Don’t mess with Beliebers

Culture Music

Twitter is a funny, marvelous thing. I work with it in my job as a social media consultant, and I use it extensively in my personal life to keep up with friends, connect with favourite celebrities, and find out what’s happening in the world. In my role as a regular host at UVic’s CFUV 101.9 radio station, I also have used Twitter to connect with musicians, both local and international, and find new tracks to play. I’ve been around the block when it comes to the little blue bird, but even I couldn’t have anticipated the events of Oct. 4, 2013, on the Twitter feed of our very own CFUV station.

So Justin Bieber has recently released a new track, entitled “Heartbreak.” It’s no surprise that the online Bieber fans—or Beliebers—have been abuzz about it. There are millions of dedicated Justin adorers on Twitter spreading the good word; Bieber has over 45 million followers, many of them teenage girls who spend a great deal of their time pleading for a follow from their beloved teen idol. I think on some level we can all relate to the giddy, overwhelming feeling of teenage musician worship; it’s a trend stretching all the way back to the screaming, swooning fans of Elvis and the Beatles, if not earlier. On the evening of the Oct. 4, one of Bieber’s fans on Twitter requested that @CFUV play Bieber’s new single, to which Program Director Johnnie Regalado replied with five words: “definitely won’t be playing that.”

Regalado believed the account to be an automated bot designed to appear like a teenage girl (they exist), and didn’t think much about it. “At first I thought I was responding to a tweet by a spam bot. We often get very weird tweets requesting we play music,” Regalado says. “I decided to respond to this one because I thought it was hilarious someone would ask our station to play a Justin Bieber track. Then the responses came pouring in.”

The user was very real, and very unhappy at the response: she (it can be assumed, though not confirmed) retweeted CFUV with a frustrated “How Come?” added on. That was the spark that ignited a flame, as other Bieber fans took notice and began to talk about it. Faced with a public institution that had denied Bieber the attention they felt he deserved, the Beliebers took it very, very personally, responding to our humble little radio station in a variety of dramatic ways. Some were dumbfounded: “Is that a JOKE or for real?” one of the first responders asked; “Why not? U don’t like playing GOOD music?” inquired another. “WTF WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU BETTER PLAY IT,” was another outraged response. The tweets quickly turned angry; the Beliebers assured us that we’d just lost half of our listeners; they accused us of only playing bad music. “Did someone train [you] on how to lose viewers? BC you just did,” said one; “They never had any, but they would of [sic] got some,” replied another. And, of course, some just threatened violence.

By late that evening, CFUV had become, among Bieber fans, the “worst radio station ever”—there was even a hashtag. Some admitted to knowing nothing about CFUV, but jumped on the hate bandwagon anyway; others pulled the time-honoured CanCon argument (CRTC guidelines for minimum Canadian content quotient; Bieber is, as we’ve all tried to forget, from Ontario) in an effort to change our minds. By Monday, complete strangers had risen to CFUV’s defense, pointing out that we are a university radio station and do not play Top 40 music at all. By the time the debacle had been chronicled on Storify on Monday afternoon, the fervour had mostly died down, with a few Beliebers even linking to the Storify post with a chuckle (or an LMFAO, as it were), showing what happens when you mess with such dedicated fans.

The entire debacle has been a fascinating and funny peek into the groupthink mentality of lovestruck teenagers, and how the anonymity of Twitter lends a certain bravado that wasn’t present in the pre-Internet days. When I was 12, I would have been devastated if someone insulted my beloved Backstreet Boys, but never to the point of a death threat. The social web has created a new outlet for fans to connect with one another and Bieber’s fans are at the age when hormones and adolescence collide, making for a particularly obsessive form of mania. As these young teens mature, they must explore their burgeoning sexual desires, and they do so by identifying with and adoring popular musicians, actors, and other famous faces; these teen idols are attractive, but not threatening. More than just an appreciation for the music, the fans feel that they are personally connected; they feel the need to spread the word and protect Justin’s good name, and a slight to him feels like a personal slap to the face. Most of us can probably relate; we all go through this stage as a part of growing into adulthood. My mother was a Beatlemaniac; I was desperately in love with Christian Bale from the movie Newsies and Nick Carter from BSB; today’s tweens are Beliebers. The difference for this latest crowd is that they can connect with one another online, creating an instantaneous network that affirms their own sense of identity and strengthens their conviction that they are Legion, for they are many.

In the end, the attack of the Beliebers has been taken in good humour from both sides. “My reaction so far, and shared by the rest of the CFUV staff, has been pure amusement,” Regalado says. “It’s been making us laugh all weekend . . . I feel like this is one of the best things to happen to CFUV’s social media presence ever. We’ve received close to a hundred tweets and retweets. Both haters and solidarity from our friends in campus, community radio, and the greater Victoria community.” Curious, I reached out to the original Bieber fan who contacted CFUV to get her perspective; in the end, she felt a little embarrassed that her request had sparked such rage and death threats, especially when she never sent any of them herself. But she has linked to the Storify post several times with humour and a little bit of incredulity; I don’t think she ever expected her request to cause such a stir.

For me, CFUV’s tangle with the Beliebers is particularly pertinent as I prepare for the debut of my own regular show on the station. In the decade since my own teenage fanaticism phase, I’ve grown into a fairly sophisticated music fan: I have a healthy number of signed vinyl albums, I’ve taken time to know my queer rappers and my post-rock collectives, and can proudly name a dozen Canadian bands that aren’t Bieber, Avril, or Nickelback. But I grew up in the era of BSB, N’Sync, and 98 Degrees; those bands were just as silly, and we annoyed just as many members of the older generations with our love for them. I eventually came to love more sophisticated sounds; many of these Beliebers will mature and find themselves on similar paths. CFUV is a station manned by people who love the music they play, and take time to seek out non-commercial options. And while we won’t be playing Justin Bieber anytime soon (sorry, fans, no deal), these events are a good reminder that music is a vitally important part of how we grow up and who we eventually become.