Today, the usual simmering resentment and anger the internet feels for Justin Bieber came to a roaring boil and bubbled over. And all it took was a few well meant words.
Let’s go back in time seventy-odd years for a brief recap. Anne Frank was a young German girl, who lived mostly in Amsterdam, who was hunted down by the Nazis during World War II because they were Jewish. Eventually she and her family were caught and taken to a concentration camp, where she died at the age of 15. She’s become famous for the diary that she kept, for much of the last few years of her short life.
The building in Amsterdam where Anne Frank and her family hid from invading Nazi forces is now the Anne Frank House, a museum dedicated to her memory. Recently, Justin Bieber went there to visit the place, as the museum reported on their Facebook page. The message he left in the guestbook read:
Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.
A brief look at the bottom half of the internet will give you a flavour of the outraged response that followed.
One commonly recurring theme seems to be about “respect”, and the idea that Bieber should have shown more of it. This is Anne Frank, after all, a tragic victim of a brutally murderous regime; she deserves better than to have her memory trivialised by some pop star with an over-inflated ego.
And, well. There’s certainly a case to be made that Anne Frank, her memory, and the museum that bears her name, represent a profoundly human and humane response to forces of persecution and hate, on a scale of monumental historic significance – and that it demeans her to try associating her with fans of a 21st-century singer.
But I don’t think Justin Bieber had any intention of being so demeaning, and I think some people expect too much of him to be able to appropriately memorialise her legacy in a brief note written in a book at the end of an hour-long tour.
Not least because, for many people these days, the atrocities of the Nazi regime are dim and distant history to which it’s not easy to relate. They’re lucky like that, the young’uns of today. Anne Frank died in 1945; Justin Bieber was born in 1994. I find it near impossible to fathom the enormity of the 1940s global conflict, or to begin doing justice to the memory of a young Jewish girl who died in a concentration camp, and I’m a well read guy nearing 30. A 19-year-old kid who’s had little opportunity to do anything with his time but be a pop sensation for the last five years doesn’t have a chance.
So when he comes to the end of this lengthy exploration of some of the darkest times in humanity’s history, and the way in which the human spirit can struggle through even such terrors without being wholly extinguished, maybe some of it’s sunk in a little. Maybe he’s learned something. He still can’t say anything appropriate for the occasion, because who the hell could, but he has a go. He tries to relate. And he offers that perhaps “she would have been a belieber”.
Many of Justin Bieber’s most devoted fans identify themselves as “beliebers” – a merging of “believer” with his own name, to signify their loyalty to him and to each other in the face of considerable hostility, forming a cohesive unit of support and admiration. It might often be driven more by teenage hormones than sophisticated musical appreciation, and you might not find the guy himself all that admirable – but being a belieber doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us outsiders.
I can only speculate as to the role they play in Bieber’s own life, but given the numbers in which they tweet their affection for him to the world, cheer him on at every turn, and band together to share and encourage each other’s Bieberholic fanaticism, I imagine they form a massively significant part of his world, and seem like a strong, formidable, positive thing to be a part of. It wasn’t just self-centred for him to link Anne Frank’s memory with his own career; I suspect that it’s literally the most generous and open-hearted thing he can think to wish for somebody else, that they could be part of the swarm that surrounds him, and find friends and mutual support among an accepting, like-minded crowd.
Clumsy and inarticulate though it may be, this is how he shows respect.
And hey, maybe he’s right.
There’s a thing I never would have thought I’d suggest. Maybe, under different circumstances, Anne Frank would have been a belieber. She was a 13-year-old girl when she got the diary, 15 when she last wrote in it. Did she enjoy music? Did she ever start to have any young, adolescent, romantic feelings for a pretty boy with a nice smile? Or were these things denied her, aspects of her life which might have flourished if she’d had the chance to fully grow into herself and experience the world before all her opportunities were cut cruelly short?
I’ve no idea. I’ve not read her diary, as I suspect many of Bieber’s harshest critics haven’t, so I don’t know whether she wrote about such things at all. But the suggestion that she might have had certain things in common with many other teenage girls is a long way from being the most offensive thing ever said about Anne Frank.
Although, having said all of which…
Dear beliebers, and anyone else, who have been responding to criticism of Justin Bieber for his comments on Anne Frank, and standing up for his right to free expression, by making any comparison whatsoever between abusive online messages directed toward a millionaire global superstar, and the persecution and genocide of Jews in twentieth century Europe: