In my review of Justin Bieber’s What Do You Mean?, I promised that I’d write a positive interpretation of the song portraying it as a piece of art grappling with the problems of everyday existence. Here it is:
One of the major tenants of postmodernism is that forms such as the written word or the crafted image can’t be used to represent reality because it’s impossible to create an artwork in a way that is truly objective. The simple fact is that we do not live within paintings or in the form of words: as such, any attempt to render life into one of these forms has to change that life from experience into language, thus making it an inherently removed representation of that thing. True realism in art is thus impossible and the closest you can get is a simulation of realism created by techniques people have decided to read as realist.
As such, a series of questions are raised: If words are unsuitable forms through which to convey truth, then what’s the point of poetry and literature? If what we want to say is always changed by the way we say it, then what is the point of speech? How do you communicate in times like these and, if our daily relationships are based primarily on the ability to communicate, how do we maintain relationships in this postmodern age? Is the increasing sense of loneliness and meaningless in our world being facilitated by the very languages we use to navigate it?
It is these questions which Justin Bieber’s What Do You Mean? seeks to investigate. In the song, Bieber has a girlfriend who constantly talks to him but never seems to say anything; as such he’s left with a lot of meaningless babble which he is then left to ponder: What does she mean?
That question is actually deeper than it seems though, interrogating Bieber’s girlfriend on an existential level as well as a lexical one. Within the context of postmodernism, the question “What Do You Mean?” is incredibly literal, being an abstracted form of the question “Who are you?” Because his girlfriend is so defined by her speech and because her speech is so meaningless and hazy, her very being has thus become hazy to Bieber’s eyes and he’s lost sight of who she is and who she’s meant to be. The lack of communication also means that Bieber no longer knows exactly where he stands with her – he can’t tell exactly what their relationship is anymore and thus he can’t tell exactly what she means to him.
The fact that this question is repeated incessantly is an important feature too, repetition being important to postmodernism because it’s through repetition that which the world has become meaningless. Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreality theory is the main argument for this: throughout history, we have created a set of symbols designed to represent things – metaphors, words, icons, etc – and we accept them as having some fundamental meaning; alas the more we’ve focused on the symbols, the more we’ve let the original items slip from our grasp and now we live in a world of symbols pretending to represent things that don’t exist anymore. The symbols are now entirely removed from the real world and, because we live our lives according to these symbols, we’ve become removed from reality too.
The constant repetition of the question “What do you mean?” thus represents Justin Bieber’s entrapment in the same paradox which has estrained him from his lover; the more he asks the question, the less meaningful the question becomes, and so he becomes like his girlfriend, desperately trying to articulate something though he can’t truly grasp what.
This theme is backed-up by the structure of the piece which never truly shows any sign of progression or ever truly goes anywhere. The same minimalist beat repeated over and over again for 3 minutes straight, the repetitious nature of the song’s highly limited number of lyrics: the entire song is just one dull tone, never moving up, never moving down, but more importantly never moving anywhere at all and thus showing no signs of ever coming to an end. How can we escape this world when it is defined by the icons which remove us from it? To live in our reality is to live separated from reality, and the only way we have of communicating this fact is through language which denatures our worries before they’re articulated. We’re trapped, all of us, in a world of our own design. There’s no way out anymore. We should pity Bieber and the hazy defined girlfriend he knows nothing of, but we should pity them because they’re us. What meaningless lives we live.