There was a buzz in the air—a pack of assistants and security staff stood around tensely—that indicated the presence of Justin Bieber, who was slated to make an appearance on “The Voice,” to promote his new album. Bieber, who had just turned eighteen, wore a white T-shirt, tight black jeans sagging low, and unlaced Timberland boots. His hair was swept up into a James Dean pompadour, and a black bandanna with skulls on it dangled from his back pocket. He was much smaller than the young men in the Wanted, and he looked frail and skittish. (At one point, Braun reminded me, “That skinny kid you just met is the most Googled person on the planet by like two hundred million hits.”)
So these are the culture makers, I thought lying on my couch several thousand miles from Los Angeles. Scooter Braun is at the epicenter and I am at the periphery trying to find a window in.
I was only reading the New Yorker that afternoon because I couldn’t walk. While Braun was out signing potential young pop stars to his label, Schoolboy Records, I had succumbed to a basketball injury two days earlier under semi-heroic circumstances and was out of commission. (I darted too quickly for a rebound while waiting for someone else on my team to score the winning point in our game. I was lucky to have incurred only soft tissue damage.) Housebound and reduced to hobbling around on crutches, images of Justin Bieber on the set of “The Voice” pooled inside my head.
The young men immediately began comparing tattoos. George lifted up his shirt to reveal some song lyrics: “We try / we fall / we live another day.” “Dope,” Bieber said, and pulled up his pant leg to show, on his calf, a large tattoo of Jesus with hands clasped in prayer. (Bieber and his mother are devout Christians.) The Wanted members looked a little stunned.
Carson Daly, the host of “The Voice,” walked by. Braun called out, “Hey Carson!” Daly and Braun began to review a script detailing stage patter. Bored, Bieber started a game, playfully jabbing everyone in the crotch with his fist. First, he jabbed at Braun, who, without looking up from the script, dropped his hands to block. Daly did the same. When Bieber jabbed at Siva Kaneswaran, a member of the Wanted, he connected. He called out, “Got you, bro.” Kaneswaran balled his fist but seemed unsure how to respond. “I don’t want to hurt his pretty face,” he said. Braun said, “Just get him in the pretty balls. It’s fair game.” “No, it’s not,” Bieber said. Braun took a firm tone. “Justin, it is—fair game,” he said. “You hit him in the balls, fair game.” Bieber was peeved. “Where’re we going?” He asked. “Where’s my dressing room?”
What hope lies in historical monographs, one wonders, when these are the people who control the gears?
“Ten years ago, a pop star might not have a fragrance that does a hundred and twenty million dollars in business in a year.” He went on, “My job is to make sure a client doesn’t have any ‘what if’s—to make sure, when you look back, you don’t say, ‘What if I had done this? What if I had done that?’” Among Bieber’s other revenue streams: “Never Say Never,” a 2011 movie that Braun produced about Bieber’s life, which was the highest-grossing concert film in U.S. history; a line of watches, backpacks, and singing dolls; a ‘home’ collection that includes comforter sets and shower curtains; and an endorsement deal with Proactiv, a purveyor of acne remedies. All this has made Bieber rich—his annual income is estimated to exceed fifty million dollars—and has given Braun a unique economic power. A big part of a manager’s job, one industry veteran told me, is “getting an artist to say yes to things.”
He cuts a nice figure, my rival. The photo on the first page of Lizzie Widdicombe’s article (“Teen Titan,” September 3, 2012) shows Braun posing nobly before a drum set overlooking the majestic Hollywood hills. His left eyebrow is raised slightly, but the look on his face is dignified, almost Napoleonic. One senses that he knows he commands a vast empire, and that it will continue to grow larger. As of this summer, Universal Music Group named Braun, 31, its first technology “entrepreneur in residence.” According to Lucian Grainge, Universal’s C.E.O., “He understands the entertainment business…. The company likes hits, the fans like hits, and that’s what he’s there to do—make hits. We’re not in the art business.”
Envy works in mysterious ways. If I’m to be perfectly honest, I find the dream of wielding this kind of cultural power almost irrepressibly seductive. Even the pools and the palm trees exert a quiet charm I can’t deny. Yet I also recognize Braun and his ilk as The Enemy. His minion army of pop star-entrepreneurs threatens to tarnish and distort nearly everything I hold dear. They are the barbarians who rushed passed the gates long ago, and now we’re at their mercy much as I was on the couch that day.
From where I sat this did not seem like a cognitive distortion. By some curious postmodern logic it seemed there was even something faintly heroic in Braun’s victory. Part of me wanted to congratulate him, to venerate him as the new emperor. What else could I do in my invalid condition but admit defeat?
When confronted with the Biebers and the Brauns of the world, those of us who endeavor to heal this culture because we believe we have some ability to restore health can’t help but feel defeated. Even if we achieve some modest influence, we know our best efforts will likely remain drops in the empty bucket of our desiccated civilization. We are on the losing side of both History and history, everything confirms that; and the prospect of another revolution doesn’t look promising. This, I suspect, is why many of us spend our days treading water in academic spas far away from the mainlines of contemporary popular culture: we are trying to avoid the evidence that the war is over. We want not to think that we’re working in vain.
Los Angeles glistening in the distance, I hobbled up to get a fresh icepack out of the freezer knowing self-indulgence only explains so much.