World Domination Complete, Justin Bieber Invades The Underground


When most adults became aware of Justin Bieber, he struck us as something like the Jonas Brothers or Spongebob: a thing for the kids, and most certainly not for us. But now he has become, like Britney or Justin, an icon for all of us. Bieber's total dominance of pop culture over the past year has made him the kind of celebrity even your grandparents know about, and the hints of self-awareness he displays, combined with the utterly iconographic and simple-to-grasp persona he's developed, has made us both curious about his future direction and able to crack jokes about him at the drop of a hat.

But Bieber, ever the shrewd operator, knows that the pop object at rest is the pop object being forgotten, and so he's expanding his reach into ever-more nichey realms. The tweet pic of Bieber with a flabbergasted Tyler, the Creator, above, attests to that. Sure, Tyler's group Odd Future recently appeared on Fallon, and seem headed toward the mainstream themselves. But right now, they are most assuredly possessed of a real cachet among tastemakers. And there's Bieber, photobombing our cultural capital.

But there's also this indie video by the duo SGINNED, ostensibly a Bieber cover.

Chairlift/Violens - Never Let You Go [ SGINNED ] from flatluigi on Vimeo.

Buzzfeed claims that "Caroline Polachek of Chairlift and Jorge Elbrecht of Violens, together known as SGINNED, reverse-engineered the Justin Bieber song 'Never Let You Go' from scratch, changing the lyrics while also syncing them to Biebs' lip movements in the video." This does not really seem to be true; in addition to changing the lyrics, they also changed the chords (it's in a minor key now) and the melody, which means that it's essentially a new song. What they covered wasn't the song, but the video. SGINNED's song makes a lot more sense with the video than Bieber's track does: the ocean sounds they work into the mix echo the aquarium setting and general oceanographic theme; there are sneaker sounds when Bieber dances over a lacquered surface; and the boy-girl vocals give Bieber's love interest an active voice where she was silent in the video's original track. The syncing isn't perfect but lines up enough that they may have taken rhythmic inspiration for their melodic lines from the video, too. In the end, the song benefits from the subtle pop influences forced into it by Bieber's video, and if it was indeed the source of inspiration, it's a pretty great compositional trick, like Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies" deck in the YouTube era.

What all this means is that Bieber is becoming a pop icon, important not for what he does but for the images surrounding him. Tyler with Bieber changes what Tyler means (he is now The Kind Of Person Justin Bieber Knows) and what Bieber means (he is The Kind Of Person Who Knows Odd Future) while inflecting your indie-pop song through a Bieber video causes it to change, too. Bieber reflects a different set of values than some of the pop icons of the past who've been seized on widely, like Madonna and Elvis, so it's interesting to see where he'll take us.