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Posted at 12:44 PM ET, 02/10/2011

Is Justin Bieber the new Beatles? Never say never!

By Alexandra Petri

(Image via AP)

Does anyone write for posterity anymore?

I ask this for a reason.

Yesterday, almost fifty years ago, the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Tonight, at midnight, the Justin Bieber movie, Never Say Never (3D), opens in theaters across the country.

I'm not saying the events are parallel, but consider: One of the major objections to the Beatles in their time was the ubiquitous and silly haircut they provoked. And remember those videos of screaming girls stampeding through stadiums in nonsensical tears? I give you "3 Year old crying over Justin Bieber."

The more I thought about these parallels, the more I was filled with terror and confusion. And when one of my colleagues unearthed The Post's coverage of the Fab Four, I was terrified: it sounded just like my own approach to Justin Bieber.

I began to worry. Perhaps I was on the wrong side of history.

Perhaps here, before of my very eyes, was the transformational musical figure of our generation. True, to me, he looked like a metrosexual sheep dog. But I couldn't rule it out.

The phrases of the critics kept ringing in my ears. Post critic Laurence Laurent called the Fabs "imported hillbillies who look like sheep dogs and sound like alley cats in agony." He noted that "last Sunday night demonstrated, once more, that our adolescents don't know the difference between parody and the real thing. For that matter, neither do the Beatles."

I wandered around disconsolate, listless, and squinting. It has been said that, "Parents are right about the music their children listen to. Most of it is crap. And kids are right about the music their parents listen to. Most of it is crap, too." Did that apply here?

It's so hard to tell these days.

True, the hair is similar. But there is a clause somewhere that requires pop stars to commit to silly-looking hair. That's how people can tell you're a rock musician and not, say, Josh Groban, or the guy who walks onstage to repair the guitar.

So what if "Baby" or "One Less Lonely Girl" or, er, whatever it is, is just as good as "Please Please Me" or "Come Together"? It doesn't sound like it is! It sounds like someone singing "Baby, baby, baby, oooh, baby, baby, baby, oooh" over and over again, which is almost a parody of what a song should sound like. But that's basically what Lawrence Laurent said, and look at him now, the laughing stock of posterity!

Still, does anyone write for posterity anymore? We're like mayflies, craving feedback, sex, and excitement, all in the next two seconds before we forget why we came here in the first place.

And posterity was sort of a crock to begin with. "After being turned down by numerous publishers, he had decided to write for Posterity," wrote George Ade.

But it used to be good for something. There were ideas whose time had come and ideas whose time, as yet, hadn't. Journals and manuscripts that failed to find publishers used to be discovered decades after people's deaths and thrust into the public eye. Now there's LiveJournal and Tumblr. People aren't acknowledging you as a prophet in your own town? You don't have to create for posterity! Just do it for the Internet.

In many ways, that's the Justin Bieber story. Perhaps more than most artists, he has given rise to the notion that there are only two states of existence: discovered, and waiting to be discovered. For years, the Beatles slaved at their craft in Liverpool, then in Hamburg, shedding guitarists and drummers and generating Malcolm Gladwell theses along the way. Bieber did none of these things. He played the guitar and sang, and someone spotted him, and the rest was, as they say, history.

In the New York Times, Mike Hale called him a repository for other people's dreams.

And that's different from the Beatles. The Fabs wanted to be rock stars, artists, make music, say something, and, not coincidentally, win fame, fortune, and the undying attention of a range of women including but not limited to Yoko Ono. Bieber is living someone else's dream. It's the dream of every aspiring artist who posts to YouTube. He's not selling himself -- there's not much to sell, given that his personality resides entirely in the somnolent woodchuck squatting on his head -- but selling an idea. The idea that the Internet will perform the mysterious task formerly delegated to such forces as Posterity and Venerable Mustached Gentlemen Who Announce That You Have Great Expectations, discovering you and throwing you forth into the public eye.

Creating things and putting them on the Internet can be like dropping a rose petal into the grand canyon and waiting for the echo. But the Internet is also a feedback mechanism unparalleled in human history. If Emily Dickinson had had wifi, she'd probably have gotten a lot of feedback from her posts on LiveJournal. ("I liked it!!!!" TWHigginson would write. "Maybe use fewer dashes!!!") Believe in yourself, and you can probably force a bored person in Atlanta with Internet access to do the same.

But all this instant feedback comes with a cost. Sure, some artists work best under these conditions, where every bon mot provokes an enthusiastic retort. But there's something to be said for the isolation of obscurity. (And if Justin Bieber ever wants to take me out to lunch, I will gladly say all of it to him!) It bears an uncanny resemblance to the isolation of creation.

The Beatles performed their last public concert in 1966 and then sallied forth into the studio to reach new heights and plumb new depths, pushing the artistic boundaries of modern music and transforming it forever. Immense popularity and silly haircuts aside, they were able to build something that transcended the expectations and limits of their time by dreaming their own particular dreams. Those dreams led to fame, fortune, and music we still play today.

Will Bieber be so lucky? Never say never, but, well, probably not.

I wish I could ask posterity what it thinks, but it usually takes a while to get back to you.

By Alexandra Petri  | February 10, 2011; 12:44 PM ET
Categories:  Only on the Internet, Petri, Worst Things Ever  | Tags:  Beatles, justin bieber  
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Livejournal is still a thing?

Posted by: dkp01 | February 11, 2011 10:14 AM | Report abuse

This question comes up with every new teen idol/group. In order to compare to the Beatles, Justin Bieber would have to change from following pop trends to defining and starting them.

Posted by: beatleman | February 12, 2011 1:32 PM | Report abuse

This question comes up with every new teen idol/group. In order to compare to the Beatles, Justin Bieber would have to change from following pop trends to defining and starting them.

Posted by: beatleman | February 12, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Why not just let the kid be the new Justin Bieber and see where that goes?

Posted by: markpkessinger | February 13, 2011 9:26 PM | Report abuse

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