What’s a Bieber?

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Like The Simpsons, Super Bowl commercials like to be quotational—that is, make allusions to current trends in popular culture. So Super Bowl 45’s Best Buy commercial featuring an obsolescent Ozzy Osbourne and an up-and-coming Justin Bieber is pretty much par for the course. Indeed, Osbourne has been making hay of his stature as Satanic Metal’s permanently wired patriarch for years now, and he is no stranger to Super Bowl commercials. But aside from observing that I am convinced that Osbourne's full-on whacked-out public persona is simply Heavy Metal’s version of Dean Martin’s longtime impersonation of the alcoholic he never really was, my purpose here is not to interpret the meteoric rise of Justin Bieber and the decline of one of rock-and-roll’s elder statesmen; it is to pick up on Osbourne’s concluding line in the Best Buy ad as Justin Bieber takes his place. Osbourne asks, “What’s a Bieber?” Indeed, anyone over the age of about sixteen who uses popular culture in the classroom is likely to find him or herself in Ozzy’s position, for popular culture moves so quickly that it is difficult for anyone not entirely immersed in it to keep up. New fashions and icons come and go with the speed of, well, advertising pitchmen. Only a couple of years ago, for example, I found myself asking, “What’s a Gaga?” in response to a student report.  Now I’m wondering, “What’s an Antebellum?” But not to worry; the whole point of using popular culture as a subject matter in a composition class is that our students already know all about it. From the first to the upcoming seventh edition of Signs of Life in the USA, the fundamental premise has been that students will write better, less awkwardly, and more naturally about subjects that they are already conversant in and comfortable with. What we as instructors have to teach them is how to think critically about those popular cultural topics with which they are already familiar. That is to say, the students bring to a popular culture–based class its content; what the instructor brings is an education in analysis and argument and writing, which is something quite different from information gathering and opinionating. In a society that is awash in unprocessed information and unsupported opinion, this task is more important, and probably more difficult, than it has ever been before. Which is why I regard composition instruction (or all instruction that involves writing, actually), a team effort between semiotics and rhetoric. Semiotics provides the model for a broadly based foundation in critical thinking, and rhetoric provides the model for making a persuasive written argument based upon the critical thinking that must be performed before a useful argument can be formulated. And that is something that should never go out of fashion.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.