The most surprising thing about the news of Justin Bieber’s arrest on DUI charges is that it’s surprising at all. Bieber’s Miami Beach drag-racing spree is the latest in a series of antics that include alleged hotel graffiti tagging, alleged monkey smuggling, alleged public urination, alleged “egging,” and an alleged visit to an alleged Rio de Janeiro brothel. These incidents suggest that Bieber, 19, is going through an assholish phase, as young men often do. They are also, in the annals of famous-young-male misconduct, pretty tame, and may tell us more about the magnifying effect of the Internet’s omniscient eye than the wanton character — or as some are whispering aloud today with a vampirish gleam in their eyes, the inexorable death spiral — of Justin Bieber.
They certainly tell us something about how well-mannered our popular musicians have become. Not long ago, we expected pop stars, particularly male ones, to do asinine things, like take leaks in mop buckets while exiting Manhattan restaurants, as Bieber apparently did sometime last year. This, and far worse, was expected, even encouraged, and viewed as part of the gig — relished as rapscallion and “rock ‘n’ roll.” It is pleasant to think that, today, we’re more spiritually evolved: That we hold stars to higher standards, that we’re no longer charmed by young men (or, much less frequently, young women) swaggering around, treating people badly, and acting like morons. The more likely case is that (with some infamous exceptions) pop stars have become, like the rest of us, careful careerists — too focused on brand management to risk the dip in market share that would come if, say, TMZ aired cell-phone footage of a television being lobbed through the window of a hotel suite. These days, when stars act out, they do it like Miley Cyrus: onstage and in video, in meticulously plotted, big-budgeted product relaunches. For Cyrus and others, “bad behavior” is careerism in action.
In this respect, Justin Bieber is conspicuously uncalculating. Which is not to excuse Bieber racing his Lamborghini down a city street: The little shit could have killed someone. But it’s worth noting that nothing Bieber is accused of doing approaches the appalling track records of dozens of members the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a body with an arguably higher percentage of creeps and wife beaters than the average state penitentiary. To take just one obvious example: Keith Richards’s autobiography Life catalogs decades’ worth of foul deeds, arrogance, misogyny, firearms possession, child endangerment, etc. But the rave reviews of Life savored Richards’s “raffish legend,” and the chattering classes lined up to see Richards “in conversation” in the august surroundings of the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum. (Scumbaggery + time = cuddly pirate.) Another fact worthy of mention: Bieber’s latest album, the compilation Journals, is excellent: sleek, insinuating pop-R&B. It’s his best record yet. In music, as in his messy life, this almost-20-year-old is proceeding — according to the old-fashioned model, at least — exactly on schedule.