“He has produced the most […] resonantly beautiful, disturbing yet appealing and approachable, body of verse of any poet in the last twenty five years,” wrote Alan Brownjohn in 1975, speaking of Philip Larkin. Had Brownjohn been writing today, it is not too fanciful to imagine him applying a similar description to Justin Bieber – the prodigy whose clarity, wit and profound insight have led him to be crowned the voice of our generation.
Despite the different eras that they inhabited, Bieber and Larkin came from similar family backgrounds (both being only children with difficult or non-existent paternal relationships) and shared, or share, a cynical attitude to fame. Larkin once observed: “I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any.” Likewise, Bieber concisely remarked: “I dunno… uh…it [fame] is special. But I … uh… don’t want people to just think of me as, like, a teen sensation.”
If this weren’t enough (it often is), Larkin and Bieber also share several poetic characteristics: deceptively limpid language, a flair for the controversial, and subtle yet striking imagery. Consider, for example, these lines from Bieber’s erotic oeuvre ‘Boyfriend’:
Swag, swag, swag, on you
Chillin by the fire while we eatin’ fondue
The act of “chillin” (here meaning relaxing) is cleverly juxtaposed with the lovers’ position by the fire. Things between the narrator and his Dark Lady are not literally or even metaphorically “chillin” – they are heating up, in all senses of the phrase.
We are also presented with a visual contradiction: the orange of the fire beside the pale cheese fondue. This paleness leads us to associate the fondue with “chillin” and not with “fire” – forgetting, of course, that the cheese must also be hot, or it wouldn’t be melted. (NB: The inclusion of cheese may also be a veiled reference to Bieber’s musical genre). Bieber’s masterful manipulation of words shows us that though they may seem incompatible – like the notion of chilling near fire – both he and his muse fit perfectly together. They make sense. Love makes sense of them. And things are about to get saucy.
While Larkin also uses this technique, it is for the opposite effect. Rather than something glamorous, sex is squalid and strained – as depicted in these lines from ‘Toads’:
[…] folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
They seem to like it.
Again, fire and eating are metaphors for sex. But rather than blend together, the windfalls contrast with, or even put out the fires, and the folk ‘seem’ to like it, rather than being utterly engrossed, as Bieber is with his lady: “If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go”.
Saying this, there is also a darker side to Bieber’s depictions of sexuality. Academics have frequently analysed misogynist undertones in Larkin, but few would dare to take a similar approach to Bieber. To fail to do this is to ignore his blatantly condescending attitude towards women. Though superficially idolised, the opinions of women are repeatedly dismissed or assumed: “I know you love me, I know you care”(‘Baby’), “I don’t know about me but I know about you”(‘Boyfriend’). Even the eponymous nickname ‘baby’, repeated 55 times throughout his magnum opus, is heavily laden with possessive and literally patronising implications. It might even be tempting to draw an oedipal interpretation from this: the baby is not a reference to his former lover, but a wish to return to a childlike state alone with his doting mother, protected from “shawties” and their “eenie meenie ways”. (Here I might refer to Larkin: “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad”.)
In light of the similarities between these two great poets, it is surprising that up until now no critic has ventured to make such an obvious, vital comparison.