I was a teenage Belieber once, and I bet you were, too

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From Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph

The “Beliebers”, the fanatical fans of the teen-pop automaton Justin Bieber, are frightening things. They prowl in packs online, shrieking on Twitter for their idol’s attention. They number in their tens of millions, yet seem to have neither a broken voice nor a fully formed thought between them. And they’re in the news all the time: the most recent story is that Bieber turned up two hours late to his show on Monday at London’s O2 Arena, making several thousand children miss their bedtimes – or indeed the gig itself, as their grumbling mums and dads forced them to leave early to catch the last train. The internet then echoed to the sound of high-pitched wailing and the gnashing of milk teeth.

It’s easy to mock this tweeny obsession with unthreatening, asexual pop robots, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. But it’s important to be aware of what we’re mocking. There is a feeling that Beliebers, in their fervour and obsessiveness, are somehow different to fans in “our day”, just as the music is more insipid than it was in our day. But it’s not as simple as that.

Admittedly, there are some seriously obsessive Beliebers. The day before the O2 Lateness Scandal, Charlotte Barrasford, a 15-year-old from Hampshire, wrote on Twitter: “Not really a fan of Justin Bieber but his acoustic album is really good”. Bieber repeated her sentiments to his 35 million followers. Within minutes, poor Charlotte was being called a slag and ordered to kill herself. Well-adjusted people do not react like that.

But it’s easy to forget what it was like to be a teenager: the band names scrawled in Tipp-Ex on satchels, the furious arguments over which one was better (Guns N’ Roses! Oasis! Take That! screamed my generation; the Osmonds! Fleetwood Mac! Abba! screamed the one before, I assume).

Teenage fans were never “well-adjusted people”. They shrieked and fainted queuing for the Beatles; Morrissey fans shaped their hair into ridiculous quiffs and moped around trying to look sexually ambiguous. Heavy-metallers grew their hair long or shaved their heads and wore black T-shirts with skulls on. Being 13, full of hormones and emotions, desperately trying to build an identity for yourself out of the bits and pieces you find lying around, is the same whether it’s 2013 or 1963.

That’s not to say nothing has changed. No doubt record companies have got better at working out what’s going to sell, and how best to sell it, because they’ve had a few more decades’ experience. But they have always tried to flog pap to kids, and kids have always been vulnerable to it: anyone complaining about the awfulness of Bieber has clearly wiped the memory of Aqua’s Barbie Girl (1997) or Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up (1987), or for that matter Cliff Richard, from their minds.

The main difference is simply immediacy. Beliebers have more direct access to the object of their love, because of Twitter and Facebook, but in the past they joined fan clubs and wrote letters. The obsessive letters didn’t make it into the press, but now, again thanks to Twitter and Facebook, it’s all there for the public to see. It’s a safe bet that if John Lennon had been on Twitter in 1966, he’d have had thousands of illiterate fans screaming OMG LUV U JOHN MARRIE ME at him from around the world.

There’s a rule I apply, whenever someone (including me) complains about “kids today”. I ask: what’s more likely, that an entire demographic has changed, or that the perspective of the person observing them has? When someone says kids today lack respect, is it more likely that children as a group have become less respectful, or that the speaker is no longer a child himself?

With people complaining about Bieber, his awful music and his terrible fans, it’s the same thing. The music is indeed awful and the fans are indeed terrible. But it was ever thus.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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