Among the Beliebers
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Three years ago, 17-year-old Sanobar Shaikh and Sohel, her elder brother, were playing a game of truth and dare when their banter turned into a heated argument that ended with her slapping him. Last year, 20-year-old Annie Anthony’s boyfriend suffered the same fate; this marked the end of their relationship. Twenty-three-year-old Mohammad Kunda fights frequently with his flatmates, while 18-year-old Shatabdi Arekar’s mother is thinking of taking her to a psychiatrist to deal with her obsessive, inseparable relationship with her smartphone.
The trigger in all these cases is a 23-year-old pop-star from Canada whose name is known even if one hasn’t listened to his music, and who will be coming to India for a concert on 10 May—Justin Bieber. One might even be familiar with the moniker his tribe of fans has earned the world over: Beliebers.
Anyone who bad-mouths their idol should be prepared to face their wrath. When I meet this group of 10 Beliebers at a café in Bandra, Mumbai, I’m mock-threatened by Anthony for spelling Justin Bieber incorrectly in a text message. One of them throws a figure at me—35% of the world, according to them, is made up of Beliebers. I shudder.
As they speak, they conjure up a country where the national colour would be purple (Bieber’s favourite colour; at one point also his hair colour), where all restaurants would serve spaghetti Bolognese (yes, his favourite dish) and the national anthem would be U Smile, the 2010 single that he dedicated to his fans. “Never Say Never,” one of them suggests instead. I decide to join in and ask if this nation would be a democracy. “Yes,” they say, ignoring the very premise of the joke, adding, “but only if you are a Belieber.”
The Beliebers are a large, tight-knit bunch who choose their own kind carefully. To select their best representatives for our meeting, for instance, the Indian Beliebers Community on Facebook and the IndianBeliebersCrew on Twitter conducted a test. Each participant was given a unique code that began with the initials “JB” and had to write a 200-word essay on the community to prove their worth.
“A fake Belieber,” Kunda tells me, “is likely to make the mistake of calling Baby his first song. It’s an easy mistake to make. That is his first international hit, but his first song is One Time, his debut single, which was more famous in the US and Canada.” Elated as they are about their beloved “JB” finally coming to India, they are suspicious of the way the organizers, White Fox India, have picked a winner through an online contest to meet Bieber. The question: “What advice would you give Justin for his trip in India?” The winning answer—that he should avoid spicy food—reeks of a phoney Belieber, they say. “Justin loves spicy food,” says Naveen Manjhi, 20, in disbelief—he made sure to make a sarcastic comment on Twitter: “Some fans don’t even know his likes and dislikes. @justinbieber loves spicy food and we advice him to definitely try I food (sic)”.
Manjhi, a music producer from Bhopal, created the wishfully named “Justin Bieber Tour Soon in India”, the very first social media community of Indian Beliebers on Facebook, in 2012—later, he also created the other social media accounts for Bieber fans. Since then, every activity on the Facebook group, which has 54,000 members, has been directed towards one goal—to get Bieber’s attention so that he comes to India. These fan activities—which they like to call “projects”—range from the cute to the sincere to the ridiculous.
Two 18-year-old members of the online community, Shaista Shams and Prerna Drolia from Asansol, West Bengal, are creating what they call a #BieberScrollIndia project. Currently it’s 130m long, but they hope to extend it to 200m—the longest, they claim, in all of fandom. This is a compilation of artwork and messages from fans across India. If all goes well, they hope to present it to Bieber on the day of the concert.
Inspired by his song Children, a section of the group has started a campaign to raise money for the education of 100,000 underprivileged children in collaboration with Umang Foundation, a Mumbai-based non-governmental organization. It is also a way of getting back at people who have accused Beliebers of spending exorbitant amounts on tickets for his concert. “Donate to the poor, instead of buying costly tickets!”, heard of those memes?” says the “official” website of Indian Beliebers, www.jbtsinindia.com. “Instead of just talking, let’s actually Make A Difference, just as Justin does!”
Sharad Varma, 16, who lives in Daltonganj, Jharkhand, has come up with a special version of WhatsApp, which features Bieber-themed emojis and a purple-dominated interface. Named Belieber WhatsApp, it was made available for download from the official website in February. Varma, who chose to chat on WhatsApp instead of speaking on the phone, says he aspires to be a Web developer. “I love doing these kinds of things.... My studies are getting affected because of it but I’m ready to choose my passion over it. And I have decided to sacrifice my studies to pursue my passion,” he says. Varma, who appeared for his class X board exams this year, is creating two games featuring Bieber as a character: In one, the challenge will be to let Bieber sleep amidst a lot of noise, and in another, the game will end as soon as you break his heart.
