Earlier this week, Justin Bieber came under fire for telling a fan she was making him sick. Which, out of context, might seem a little harsh.
“Might” is the operative word here. Without watching the video, it might be possible to read Bieber’s call-out as an example of his tempestuous personality, or a sign of how little he appreciates the fans who brought him to the plane he gets to exist on. But that's not really fair.
Over the past year, Justin’s relationship with fame has become increasingly strained. The singer has begged his fans to stop screaming at concerts. He’s cried audibly onstage. And lest we forget, we're nearing the one-year anniversary of the time he compared his reality to that of a zoo animal’s. Add this to his request that fans not ask for selfies (at all), and you can start to understand his declaration of Pink lyrics this week. Then remember that he repeatedly asked the fan in question to respect that request, and you can accept it completely.
What seems to have been making Bieber sick in the first place wasn't the fan herself — it’s her refusal to abide by a simple request. Sure, she was psyched to meet Baby B (and who wouldn't be?), but that enthusiasm eclipsed his need for personal space. It was as though, in that moment, he stopped being a person and became a commodity. But while artists, in a sense, temporarily lend themselves to the public in exchange for Biebs-like success, they still have the right to dictate the terms of their interactions with other people. Even if we, as fans, don’t like it (and really, really want to take a photo), we have to respect their wishes.
In this case, Justin wasn’t consenting, and he responded to that lack of respect accordingly. The only reason this came as somewhat of a surprise is that there's something off about how we think of pop stars and personal space. I blame the first few minutes of A Hard Day’s Night.
The iconic opening of The Beatles' 1964 film helped romanticize the idea of swarming our favorite musicians IRL as a way of exhibiting our devotion. (Instead of, you know, teaching us to take a breath and remembering that celebrities are people.)
In the decades since, we’ve seen that same phenomenon repeated with everyone from New Kids on the Block to the Backstreet Boys to One Direction to the scene in That Thing You Do! when Liv Tyler almost gets left behind at the venue. Physical expressions of adoration — whether it's chasing an artist, hugging them, or reaching out for a hand-hold — have seemingly become the norm for some fans who adore a band or a singer. And if those bands and singers are into it, that’s fine and great. But consent, as always, is key. Regardless of whether fans and artists are interacting at a meet-and-greet, or a concert, or while outside a Starbucks, respect for an artist’s wishes (or lack thereof) is what can change a dynamic from harmless to harmful.
In Bieber’s case, he made his feelings clear. He asked for no photos. He asked for conversation instead of online documentation. In the case of his Australian interaction, he asked the fan to respect him — and in turn, his wishes. Which meant that a line had been drawn. As a person — not as a celebrity whose birthday we know and whose lyrics we’ve memorized — he said “no.”
This can be a tough pill to swallow, especially if, as fans, we’re used to a certain dynamic with our idols. We’re used to the delightful pandemonium of A Hard Day’s Night, or tales of One Direction having to squeeze into a bread van. Screaming and reaching out in response to groups or people we love isn’t new — it’s been the encouraged status quo for at least a half-century. But before they were celebrities, artists were people (and they are still people). Remembering that is crucial to us taking a second to step outside the fan/artist bubble to ask ourselves if everyone is actively participating.
Our favorite artists don’t belong to us. The young guys who’ve achieved Bieberlike levels of fame deserve the same respect we’d afford grown-ass men. And while ingrained sexism has taught us that it’s a “compliment” for young women to swarm famous dudes, it’s still only fine if that enthusiasm is returned or encouraged by the men in question. In Justin’s case, it's pretty clear by now that it isn’t. Which means that the least we can do as followers of the Church of Biebs is take him seriously when he asks us to worship from afar. Or, more specifically, to please respect him as a human being.