New Media and Bieber Fever

25 05 2010

I’m in the midst of preparing my dissertation defense (that’s why I haven’t been posting…I swear!). In trying to discuss future directions for my research, I’ve been thinking about the role of social networking platforms (most notably Twitter) in celebrity culture. Celebrity gossip blogs have already changed the game in important ways that are directly related to the rise of new media as technology and social space. The most obvious way is the immediacy of the internet. No longer do we have to wait for the weekly tabloids to hit the newsstand to get our latest gossip fix. In fact, the magazines can’t even keep up at this point, and my survey of gossip blog readers suggests many see the magazines as “old news” and don’t necessarily read them regularly, let alone subscribe. Yet we are also closer to the daily lives of celebrities than ever before thanks to the constant stream of gossip updates provided by paparazzi photos on gossip blogs.

Which brings me to Justin Bieber. I do not personally have the Bieber Fever, but after seeing him perform “Baby” on SNL (rerun last week), I get it. I mean, OMG, he is so cute!!! His songs are typical catchy pop and he has a cute baby face and fancy hair. So I get it, tweens, but he’s still not for me. But then again, he’s not supposed to be. If you are unfamiliar with the non-threatening boy adorable-ness of Bieber, here is the official video for “Baby.” I’m not saying he’s the greatest singer ever to grace this Earth, but he is a reliably cute and reasonably talented boy band sort of pop star. Watch at your own risk, as this song will get stuck in your head for DAYS…DAYS I TELL YOU!!

He may not be for me, but he is ENORMOUSLY popular with younger audiences. Which makes it particularly interesting that he apparently doesn’t move magazines. He still is regularly featured in teen-oriented celebrity magazines in their “gallery of stars” type coverage where they feature photos of a bunch of young stars, but his solo covers are not big sellers. This seems to indicate that how and where (particularly the young) audiences go for extratextual and “private” side personas has changed. By which I mean, social networking platforms.

When Bieber was on the cover of People back in April, the issue sold 20% below average. But in the new media age, this makes perfect sense to me. Why buy a magazine when you can read his inner most tweets for free? Indeed, Beibs has over 2 million Twitter followers and frequently among the top trending topics, indicating that he has a large fan base who are interested in the details of his private life. Even more interesting for the old vs. new media divide is that Bieber actually tweeted that he thought he “looked as crazy as heck” in the People photo just before the issue was released.

I doubt this is the only reason for the poor sales of Bieber’s People cover (a magazine aimed at an older audience than Beiber ‘s typical fans), but it does reflect a change in how fans interact with their favorite celebrity. Though you can’t hang a tweet on a wall like a pull out Tiger Beat poster (or a People cover), social networking platforms like Twitter offer access to the star that (at least in appearance) is more authentic and intimate than a magazine profile. For (young) audiences well versed in the revelation of the self through social networking platforms, it seems this would be more satisfying than any magazine profile.

But the move away from old media as primary extratextual source of celebrity lifestyles is not related just to the youth of Bieber or his audience. This Daily Beast story argues that celebrities as cover models are not selling (non-gossip) magazines as much as they once did. Unless they are young celebrities, like Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift (because Angelina Jolie is so 2008). Even though these younger stars are more likely to be active social network users (Cyrus in particular famously “quit” Twitter and even used her YouTube channel to let fans know why), there is still some sort of appetite for magazine features on the (new/young) celebrity. The key seems to be integrating the two by giving something new across the platforms to keep fans/audiences interested. Younger audiences may be much more interested in the daily minutiae of a Twitter feed, so the magazines have to figure out how to give something new in their profiles that will still draw these audiences. Often it is images in the form of official photos exclusive to the magazine (as seen in the above People cover) that are glossy and beautiful in contrast to grainy paparazzi photos. So maybe Bieber’s “crazy as heck” cover photo was not enough of a draw both because of his Twitter-take on it and a lack of appeal to the fans.

Celebrities and magazines both have to adapt to this new media world. But, celebrity-oriented magazines, whether gossip tabloids or more legit outlets like Vanity Fair, are not going anywhere. Sure, their numbers are down, but they still rake in millions. Some, particularly Us Weekly and People, have online counterparts that, along with the print versions, remain major players in the gossip industry. More importantly, the magazines continue to have access to celebrities that the blogs and other online outlets do not, Twitter-feeds notwithstanding. They still claim to bring us a private and unguarded side of the celebrity that one wouldn’t necessarily get in a 140-character tweet.