Bieber is the ultimate superstar of a generation which has grown up listening to music on YouTube and conducts a large part of its life in the virtual world. That videos of 12-year-old Bieber singing, casually uploaded by his mother, got picked up by his would-be manager Scooter Braun and later, the popular R&B artiste Usher, is popular knowledge in modern pop culture. When Kunda’s flatmates pit Eminem against Bieber, his clinching argument is that the latter has more followers on Twitter.
Unsurprisingly, a large number of Beliebers I met have known each other through interactions on WhatsApp and other social media networks, but met for the first time during our interaction in Mumbai (the Lounge photographer and I were added to a temporary WhatsApp group created for the convenience of our meeting called “Bemisaal Beliebers”).
Notable exceptions to their virtual existence have been the parades in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata over the past year and a half, when large numbers of fans took to the streets to profess their love for Bieber. Punit Lomas, a Bieber impersonator from Delhi who attended all the parades, dressed in baggy trousers, loose T-shirt, baseball cap and gold chain—Bieber’s trademark faux-hip-hopper look.
The parade in Delhi on 1 February, the Mumbai fans tell me, was bigger. In the Mumbai parade, which took place on 14 February last year, fans from Pune, Surat, Ahmednagar and Ahmedabad joined in—the fact that the Mumbai concert was announced a year and a day later is something Beliebers believe is more than a coincidence.
Bieber’s publicity team plays on this hysteria. Many of the Indian Beliebers are followed by Bieber on Twitter, a badge of honour displayed on their profile with the exact time, date and year of this earth-shattering event. “I remember it was the night before one of my exams and I started screaming. And my mom asked, ‘What happened?’” says Anthony.
Arekar, one of the administrators of the social media accounts, is logged into Instagram, Facebook and Twitter the entire day. “We know that if we ever need to get in touch with her on Facebook, the quickest way is to contact the Belieber accounts, which she uses more than her personal ones,” says Arekar’s friend, who accompanied her to our meeting.
Most of these Beliebers, who were in their pre-teens when they first heard Bieber’s songs, practically grew up with him. They have stood by him in his dark phase—when he got adverse press for reasons ranging from peeing in a mop bucket in a nightclub and publicly swearing about former US president Bill Clinton to driving under the influence of liquor and abandoning his pet monkey at an airport in Germany. They had a hard time, though, defending their idol to their parents, who had started perceiving him as a bad influence. “I told my mother to be patient, everyone has a bad day,” says Rini Cassandra from Mumbai. “The media never shows the good side.” One fan argues that if actor Salman Khan could command such a large fan following, what wrong has their idol committed?
The Beliebers are crazy about him for various reasons—and not always, it seems, because of his music. Although some of them pick a particular lyric or a part of a song as “life-changing” and “inspiring”, it doesn’t quite explain the madness. It isn’t a lifestyle or a distinct subculture like, say, the metalheads or the hip hop artistes, who have a certain attitude and fashion associated with their music. The oft-stated reasons for his following are his apparent good looks and style quotient. There are also the usual platitudes of fandom, which refer to his “kind heart” and charity work—he sold his Ferrari at a charity auction early this year, Anthony points out. “To be a Belieber you should like him for the person he is, not what he is wearing, or looks,” says Cassandra. Another fan adds, “He is a person who made us believe in our dreams, and (that) you have to fight for it.”
Kunda, who came to Mumbai from Surat to pursue a master’s in business administration, hoping to earn a lot of money, doesn’t hide his admiration for Bieber’s bad-boy attitude. He is a source of all kinds of semi-heroic Bieber stories—including some apocryphal ones—such as how instead of running away, he once got back at some people who abused him when he was trying to get into his car, or the time when a mob of girls ripped off his clothes in China. “You should see a video of him being detained by the cops and lawyers and the confidence with which he speaks to them,” says Kunda. “Ki main kisi ke baap se nahi darta (He’s not scared of anybody).” He adds, “I hope he doesn’t do something controversial here, though.”
Bieber has managed to sell the narrative of his phenomenal rise from young nobody, his fall, reparation and comeback—his fans feel he was speaking directly to them through the 2015 chartbuster Sorry.
Many, however, see the Beliebers as a bunch of yuppies, who, despite easy access to the Internet, are blissfully ignorant of things other than Bieber. “What the fuck is Coldplay?” says Kunda, claiming that he didn’t know about the band till they came to Mumbai to perform last year.
So what is it that makes the Beliebers an army of super-fans? “We are the most bullied lot,” Arekar says, as though being a Belieber is also a response to all the sneering at the posturing and plasticity of this teen-pop explosion. The more they are frowned upon, the stronger they grow.
Bieber is scheduled to perform on 10 May, 4pm, at the DY Patil Stadium in Mumbai.