, more dignity, more sexual agency; for female/feminist community. The girls who follow her are clones or revolutionaries, probably both.

In his essay “The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy,” referenced last week by James Pate in his Chaos Theory post, Deleuze manages to make the simulacrum — always already negative in aesthetics, subsumed by a Platonian reverence for the Original and its copy — positive. The Platonian motivation, Deleuze says, is always “selecting among the pretenders, distinguishing good and bad copies or, rather, copies (always well-founded) and simulacra (always engulfed in dissimilarity)” (257). The copy in these terms is necessarily second to the original. There is always rank, a hierarchy that privileges the Original as though such an almighty thing exists.

In Platonian terms, then, the simulacrum is a degraded copy — and Baudrillard shares in this sneering at the simulacrum. Deleuze however recuperates it from this assumption of ‘degradation’ (or maybe more so from the assumption that degradation is negative, automatically inauthentic because impoverishing to the Original). For Deleuze, the simulacrum is not so much a false pretender as an active pretender, a pretender that pretends “underhandedly, under cover of an aggression, an insinuation, a subversion, ‘against the father,’ and without passing through the Idea.” In other words, the simulacrum enacts the falsity of the Original – like Butler’s drag.

In THE FABULOUS STAINS, Corinne’s fans at first seem like degraded copies, unable to attain the authenticity of the original: Plato’s false pretenders. They are presented in this way as horrifying by the media circus in the film.

But as the movie progresses, the film presents these fans more and more as Deleuzian simulacra, that is, not degraded copies, but active pretenders, who in their pretense “harbor a positive power which denies the original and the copy, the model and the reproduction.The film is full of fakers — everybody’s playing roles, with Corinne, who seems to have the most integrity and authenticity as a performer, also being the most “false”: she can’t really sing or play, and at one point she brazenly lifts a song from another band.

Deleuze: “Simulation is the phantasm itself…it involves the false as power….it establishes the world of nomadic distributions and crowned anarchies.” (263)

“What it really amounts to is girl dropouts using the media…” says one TV news anchor accusingly in the film — which is framed, like Bieber’s, around the group’s exploitation of and embrace by contemporary (late-70s/early-80s) media. The Stains’ reign quickly crumbles, and Corinne’s fans, her phantasms, are the only ones who can accommodate her failure, picking her up on a motorbike (if my memory’s right) after she gets rejected by the media and the patriarchal world of rock/pop. (Supposedly Nancy Dowd, the screenwriter, disowned the film due to this happy ending — I don’t know the details — does anyone? I’m curious how her original ending differs.)

Bieber remains vivacious, though we know from the current Backstreet/NKOTB reunion tour that his movement towards artistic decay and irrelevancy looms large — unless he can find a different model. But is that all there is? Is riot grrrl a degraded copy of the Stains? Is Bieber a degraded copy of the Monkees, Jackson 5, the Beatles, New Kids on the Block, Menudo, nSync, Backstreet? No, I’m a Belieber — these are not degradations or even copies, but simulacra: “There is no longer any privileged point of view except that of the object common to all points of view. There is no possible hierarchy, no second, no third…The same and the similar no longer have an essence except as simulated, that is as expressing the functioning of the simulacrum….It is the triumph of the false pretender.” (262)

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10 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I love this post. This is in part of why I talk so much about “the foreigner is kitsch” – the sense that the foreigner is a counterfeit, an imitation; and why i don’t mean this as a slur but as a way to access a kind of energy.

    Also, there is something murderous (or perceived murderous) about teenage girls – they will tear you apart in their imitation-obsession, tear apart the original. In his autobiography, Keith Richards says that the scariest person is the teenage girl.

    Johannes

  2. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    A teenage girl speaks as a melodramatic, hysterical demon.

  3. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    I am interested in bringing the simulacrum frame into conversation with the film’s visual exploration of Bieber’s iconography and fetishizing of his stuff. I feel like what you’ve said here helped me better clarify for myself (or at least gave me a new lens through which to interpret) my own fascination with Bieber’s surface aesthetics (and the film’s delivery of them) and the role repetition plays there, like that row of identical purple sneakers.

