There’s an internet meme that I wanted to use for this, but I couldn’t find it. The title is something like: Justin Bieber’s music saved my life. And it goes on to tell a story, first person singular, about someone in a coma after a terrible accident. Day after day, this one nurse played Justin Bieber’s music. It was the only thing this coma patient could hear. And after weeks of it, nothing but Bieber’s music 24/7, the story goes: “I got up from my hospital bed and I turned off the CD player. Justin Bieber saved my life!”
I do not like the music of Justin Bieber. I say this in ignorance; I’ve never listened to any of his songs all the way through, nor sat through any of his videos. I’ve been lucky in that regard, always close enough to a door or a window or an escape pod to be able to leave when one of his songs came on. But there’s nothing particularly unusual or unique about the Bieber phenomenon. I didn’t like Shaun Cassidy’s music either, back in the day, nor Leif Garrett’s. I didn’t like One Direction, or The Jonas Brothers. I probably wouldn’t have liked Bobby Darin. I didn’t care for Donnie Osmond back in the day, or David Cassidy. I didn’t like the Archies. From the earliest beginnings of rock and roll, there have been cute boys with high voices who sing upbeat pop love songs or fun little dance grooves for audiences, mostly, of teenaged girls. There will be more of them in the future. I’m personally immune to the charm of such singers, but I also understand their importance to commercial popular music. They dominate top 40 airwaves, and always have.
Americans like hearing about people like Justin Bieber because there’s always something sort of inspiring about ‘rise to fame’ narratives. But what Americans really like is hearing about the inevitable fall of these kinds of pop idols, because deep down inside we find them annoying, and schadenfreude (German for ‘enjoying the misfortune of others) is a powerful emotion. ‘Serves ’em right,’ we think. ‘I always knew he couldn’t really be that clean-cut.’ Heh heh heh.
Okay, so, last week, Andrea Mitchell, a very respected reporter for NBC News, was doing a story about the NSA, and the question of electronic surveillance of American citizens. She was interviewing former Congresswoman Jane Harmon of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a recognized expert on electronic surveillance and the law. A substantive conversation about a major national issue on MSNBC, exactly the kind of story for which MSNBC would like very much to be known. But mid-story, this happened. The monetwork cut away from the interview to cover late-breaking news involving . . . Justin Bieber’s arrest for DUI.
Mitchell was widely ridiculed for this, perhaps unfairly–she wasn’t the one who made the call. Jon Stewart had great fun with it. Mitchell defended herself, but oddly–she pointed out that her show on MSNBC does covers more substantive international news than any other cable news show, and that MSNBC really only covered Bieber for a few minutes. A tacit admission, perhaps, that covering Bieber at all may not actually qualify as, you know, news.
But there is one sense in which MSNBC’s decision could be defended; in fact, in which their decision may have been right.
When researching my play Clearing Bombs (currently in rehearsal, opens Feb. 20), I read two articles by F.A. Hayek, 1931’s “Prices and Production,” and “Profits, Interest and Investment”. I found both of them stunning. In the play, I have Hayek say this:
If a solitary genius had invented prices, he would be lauded as one of the great men of any age. But prices simply happen, driven by the everyday decisions of ordinary people, doing their shopping. And as such, they tell us about value, about what we want and who we are and what we really think of things. Not what we think we should value, not what we might tell a clergyman we value, not what we imagine ourselves to value. What we actually, really, love.
If you think about it, prices really are remarkable. Unsentimental, unadorned by ideology or religious feeling or any other consideration, prices tell us what human beings genuinely do value. They quantify value. We may think that we should value broccoli or green beans or cabbage more than we value steak. But we don’t. We value steak more, and we can prove it; it costs us more.
Look at wages. You may think that it’s absurd that someone like, I don’t know, Scarlet Johansson, say, makes more money than an army medic. You may think it’s preposterous that we value Lebron James more than we value a good high school chemistry teacher. You may think that what Louis CK does for a living is ridiculously less important than what a good cop does. But in fact, our society demonstrably values a movie actress, a basketball star and a comedian far more than everyday people. We can prove it; we can quantify exactly how much more important Lebron is to us. We have dollar figures as proof.
By that standard, Andrea Mitchell cutting away to a story about Justin Bieber makes sense. Justin Bieber’s arrest is much more important than Jane Harmon’s views on the NSA. Bieber moves product. For MSNBC to survive as a cable news network, they have to sell advertizing. Privileging Bieber makes economic sense.
David Sarnoff, the founder of RCA and CBS and one of the pioneers of television (and the guy who engineered the theft of TV technology from its rightful inventor, Philo Farnsworth), believed in the civilizing power of this powerful medium, TV. He also believed in ‘Sarnoff’s law’: the value of any television program is measured by viewers. He believed that TV should broadcast programs to improve the human condition, but he also believed that the purpose of television is to sell advertizing; that shows existed to entice viewers to purchase products. He did not believe that those values were incompatible. I think most of us would agree that, to some degree, they are.
Justin Bieber, and his life and career and success and popularity are, I think, of no particular significance. As an American, I think that the NSA spying controversy is massively important. But let’s not pretend that the economic argument is without foundation or value. TV news networks probably shouldn’t be spending much time with Bieber trivia. But if they do, they risk losing viewers, and subsequently money. Because we may say we don’t really care about Justin Bieber. But we do care, we care a great deal. We can prove how much we care. We can put a price on it.