One of the things I love about visual studies is that, for the most part, it can be applied to anything. To the extent that what we see and how we see it shapes our world (our worldview, one might say), that world is our oyster for the analyzing. And visual studies makes no hierarchical distinction between “high” and “low” culture – giving me an excuse, or rather an invitation, to think critically about the experience that I on Wednesday evening.
There is a performance artist touring the world right now, or rather My World (His World?) – and that artist performed live on April 6, 2011 at 20:00 on the Palau Sant Jordi stage, and yes, I was there. I SAW JUSTIN BIEBER IN CONCERT.
Posting about this requires two revelations on my part to you, my readers – firstly, that I do identify as a hipster, and secondly, that, yes, I do identify as a Justin Bieber fan. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am a Belieber – my cynicism tends to prevent me from blind belief, which is a useful trait in the realm of visual studies – but I do legitimately enjoy him. There are many cognitively dissonant aspects of the two identities I just professed, but I like to think that my slight cynicism allows me to cut through the crap of unconditional fandom and be an even truer fan. Rather like how a true friend will tell you if you have spinach in your teeth – I would do that for Justin. Most fangirls, I imagine, would not. As both a critic and an appreciator, I can operate like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes. If ever I see the J-Biebs unclad, I shan’t let him go on believing that he is wearing a beautiful violet v-neck and matching Pirates cap when he is fact wearing nothing at all.
Which brings me to one of the more fascinating visual aspects (among many) of the concert and the whole phenom that is Justin Bieber: the color purple. The construction of any given pop star’s image through iconography is common (rampant?) enough, but the ability to monopolize one particular color to this extent has not been seen since The Artist Formerly Known As Prince was known as Prince – and I doubt that he was able to mobilize thousands of tweenage girls and their parents to arrive at the Palau Sant Jordi in a sea of lavender the way Bieber did on Wednesday. I am hard-pressed to come up with any other artists with such strong color association – if anyone else can, let me know, and we can start writing a legitimate academic article on this (I may do this anyway).
So even though I only cursorily Google Maps-ed the location of the arena in advance of arrival, I had absolutely no trouble finding it – I started seeing the purple Yankees hats, the Nike kicks, the purple shirts and shoes and tank-tops and hoodies, and their wearers, who were on average at least 5 years younger than me, as soon as I got on the Metro heading towards Placa Espanya. Tracking the increase in the color density as I got closer and closer to the epicenter was shockingly easy and kind of fascinating.
In a March 19 interview on Nightline, Justin Bieber had the following interchange with Christ Connelly:
Justin: “Favorite color is purple.”
Chris: “You laughed there. Do people ask you what your favorite color is sometimes?”
Justin: “Yeah, sometimes.”
Chris: “Is it really funny to be asked what your favorite color is?”
Justin: “Yeah. Like, who cares what my favorite color is?”
To answer Justin’s question, clearly, a lot of people – not just the swarms of swooning Spaniards, but every company that is branding products with his signature color, a shade that serves to make every Yankees cap, pair of JustBeats headphones, and more, signify the growing and complex discourse of celebrity that surrounds the young star. The color is indexical for his person. He comes off as nonchalant, but he must realize the strength of the iconography that is being built up around him (and its significant economic implications) – the image is sexy, and very much a selling point. A symbiosis of advertising that balances selling Justin Bieber through his easily recognizable branded and color-coded image with selling a dizzying array of products and clothing that are conversely ‘branded’ with Justin Bieber’s constructed celebrity. Celebrity branding and image construction is a given in the present day, but the extent to which it is succeeding with Bieber, particularly through its reliance on the simplicity of laying claim to a single color, is impressive. We are capable of seeing only so many shades, and the power of association with such a basic aspect of our visual experience cannot be escaping whoever is masterminding the Justin Bieber phenomenon.
This all of course begs the question of why purple – yes, he claims it as his favorite color, but it is being co-opted into an index for his image, and it carries its own cultural semiotic baggage that is hard to ignore. Common connotations are those of royalty and nobility, or homosexuality, but these are connections that make much more sense in the case of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, as Bieber is not particularly kingly (his fans may feel otherwise) nor has he come out (although speculations likely abound). My more jaded moments of musing on the subject lead me to simply suspect that the historical popularity of the color among Bieber’s target audience, such as the thousands of young Spanish girls at Palau Sant Jordi, is the primary factor in the (economic) choice to promote the color iconography of the star. As jaded as it may sound, perhaps it is all a ruse and Bieber has no fundamental love of the color purple, and the semiotics of self-construction and advertising are simply being mobilized with staggering power in the building of a united fan base.
Needless to say, I wore my hipsteriest black and yellow to the concert. As a visual text of conformity, I read the event counter to its ‘intended meaning’ of interpellating me as not just a viewer but a consumer. Judith Butler says that analysis kills pleasure – but I speak from personal experience when I say that rocking out to “Somebody to Love” and considering critically the dynamics of the creation of spectacle in the concert venue can go hand in hand.
All of the above pictures plus more photographic evidence from the course of the evening, in a handy slideshow!