Being around teenage girl culture I have seen up-close a phenomena that took me completely by surprise– Directionerism – the blind devotion to the boy-band One Direction. I have seen more than one girl stricken with this frenzy. A close corollary to this strange new sub-religion is Belieberism- the blind devotion to Justin Bieber. The devotion inspired by these two forces is truly staggering to me. I saw several girls close to me swept up in the frenzy of these two fandoms. It was very much like a disease, and also very much like religion.
This made me think about how Evangelicals compare to Mormons, and about how religion works nowadays, and maybe where it will go. My resulting almost-fully-tongue-in-cheek thesis: Evangelicals are Beliebers, and Mormons are Directioners.
Justin Bieber is a charismatic wunderkind whose talent in voice and looks have propelled him to the center of millions of girl’s lives. Like Evangelicalism, he inspires single-minded devotion from all his fans, there is no watering down the pure-Justin message with other possible paths. It’s simple to be a Belieber, trust Justin. (full stop) It is a straightforward cult of personality directed toward a single shining star. His Jesus tattoos underscore his compatibility with Evangelical culture. Beliebers generally know that there is no chance of actually rising to Justin’s level, they are just happy that he exists in the world.
One Direction, however, enjoys the complexity of Mormonism. It offers five objects of affection–a sort of quorum of the five apostles . Chosen for their good behavior, likable friendly personalities, general humility and all-around adorableness, give teenagers five good male buddies, one of which is always the “favorite” i.e. the one that they will marry. They are are good “worthy” boys, nice, patient, and willing to sit through never-ending boredom of fan meetings, media interviews, and touring. Directioners adopt a Kierkegaardian knight-of-faith stance to entering the “celestial” world of marriage with a member of the group. Many actually believe they will meet and marry their favorite. Where the Belieber is saved by Bieber’s golden voice and looks alone, the moderately talented boys of One Direction inspire the possibility of becoming like them. The core message of their songs is “you are beautiful and worthy of such a great guy”. “You don’t know you’re Beautiful” = “I am a Child of God.”
Beliebers are attracted by Bieber’s pure talent mixed with traditional pop music. He is the Michael Jackson of his generation, with twitter. Likewise Evangelicals are focused singly on Jesus– attracted by the beauty of the traditional theological model infused with new energy from the modern world. Bieber compares with the trope of the charismatic evangelical preacher–inspiring belief in the single gospel of pop love. Like the figures in Evangelicalism, Bieber attracts followers not in the originality of the message, but in supernatural style and pizzazz of the messenger.
Mormons, seem more susceptible to Directionerism. Like the LDS message, one Direction has no superstar talent. They attract devotion through carefully crafted songs and carefully chosen lyrics. The message is crafted and controlled to produce a polished sound, catchy and affirming to the listener. They are made to appear very wholesome and without the massive ego of Bieber. One Direction is the product of blue-ship corporate culture taking over pop music. They figured out the recipe and now serve it up to near perfection with the power convincing power of all media. They also seem more intent on penetrating the lives of their followers. There is an incessant stream of One Direction merchandise, videos, interviews, tweets. You can know where they are, what they are thinking, and their reaction to other fans–all the time.
Like Mormons and Evangelicals, the groups seem nearly identical culturally, but remain firmly at odds in principle. And divide may be too wide for some. For the Directioner to pass into the camp of Beliebers, she would have to give up her commitment to the ideal of “celestial” marriage with one of the worthy One Direction boys in order to enjoy the pure talent of Bieber. The Belieber would have to substitute devotion to the head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest talent of Bieber to share the Directioner’s hope in the just-out-of-reach perfect husband.
In this strange analogy there may be a lesson. Evangelicals may have the creative talent that Mormons lack, but Evangelicals often rise and fall in faith based on the unstable talent of charismatic leaders. The organized and careful way Mormons prosecute their mission may lead to a more stable and devoted base of followers.
The rise of both Belieberism and Directionerism may reflect an ominous trend in culture. The phenomena mimics religion, but seems more virulent in those vulnerable to the message. Is it witchcraft, idolatry, or just a lemming-like psychological response to the buttons being pushed? Due to social media, youtube, and twitter, fans fire the their devotion minute-by-minute with an influx of messages from the objects of their devotion and other devoted. The devotees actually have enough observation time to feel like they know the personalities of the stars. The packaged and enthralling experience deadens the afflicted with a blindness to what sane people find to be really good music. I think we may be in for a wild ride as media and religion become closer. Maybe the Pope’s first tweets are a sign of the times- beeming out religious platitudes to the devoted.
I love the analogy. Being the mother of an almost nine year old girl, I’ve had plenty of experience with Bieber. Luckily for me, my daughter can’t stand him, owing to the rumor going around her school that a fan asked for his autograph, and he took the notebook she held out to him and pitched it in the trash can. One point on which I do differ is that some Bieber fans do (or at least did) hope to marry him. A couple of years ago, my daughter was invited to a joint birthday party of some little girls who liked Bieber. The party room was decorated in purple, Bieber’s favorite color, and there were little packages of favors for each girl to take home. Inside the packet was a swizzle stick that read “Mrs. Bieber.” I was appalled, and took it out of my daughter’s goody bag and threw it away before she could see it. At the time, the party girls were all of six and seven years old.
That is scary. I admit I have not seen someone in the deepest throws of Belieberism.
I suppose the two different “religions” might be the same after all– just offering different objects for the same hope. I think a lot of it has to do with girls wanting to belong to a group of people that feel the same as they do.
I think Belieberism and Directionerism is a symptom of a culture where kids are hungry for an identity. They compete head-to-head with the best objects of human desire. Too bad those kids are so damn cute.