Young pop sensation Justin Bieber is in the news yet again, this time for writing in the guestbook at the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam that the young Jewish woman in hiding was a “great girl” and that she would be a “Belieber” if she were alive with him today. As you might expect, this has sparked quite a bit of controversy, with people viciously attacking the teenage idol from all corners of social media, as well as mocking him mercilessly for laughs and sensationalism. The incomparable entertainment outlet TMZ titled one of its stories “Justin Bieber, No Concentration… All Camp.”
For some, the obvious question that comes to mind when hearing about Bieber’s behavior is, what was he smoking in Amsterdam? For others, the question is even more profound and fundamental: Is nothing sacred? Surely sites dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust are sacrosanct, reverent places for reflection, education, moral clarity and personal, powerful experiences that are difficult to put in words. They demand respect, and are to be kept inviolable — in other words, separate from the profane.
Imaging Anne Frank as a “Belieber,” taking her out of her horrific and incomprehensible historical circumstances and placing her in the pop world of contemporary entertainment, especially in the fandom surrounding a mediocre teenybopper-cum-serious young adult performer, is a profanation of the worst kind to many critics. She is an icon, a heroic figure who figures so prominently and nobly in the histories and popular imagination associated with the rise of Nazis and the extermination of Jews. For Bieber to “belieb” this about Frank, to even think the thought, is both outrageous and offensive.
Another question that comes to mind, at least to my mind, in the present Bieber frenzy is slightly different though full of religious possibilities as well: Can anything be sacred? From this side of the table, Beiber himself and his band of Beliebers are fodder for sacred activities and religious identities.
On the one hand, Bieber is nothing if not a follower of Jesus Christ, and he has frequently proclaimed his evangelical faith in tweets, tattoos and interviews. Although like many young folks today, Bieber tries to emphasize being “spiritual, not religious” and personalize his relationship with God, he clearly attributes his success and blessings to Jesus Christ.
But like a good evangelical, Bieber wants to spread the good news. As he mentioned in a Rolling Stone interview, he feels an “obligation to plant little seeds with my fans” about God’s love. This visit to Anne Frank’s House and his comment in the guest book about Frank as a “Belieber” may not be an explicit, postmortem effort to bring her into the Christian fold, but it certainly blurs the lines between “Belieber” fanaticism and spreading the Gospel. And the particular interest of evangelicals with Jewish history only makes this visit, or tourist pilgrimage, even more complicated.
On the other hand, beyond the very public and proclaimed evangelical identity, Bieber is also at the center of a separate religious culture, one that is focused on worship, moral formation and transcendence: the cult of celebrity. In this case, Bieber and his “Beliebers” are participants in a different kind of religious evangelical culture, and the brouhaha surrounding his visit testifies to the otherworldly power of celebrity and the compelling allure of fame.
It is not Bieber’s talents as a singer or performer that transformed him into a sacred idol; rather, it is his status as a superstar celebrity that catapulted him out of the mundane world and into the religious world where “Beliebers” seek contact and intimacy with him, are devoted to his every move, song, and hair style, and find ways to consume his life for personal fulfillment if not transformation and moral guidance in a chaotic world.
Bieber’s reference to “Belieber” at the Anne Frank house suggests a weightier spiritual meaning than simply being a fan of his music. His visit to the shrine, and the subsequent uproar over his words in the guest book, brought the sacred values of celebrity culture into direct conflict with sacred values of Holocaust memory in the public’s response to the interaction between the manufactured superstar and the celebrated victim. The museum itself, however, released a statement that in some ways reconciled the clashing sacred values by defending Bieber and appreciating the fact the he visited in the first place, seeing this particular visitor as having a potentially positive impact by helping young people be more educated and aware of the life and death of Frank.
Whether or not you accept the museum’s perspective, the religious angles to the story are compelling and speak to the strange and surprising ways sacred and profane intermix and blur in contemporary culture.