They are two of the most heavily hyped, eagerly anticipated entertainment properties of early 2011: Never Say Never, a nouvelle rockumentary chronicling the Top 10 ascendancy of 16-year old ‘tween heartthrob Justin Bieber and “Born This Way,” the lead single from an upcoming album by multiplatinum-selling pop provocateuse Lady Gaga of the same name.
Both have been unveiled today, just in time for Valentine’s Day. And both entertainment offerings are synergistically timed to capitalize on the media exposure each singer-songwriter will get from their heavily touted performances at Sunday’s Grammys Awards—a TV event that’s been notably diminished from the staggering Nielsen ratings it enjoyed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but one that remains a higher profile platform for live music than just about anything in televisiondom short of American Idol.
To be sure, Gaga’s new song and Bieber’s movie exist as unabashed love letters to their primary constituencies—respectively, so-called little monsters and sufferers of Bieber Fever. But viewed another way, the new releases represent the tacit acknowledgement by both performers of a certain received pop-cultural wisdom.
Call it the most obvious and yet seldom followed career game plan: the “If it ain’t broken don’t fix it” school of professional management.
As has already been widely reported, “ Born This Way” is a paean to the gay and transgender communities who have been devoted to the point of fanaticism to Lady Gaga and to whom she gushingly dedicates much of her creative output—be it portraying a hermaphrodite in the video for her song “Telephone” or donning a dress made entirely out of meat. The song was originally intended to come out on February 13 but as Gaga explained in a tweet to her 8 million followers: “Can’t wait any longer, single coming Friday,”
“Don’t be a drag, just be a queen,” she sings on “Born This Way’s” chorus. “No matter gay, straight or Bi, lesbian transgendered life/I’m on the right track, baby/I was born to survive.”
On the surface, the song seems like a deliberate provocation—a hard elbow to the mid-section of conservatives critical of gay politics. But as evidenced by the strength of her record sales (15 million albums, 51 million singles and counting) and Monster Ball Tour (in the Top 10 of highest-grossing concert tours for 2010, according to Pollstar magazine) Gaga’s little monsters in fact represent a new face of the mainstream. And she seems determined not to alter her message for middle America and to continue serving a previously underserved audience with the same kind of zeal Glenn Beck rails against progressive politics for his Fox News Channel faithful.
Moreover, by not flipping the script like Kelly Clarkson—who followed up the blockbuster success of her 2004 album Breakaway with My December, an alt-rock-y effort intended as a stylistic departure a la Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska that basically flopped—the erstwhile Fame Monster appears on track to sustain her unitard-clad momentum beyond the release of her Born This Way album in late May.
Never Say Never, meanwhile, is the Biebster’s obvious effort to cash in on the Beatlemania-like fan attention he currently commands, the first filmic step in what he envisions as a long and varied movie-musical career he’s modeling on Elvis. The movie gives the people—well, his core fan base of screaming girls and their moms—what they want: an up close and personal 3-D look at pop’s reigning prince, depicting where he came from and how he got to the pinnacle of pop at a time when Bieber’s Q-rating continues to reach new heights.
“At the end of the day, my fans are everything and they got me to this point,” Bieber said at the movie’s premiere. “Always remember where you came from.”
Which sounds like precisely the kind of pre-programmed answer you’d expect out of a meticulously groomed pop grommet. But it’s unlikely that, say, High School Musical breakout star Zac Efron managed to keep a similar sense of perspective given extra- Musical projects such as the little-seen indie drama Me and Orson Welles (domestic gross: $1.19 million).
The performer may have taken the role intending to show his “range”—and thereby shatter the image he created for himself via a couple of Disney Channel TV movies and their theatrically released sequel. But instead, Efron managed to disenfranchise his core ‘tween support base en route to what has now become a thoroughly middling movie career.
Did you see Efron’s last movie Charlie St. Cloud? Me neither.
So in that light—as if global stardom, attendance record-shattering performance dates and pop cultural ubiquity weren’t enough already—Bieber and Gaga deserve some critical props. For doing the obvious things to stay on top.
“This movie isn’t about me…and it isn’t just for my fans…it’s about believing in a dream,” Bieber tweeted earlier this week. “We all can share in that.”
Chris Lee is a senior entertainment writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. He previously worked as an entertainment and culture reporter for the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in Vibe, Premiere and Details magazines and has been plagiarized in The Sunday Tribune of Ireland and The Trinidad Guardian.