  4. James Pate

    Hi Megan,

    Great post…your critique of the Platonic (and Baudrillardian) notion of the simulacrum as a type of degraded copy of the original is–I think–exactly right. I think Warhol is very much part of this too: he produced, he manically generated images, and he had no nostalgia for the a supposed lost world of the original. He reveals the gap between glamour and nostalgia (unless that “nostalgia” is a fake nostalgia, a melodramatic nostalgia, a glamourous nostalgia).

    I also think the Platonic dread of the simulacrum relates directly to the fear of image. Images are many, they’re multipliers: their very logic works against the singular and the original. An image is always inauthentic.

  5. Joyelle McSweeney

    Yes, repetition, Fordism. Making replication itself visible. The girls don’t want to be his only wife, or his last wife, but his first wife– the one all the others will follow from, the first in a series. Identity as that which is identical. Beiber hardly seems the same as himself. Which is the real Beibz– dancing in the Macy’s day parade, on the Today show, on the racks at the store, as a doll, on a t-shirt worn by thousands of girls? A haircut, a singing voice, a dance move, a t-shirt? What’s important is that everything can enter itself into this series. You can be one of the uncountable fangirls, teh first of the uncountable wives. To feel/like one is the only girl in teh world is the same as to feel like a girl replicated everywhere. Even Gaga says her name twice. Madonna is only the second=most iconic Madonna in history, after the mother of God. Madonna is an imitation and she accepts imitations. Of course some of these imitations are mimicry and generate the friction of difference and others are accumulations that maybe do not? How many fangirls do you need before the amt stops being helpful to capitalism and starts being a problem?

  6. Joyelle McSweeney

    But of course, even Our Lady exists as uncountable Our Ladies– Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of the Snows, Notre Dame du Lac, Notre Dame des Fleurs, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, etc etc

  7. Johannes

    One more thing: The serial killer – always one of the crowd, exactly like everyone else, a chameleon.

    Johannes

  8. megan

    yes, totally to all of this! “hell is a teenage girl” – jennifer’s body
    tim, yes, i love what you say about the biebs’ surface aesthetics in your review and here;
    james, yes, deleuze references pop art in this essay only once but warhol is written all over it.
    joyelle: love this comment. yeah, as soon as i think i’ve grasped gaga she slips away, like kathy acker, made of intertexts.
    johannes, this is only indirectly related but have you read EVERDAY PSYCHOKILLERS: A HISTORY FOR GIRLS by lucy corin (a novel)? i’m reading it now, it’s fascinating, i bet you’d dig it.

  9. New York Times’s Nostalgic Vision of Poetry - Montevidayo

    […] We might go back to Megan Milks’ post again: In his essay “The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy,” referenced last week by James Pate in his Chaos Theory post, Deleuze manages to make the simulacrum — always already negative in aesthetics, subsumed by a Platonian reverence for the Original and its copy — positive. The Platonian motivation, Deleuze says, is always “selecting among the pretenders, distinguishing good and bad copies or, rather, copies (always well-founded) and simulacra (always engulfed in dissimilarity)” (257). The copy in these terms is necessarily second to the original. There is always rank, a hierarchy that privileges the Original as though such an almighty thing exists. In Platonian terms, then, the simulacrum is a degraded copy — and Baudrillard shares in this sneering at the simulacrum. Deleuze however recuperates it from this assumption of ‘degradation’ (or maybe more so from the assumption that degradation is negative, automatically inauthentic because impoverishing to the Original). For Deleuze, the simulacrum is not so much a false pretender as an active pretender, a pretender that pretends “underhandedly, under cover of an aggression, an insinuation, a subversion, ‘against the father,’ and without passing through the Idea.” In other words, the simulacrum enacts the falsity of the Original – like Butler’s drag. […]