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Sounds like Teen Spirit: Bieber, Black, & the Protestant Ethic

Haters gonna hate, but when it comes to Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black the hating has reached epic proportions. Both teen singing sensations’ music videos continue to attract the highest number of “dislikes” on YouTube. So what gives? Why is hating on J. Bieber and Ms. Black so popular? In this piece, Ami Stearns argues that the answer to this question lies in our understanding of Weber’s Protestant work ethic.

Rebecca Black told reporters she cried when YouTube viewers attacked her song, “Friday,” and music critics called it the “Worst Song Ever.” Justin Bieber’s music videos compete among themselves to fill the majority of top slots for the most disliked YouTube.com videos. These two teen singers seem to have been singled out by YouTube viewers as especially deserving of “dislikes.”

As of January 17, 2013, Bieber’s “Baby” registered a whopping 3,310,479 dislikes on YouTube, while dislikes for Black’s “Friday” has 940,073 dislikes. In comparison, other top videos popular during Bieber and Black’s 2011 releases like Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” currently register 48,324 dislikes, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” has 32,859 dislikes, and the Enrique Iglesias video for “Tonight” shows a paltry 3,499 dislikes. Taking into consideration the number of overall views, the dislikes racked up against Bieber and Black are still disproportional to the number of times they’ve been viewed. What causes viewers to dislike Bieber and Black’s videos so much?

Bieber and Black’s Online Debuts

Justin Bieber’s mother uploaded videos to YouTube of the young musician at various singing contests so that family and friends could keep up with his activities. Island Def Jam record label execs stumbled across the homemade videos and signed Bieber to a contract, impressed with the fifteen year-old’s talent. Now eighteen years old and reportedly worth over $53 million, Bieber is literally everywhere, hosting Saturday Night Live, in an episode of CSI, and soon to appear on The Simpsons. However, dogging his success are scores of haters on Tumblr, Facebook, and YouTube, devoting gigabyte after gigabyte to dissing Justin Bieber.

In a story of discovery similar to Bieber’s, the debut of Rebecca Black also begins with a mother. Black’s mother paid $4,000 for her thirteen year-old daughter to sing and record a video, “Friday,” for L.A.-based vanity record producer Ark Music Factory. The video went viral soon after its upload to YouTube and received over 3 million dislikes before Black pulled it from the Ark Music Factory’s YouTube channel. Black soon re-uploaded “Friday” to her own official YouTube channel, where it zoomed from zero to 46 million views and has become arguably one of the most disliked videos in YouTube history. No stranger to exposure either, Rebecca Black has appeared on “Good Morning America,” “The Late Show with Jay Leno” and has a cameo in Katy Perry’s video “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (which, by the way, has over 201 million views with 45,431 dislikes on YouTube as of January 2013). Hating Black and her song “Friday” has become a cultural movement, inspiring Facebook groups and YouTube parodies. The young teen has even received death threats and dropped out of school due to harassment.

Bieber and Black’s songs feature simple, repetitive lyrics and the use of computer software (called Auto-Tune) to correct their pitch. While these annoyances alone might be reasons enough to dislike a particular song, the sheer volume of cyberspace devoted to hating these two artists begs a deeper investigation. Their nontraditional (some might say “accidental”) debuts, coupled with the stereotypical stage mother in the background, do not mesh well with the American cultural value of hard work.

The idea of the “Protestant work ethic” may be able to shed some light on what’s happening here. Weber theorized that capitalism in America was so successful because of a Calvinist-based belief system that emphasized salvation attainment through works on earth. Put another way, Calvinists believed that god had predestined every man, woman, and child. Meaning that before you were born god had decided who would be going to heaven (aka salvation) and who would be toasty in hell. But, how are you to know which afterlife god had in store for you? Well, those who had been chosen by God could only be distinguished from others by their hard work, for example, achieving financial success in farming or industry. Translated culturally, this meant that those who found success through hard work were morally superior to those who failed and, logically, the unsuccessful must not have worked hard enough. Though modern Americans in general would be hard pressed to profess belief in Calvinistic theology, the roots of this belief system have pervaded our cultural standards.

The bottom line is, Americans are socialized to appreciate and respect hard work. Those who have not spent years paying their dues, those who appear to be overnight sensations, are not regarded highly in our culture. Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black represent success without the hard work. Echoing our Protestant American roots, we consider those who have simply stumbled onto success as frauds, because without the hard work, success loses its meaning. We will even go out of our way to express our disapproval with this type of success by clicking a “dislike” button.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you think Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black deserve to be discredited because they were discovered online?
  2. Can you think of other instances in which Americans have voiced displeasure or condemnation over the lack of hard work in an individual’s success story?
  3. Have you ever experienced personal success and had others insist you were “just lucky” or “in the right place at the right time?” Did this change the way you perceived your success?
  4. Do you see evidence of Weber’s Protestant work ethic in the educational system?