According to Variety, YouTube paid about $US20 million ($30 million) to acquire the 10-episode series, a few million short of Apple’s upcoming doc deal with Billie Eilish and Netflix’s deal with Beyonce. It’s a lot of money to pay for what’s essentially a lengthy ad for Bieber’s new album Changes, and highlights the usual shortcomings of the “behind-the-pop star” doco genre: we’re only ever seeing what they’re feeding us and it’s generally nonsense.
The tortured artist narrative is a common one. Katy Perry’s Part of Me painted a pop star whose on-the-road sacrifices led to the breakdown of her marriage with Russell Brand. It would have been more convincing if the creative output of that pain wasn’t a chorus like, “I wanna see your peacock, cock, cock.” Likewise, Lady Gaga’s 5-Foot-2 offered a manic artist whose private life and emotional wellbeing were strained by the daily responsibilities of photo shoots, dance practice and kissing Bradley Cooper. Pop, it seems, is hard work.
Over at Sundance this week, Taylor Swift was at least doing a different kind of image remodelling with the premiere of her documentary Miss Americana, which debuts on Netflix this weekend. Less a product-pushing device than YouTube’s Bieber thing, it was directed by filmmaker Lana Wilson, who’s previously made documentaries about the US’s abortion laws and rampant suicide in Japan, so you know it’s “serious”.
The film focuses on the viral response to Swift’s political awakening, that Instagram post in October 2018 where, after months of criticism that she hadn’t spoken out against Donald Trump supporters using her as their pop mascot, she laid out her Democratic-leaning proclivities.
“I had to deconstruct an entire belief system, toss it out and reject it!” a liberated Swift tearfully exclaims in the film’s trailer. I don’t think she’s talking about unicorns, but who knows?
Remember at the beginning of 1967’s Don’t Look Back, where Bob Dylan spends a few minutes mocking fellow folker Donovan? That seemed honest. By contrast, all of these recent backstage peeks are hard to swallow, a bunch of self-aggrandising attempts to reframe one’s public image. Who’s buying it?
There’s also something desperate about it all. If I want to believe Justin Bieber is a washed-up hack, out of ideas and motivation, isn’t that my right? I think it is, and I will – but I’ll also sing Yummy every time I eat a cookie, because that’s what it’s for.