“I’m done taking pictures”: Justin Bieber, fandom and mental health


How do we respond to celebrities talking openly about fame and mental health?

Justin Bieber is not taking fan photos. “I’m done,” he insists on his Instagram. Mentally exhausted by the strain of constant bombardment, he simply won’t say yes to people’s requests any more: “I don’t owe anybody a picture.”

What a brat, right? Doesn’t Bieber, in some sense, owe his fans more than just a picture? How utterly self-important and ungrateful of him to deny the thousands of fans who have brought him fame and fortune a fleeting moment with their idol, and a picture by which to cherish the memory! How churlish to boil the fan-idol relationship down to mercenary exchange with the sentence, “people who say ‘I bought your album’ know that you got what you paid for”.

It’s not the first time he has made posts like this: he recently filmed himself on Snapchat asking for respect when people approach him, and for people to understand that sometimes, he just doesn’t want to take a picture. “Please just respect me and just treat me the way you would wanna be treated.” Last month, he posted another Instagram text post explaining his decision to cancel meet and greets with fans: “I end up so drained and unhappy.”

Of course, the public responded with derision. Articles popped up in minutes condemning Bieber’s obnoxious behaviour. At the time of writing, more than 13,000 people on Twitter voted that Bieber doesn’t deserve his fans. On Radio 1 this week, Nick Grimshaw mocked the post as “ranty” and a “tantrum”, scoring a dramatic reading of Bieber’s comments with sad piano music. “That’s kind of the deal,” Grimshaw said. “As a pop star, with young fans, you’ve got to take pictures. People are obsessed with him, people travel around the world to see him.”

But the underlying message of Bieber’s posts are simple: these exchanges with fans are bad for my mental health. He writes that he wants “to make people smile and happy”, but “not at my expense”:

“I always leave feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted to the point of depression. The pressure of meeting people’s expectations of what I’m supposed to be is so much for me to handle and a lot on my shoulders. […] And I want to stay in the healthy mindset I’m in to give you the best show you have ever seen.”

As a culture, we’re slowly becoming more accepting of people setting boundaries in order to preserve their mental health, and less likely to misinterpret such actions as rudeness. But when Bieber does this, he’s conceited, brash, and sheltered. It is perfectly possible that he is also those things, but putting systems in place to protect your mental wellbeing is a necessary part of life for all of us.

It’s celebrity commentators, not Bieber, who repeatedly bring the conversation back to economics. But people spent so much money on meet and greet tickets! We bought your albums!!! We pay for your life! Are we seriously suggesting a person’s privacy and psychological wellbeing should be purchasable?

Justin Bieber is a pop star who has been unusually open about his mental health. “I’m struggling just to get through the days,” he told NME.

“You get lonely, you know, when you’re on the road. People see the glam and the amazing stuff, but they don’t know the other side. This life can rip you apart […] I feel isolated. You’re in your hotel room and there are fans all around, paparazzi following you everywhere, and it gets intense. When you can’t go anywhere or do anything alone you get depressed.”

So far, Bieber has received undue criticism for such candour.

Perhaps his language doesn’t always help him. In his Instagram posts, he calls himself “a slave” and “like a zoo animal”. He’s used comparisons that align him with Ghandi and God. The grandeur here feels uncomfortable. I feel the same kind of discomfort when in interview responses and song lyrics, Bieber justifies any and all of his bad behaviour (from racism to endangering animals) with the phrase, “I’m only human.”

“I’m human. I’m gonna make mistakes,” he said in another Instagram post in 2013. “I just want people to know I’m human,” he told NME in 2015. “Don’t forget that I’m human,” he sings on his latest album. It becomes ripe for parody (see an Elle article from last year headlined “Justin Bieber, Human, Reminds Us He Has Feelings”).

But trite as it may be, he’s fundamentally right – he is a human being with all the cycles of depression and anxiety and fatigue many experience. The problem isn’t that he’s seen as less of a human than anyone else, but more: the pressure to meet the unreachable expectations of fans is, of course, overwhelming, and something that should be regulated. In Bieber’s own words, “If you think setting boundaries is being a douche, I’m the biggest douche around.”

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