As I mentioned before , the bloggers I interviewed pretty emphatically told me they are not journalists. Blogs, even Perez Hilton and all its alleged “exclusives,” are largely reactive. They rely on existing online content (culled from places like as a springboard for their commentary and gossip talk. This is certainly a problem for the magazines, as audiences may be less likely to buy a magazine if they’ve seen the pictures or heard the details of the story online. But it can also help. I’d wager the Sandra Bullock People cover was helped by the fact that the gossip blogs were exploding with this revelation and many audiences wanted to see it for themselves. Even though I saw all the pictures online and knew most of the details of the story, I still bought this issue (which, unlike Bieber’s cover, sold twice as many newsstand copies as a typical for that week).

So there’s still a place for print magazines as well as the type of content and access they bring to the gossip media landscape. But I’m fascinated with the increasing popularity of Twitter as a medium for celebrities to (again, allegedly…many celebrities (like Britney) do not actually write their own tweets) bypass these media outlets to bring their fans a more intimate view of themselves. And how the media (both “old” and “new”) is working to incorporate this sort of perspective into their own content.

Finally, is it wrong that I find it oddly soothing to watch Justin Bieber dry his famous hair? It’s some sort of Zen moment for me.




2 responses

25 05 2010
An Admirer

I have a couple of comments :o).

(1) Okay, when I was watching the Justin Bieber “Baby” video, the first Google ad was “FreshMommy Special Offer: Lose the Pregnancy Weight and Get All the Nutrition You Need for Baby.” Hmm, Justin’s not singing about *that* sort of baby. And I’m not that sort of mommy. Big Fail, ad peeps!

(2) I think the difference in sales between the Justin Bieber and Sandra Bullock issues has a lot to do with generation. You mentioned that younger audiences “may be much more interested in the daily minutiae of a Twitter feed”, and I’m sure that’s part of it. You also noted that “audiences may be less likely to buy a magazine if they’ve seen the pictures or heard the details of the story online.” Well, I think it’s a combination of the difference in age for fans of JB vs. SB, and the online savviness of younger media consumers. Any decent fan of a certain youthfulness will know of a fan site/message board where they can see scans of articles and interviews from print mags the day they hit the press. I’m not sure Sandra Bullock’s average fan would; or even if they knew, they might rather fork up the few dollars to buy the print mag than go online. Whereas young folk (and me) live for looking for things online!

(3) In the old days, young fans would not only buy print magazines, but also put up clippings about their idols in their school lockers. So: what are kids pinning in their lockers today? Curious oldie wants to know!

26 05 2010

Oh Google ads. You take things so *literally*!

You are right, older audiences are probably more likely to stick with the magazines. Which maybe also explains JB’s low selling issue: tween star not going to sell copies to the magazine’s usual “older” audiences because they are less interested in his star image AND his usual “young” audiences are less likely buy print magazines in general. It’s just interesting that such a hugely popular star doing his first People cover (which is quite a big deal in the celebrity media world) sold so poorly.

That mag content shows up on blogs certainly hurts sales, but I think in the case of SB (or really any other big scandal), may have helped. I can’t imagine that everyone who bought that issue (which doubled the usual sales) was her “older” audience who didn’t look for it online. As I mentioned above, even though I hardly buy magazines anymore, I personally bought it. When Britney went off the deep end, shaving her head and all that, magazines with her on the cover sold like hotcakes. Even though all those pics and details were online. So if Beibs had been involved in a scandal, maybe *all* audiences would be interested in buying.

I was wondering what they hang in their lockers too! And getting nostalgic for all the old heart-throb pics I used to hang in my room/locker. Oh Luke Perry, you were so misunderstood!

Tiger Beat and the like do still exist, so I imagine they find pics there. Though the article I posted said they favor more star collage type pictures rather than a single picture of a star. Or maybe they print stuff off the internet to post. Or maybe they have magical LCD photo frames in their lockers. These kids today! Do we know any kids of that age? Let’s do a survey! 😉

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