As a father, I have heard of it happening to other people’s children but I never dreamt that it could happen to me. I have taken all the precautions that could reasonably be expected of me, and I believe I have been responsible and vigilant. But sometimes even your best efforts are just not enough to keep the darkness at bay. Tragedy has struck: my son has started singing Justin Bieber songs.
It feels like a betrayal. I have been such a good father: I have only ever played him metal and hard rock. Okay, maybe a fair smattering of 80s pop music too – but that was the Golden Age of music. Even the bad stuff was good then, right? Surely no harm could have been done? How did we come to this?
It has to have been his friends. Somehow one of the little imps has let the devil into my house. There is no other explanation – he has been corrupted. His sweet, innocent soul has been poisoned. How could he have understood the Pandora’s Box that would be opened when the neighbourhood kids starting humming “Yummy” and it stuck in his mind like a parasite?
And Justin Bieber songs are particularly insidious: they are so completely inane that they become sticky. There generally aren’t more than about half a dozen actual words in the entire song (even fewer if you exclude “o”, “yeah” and “babe”), and they get repeated over and over (and over and over) so that before you know it, the song has wormed its way into your skull, where it nests and begins to feed on your IQ.
My son is blissfully unaware that his brain is being reduced to soup with every cheerful “yeah babe”, and I am completely powerless to help. Where did I go wrong? Did I underestimate the potentially corrosive influence that Rick Astley might have on his resistance to stupid lyrics? Did I inadvertently teach him it is okay to occasionally suspend one’s critical faculties by not skipping Fine Young Cannibals every time they came up on my playlist? Will my musical carelessness result in my son having the intellectual capacity of soggy noodles?
Of course, I can’t take sole responsibility here. I cannot be so presumptuous as to believe that mine have been the only influences shaping who he has become. I also have to blame society. This treacherous path Nathan is on finds its roots in popular culture. “Yummy” could not exist at all were it not for decades of drivel, set to catchy tunes and spouted from the mouths of innumerable pretty faces, that have so anaesthetised the critical faculties of hordes of young people that they see nothing even remotely reprehensible about being encouraged to conceptualise women in consumerist terms. And even those pretty faces are puppets: exploited by unscrupulous agents and record companies who use the pretty faces and their modica of talent, which so beguile the masses, to enrich themselves, indifferent to the divisive and pernicious effects the songs they produce have on the ways we relate to one another.
Modernist thinking is at fault too – for perpetuating the lie that we are autonomous beings, rather than interdependent beings whose individual identities are birthed in relationship. If we understood that simple fact, that we both create and are created by others, we would not so readily allow ourselves to be trapped into finding the value of other human beings only in terms of how useful they are in helping us meet our needs.
And I blame human nature too – the tendency we have to forge social bonds through scapegoating violence. Because we create cohesion by uniting against a common “enemy”, we tend to shape our desires in such a way that we avoid becoming a potential outsider and scapegoat. Maybe Nathan is attracted to Bieber only because his peers are, and on some level he recognises that if he is to survive the social jungle, he mustn’t put himself on the margins of the group.
How do I even begin to combat forces on that scale? There was a time when I have would have found comfort in prayer. Not any more. I no longer believe that God interferes in our daily circumstances at all. That is not to say that I no longer believe in the goodness of God. On the contrary, the only way to preserve any belief in the goodness of God is to accept that God does not act in human history (outside of incarnation in Jesus) – the brutality of life argues strongly that either God is not good or that God is not in control. So I don’t pray about life’s circumstances any more. There doesn’t seem to be any point. Society could not have devolved sufficiently to produce the phenomenon (note, not the person) that is Justin Bieber if divine intervention existed.
Of what use are my feeble protests against such a leviathan? The monstrosity that is “Yummy” is truly gargantuan. It is an ancient evil, one that pricked Cain to slay Abel and which spoke vengeance through Abel’s blood. It is the whisper that races through the crowd at every ritual sacrifice, that vindicates the righteous and condemns the wicked; the hypnotic melody with the power to make you a god or to unveil you as a devil. “Yummy” is not simply the product of our culture; in a very real sense it is the mother of all culture, which it birthed in blood and screams and forgetfulness.
And now it is in my house. My heart sinks. I need to pull it together. My son needs me and the panic is not helping. What do I do? What can I possibly do?
And there, barely audible, is a still, small voice. Why do I feel that I need to do anything at all? Maybe my response ought not to be so much a doing response as a being one. Nathan is only eight. He makes sense of the world as an 8-year old boy. He cannot do otherwise. Mimesis and scapegoating violence and interdependence and cultural imperialism are simply beyond his comprehension. But they will not always be, because he will not always be eight. The chances are that when he is older, he will put these childish ways behind him and he will see the world through new eyes. One day he will be twelve, and his eight-year-old self will seem incomprehensible to him – appalling even. And then he will be 16 and 20 and 30, and all the while he will grow in understanding and wisdom. He will be reminded that he once listened to Bieber and cringe. But now he is eight. I cannot expect any more of him than that.
But I can keep playing real music and enjoying it without worrying about what he listens to. And I can voice my criticisms of my music so that he is empowered to be critical of his. I can love him and let him be himself so that he never feels he needs to relate to others out of unmet childhood needs. And if he ever grows up to write songs, the lyrics will not reflect a heart that objectifies people, because his experience simply will not have shaped his thoughts that way. And he will help shape a new culture – a new way of being-with – just by being part of it. And it will hopefully be a culture that produces better music.
And so I will do nothing. Meaningful change can never be legislated – it must always first be desired. I will let him listen to Justin Bieber all he wants. Because when he is 12, he will be listening to something else (possibly just as awful, but for different reasons) and he will have a yardstick by which to measure the inadequacies of “Yummy” that he does not now have. I cannot keep Bieber out of my house; the horror that is “Yummy” has been with us since the foundation of the world and is not that easily exorcised. But doing nothing is not necessarily the same thing as not resisting. You see, the story was never my story, it was our story. And we evolve.