Thursday, 11 October 2012

Bieber Fans Show the Roots Of Religion

One way to understand religion is to look at the adoration of celebrities like Justin Bieber. His fans often feel like they have a real relationship with him in very much the same way as Christians see themselves as having a personal relationship with Jesus. It is probable that the early spread of Christianity was very like how the popularity of celebs spreads today in that believers worship the image they had of Christ and not reality. This may seem like a fanciful idea and therefore needs to be justified. This account of Justin Bieber fans from December 2011 is a highly illuminating place to start.

The Beliebers had gathered that night for a buyout, a unique form of Justin Bieber fandom and one of the reasons why he consistently posts huge CD sales despite the fact the majority of his fanbase came out of the womb with iPod earbuds on. In a buyout, Beliebers descend in a biblical swarm on a store that sells Justin Bieber CDs. They buy out the entire stock, two or three copies per girl if they've got the cash. Of course these die-hards already have all of Justin's music, so the CDs are donated to charity after the buyout, usually a local children's hospital. Buyouts are happening all over the country now, to celebrate the release of Justin's new Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe.
At about 8:00pm a pair of older girls mounted a wall in front of the tittering crowd, shouting like generals marshaling an army. This isn't really a metaphor: The buyout was organized via Twitter and Facebook by a Justin Bieber fan group called BieberArmy, which consists of four longtime fans with a popular Bieber fansite and 340,000 Twitter followers. Stephanie, a 19-year-old Bieber Army leader shouted out two ground rules for the evening: 1) Buy as many Justin Bieber CDs as possible and 2) "don't freak out" if Justin Bieber showed up. "Just don't attack him," she stressed.

Bieberanity, like most religions, requires collective acts of worship and demonstrations of faith. Beliebers express their loyalty and devotion by the number of CDs they purchase. The CDs are the alms a good Christian Moslem, Hindu of Buddhist should give. They invest them with a deep value, just as many Christians invest the giving of a Bible or perhaps (depending on which side of the reformation they favour)  a crucifix or picture of the Virgin Mary with deep value.  The Bieber CDs, like these Christian items are perceived to be a comfort and benefit to the sick. The required altruism is an act of submission to the faith.  That same submissiveness is most marked in religions that require believers to give 10% of their income. When we pay for something we make a commitment.

The giving on behalf of the faith makes a statement of its power and status.  It says we have the resources to give and the command over our followers to also get them to do so. 
Let’s return to the account of the buy out.

Things got weird outside after the buying was done. The organizers suddenly halted the mob outside a cafe half a block away. One organizer named Cher revealed that they'd heard some girls hadn't given up the CDs they bought for charity: "If everyone doesn't put their CDs in the bag, Justin's not coming," she warned, holding a giant trash bag full of most of the girls' CDs.
After a minute of awkward silence, three or four girls emerged from the back of the crowd and sheepishly dropped their CDs into a big bag to be donated to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"This is a buyout, not a meet and greet," explained another organizer. "If this was for you to meet Justin I would have labeled it a meet and greet."
"There are people in a hospital right now who can't afford this because of their surgery!" said Cher.

Here we see the use of morality to assert authority over the group. Backsliders are shamed and brought into line. We are very familiar with this approach by those in religious authority. The similarity is found in another significant way.

Bieberanity like other religions is both a rejection and development of earlier religions. It proclaims the uniqueness of the Deity Justin. We find that Islam does not deny its common Abrahamic origins with Christianity and Judaism but claims it arose when Muhammed received a direct message from God. Buddhism arose out Hindu asceticism but again claims to be an uninfluenced realisation. Buddhists claim that reaching the point of true enlightenment is an experience which is beyond influence. Christ, born into Judaism, is said to have not only have been directly influenced by God but to have been God.

We could go back to Elvis starting in the 1950s, the Beatles in the 1960s and then into the 1970s with stars like David Cassidy, or better still the boyish Donny Osmond and you can see the origins of Bieberanity worship. Teenage girls screamed and swooned. They were the mothers and grandmothers of Beliebers and they ate, studied (or failed to concentrate) and slept longing for the benediction of their idol(s).  Their daughters and granddaughters like the Moslems, Buddhists and Christians mentioned above see their faith as very different from the previous ones. Differentiating your religion or pop idol from other ones is a key characteristic of religion and central to Bieberanity.

Perhaps when we wonder at the origins of religion we should look at how teenage girls treat their idols and ask if it is really very different from religious belief. 

Both religion and the collective following of a idol are largely (though not exclusively) about group identity. This is used as a means of social control, with the group demanding conformity from its members. It seems to  matter little when the object of adoration is Justin or Jesus, devotion is an important source of religious feeling.

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