"What We Talk About When We Talk About Justin Bieber Talking About Anne Frank” isn’t on anyone’s Pulitzer Prize shortlist, but the righteous outrage over guestbook comments left by the Canadian pop idol at Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House is a little much.
The Anne Frank House Facebook page reported that 19-year-old star visited the museum late last week and wrote, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a Belieber.”
On cue, Twitter comedians piled on, raiding and laying waste to the low-hanging fruit of a combination Bieber/Anne Frank joke:
Get it straight: an unintentional gaffe by an airheaded celebrity is unforgivable, but a crass gag about choosing to die of typhus in a concentration camp? All in a day’s work.
Yes, it was a shockingly dumb thing for the Biebs to write. The lack of self-awareness in that comment is staggering, and at 19, he really should know better. I taught college sophomores for years, and while they might at times pad along happily on the surface of things unless prodded to think deeper about their subjects, they are not, generally speaking, blithely lacking in empathy for those who suffer.
Bieber’s had his share of fumbles lately (will someone please adopt his monkey?), and it appears that he’s undergoing the awkward public transition from cheerfully-exploited child star to slightly-unhinged young adult celeb. If Bieber wants to transition from boy wonder to man with a shred of self-respect and maturity, he’s going to need more than his mentor Usher can offer. Maybe he could take a break and enroll in college? James Franco could help him with his essay.
Because we’re talking about a guy whose mother promoted him relentlessly on YouTube when he was just 12 years old—that’s soccer team and braces time. His manager, Scooter Braun, signed him at 13. His debut EP went platinum when he was just 15, right around the time that his peers in school might have been delving into the history of the Holocaust, a subject that more formidable minds still struggle with on a philosophical and theological level. How deeply did his private tutors teach those units?
That his response to the museum lacked the emotional gravitas we can rightly expect even from 19-year-olds is troubling, but shouldn’t come as a surprise. There’s absolutely no reason beyond financial gain for a young singer’s family to put him to work full-time at 14, but what kid who loves music and desires fame, attention and autonomy would say "No thanks, I prefer to stay in school and mature at a reasonable rate in the privacy of my own community?"
But Bieber is an adult now, in for better or worse, in charge of his own education. As Frank herself said in her diary, “parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands.” So let’s give him a little credit for visiting the Anne Frank House in the first place. It’s not like Amsterdam doesn’t offer plenty of empty distractions for a filthy rich teenager on a stressful working tour.
And consider Anne Frank the way Bieber might have experienced her on his visit. A schoolgirl of 13 when she and her family went into hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, her diary brims not only with wisdom and theological ponderings, but also of girlish optimism and even romance, despite the horrors that wait for her and her family outside of the Secret Annex. She had a crush and her first kiss inside those walls. Anne Frank was just a 13-year-old girl like any other, and that’s what makes her diary and her fate so powerful it continues to resonate across cultures, decades and generations.
Even as she hid from systematic murderers, Anne Frank clung to her (girlish, beautiful) belief that people were, despite everything, good at heart. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that Bieber might have recognized his own young fans in her portrait and her spirit and tried, in his own (unsophisticated, ham-fisted) way, to pay tribute.