The Origins of Bieber Fever Go All the Way Back to the 1920s

ByMatt Wolf

As a culture we have a tendency to condemn the very people we idolize, especially when they're young. Justin Bieber's rebellious downfall has been escalating since 2011 when he started attacking paparazzi photographers. This week videos from a Miami deposition show the teenage pop star belligerently confronting lawyers.

I'm a filmmaker, and my new documentary Teenage looks at the history of youth culture, and the invention of teenagers at the end of World War II. In my research I discovered a long line of "teenyboppers" that came before Bieber, and the origins of the fallen teen starlet in the 1920s. I also learned about the ambivalent and often times condemning effect adult society has on its young stars.

The origins of "Bieber Fever" go as far back as the 1920s when adolescents rioted outside the funeral of actor Rudolph Valentino. After Valentino starred in the 1921 film The Shiek, young boys started slicking their hair to resemble the movie star, calling themselves "sheiks" and their love interests "shebas." But when the teen idol unexpectedly died, despondent fans were reportedly attempting suicide. Some 10,000 shieks and shebas showed up outside of Valentino's New York funeral and started a city-wide riot.

By the 1940s, sheiks and shebas had transformed into a new youth type called "bobby soxers," named after their iconic saddle shoes and ankle socks. They were obsessed with a new teen sensation named Frank Sinatra. In 1942 when Sinatra played the Paramount Theater in New York, thousands of adolescent girls went wild. The reporter Bruce Bliven described the scene as, "a phenomenon of mass hysteria that is only seen two or three times in a century. You need to go back not merely to Valentino to understand it, but to the dance madness that overtook some German villages in the middle ages, or to the Children's Crusade."

In addition to the teen fanfare there are also historical examples of teenage celebrity meltdowns. Before the downfalls of Bieber, Britney Spears, or Lindsay Lohan there was Brenda Dean Paul. She was the first young starlet to fall prey to drugs, and to be publicly crucified by the media. In the late 1920s she was part of a party movement in England called the "Bright Young People," an elite subculture spawned from the contemporaneous flappers, sheiks and shebas of the 1920s in the U.S. They'd have elaborate "freak parties," where London's young socialites came in decadent, gender bending costumes. The burgeoning paparazzi took notice when the Bright Young People hosted the "second childhood" freak party. Bright Young People dressed as babies, flamboyantly playing with the 1920s ideal "to stay young forever."

But the Freak Party scene was fast-paced, and like many of her cohorts, Paul lived too hard, dabbling in morphine, and later heroin. She was in and out of rehab and court, and she became a tabloid fixture that the public loved to hate. Paul was famous, but not in the way she had wanted. She couldn't stay young forever, and when she became a troubled adult, the media and the public discarded her.

Image credit Getty Images. 

Justin Bieber isn't so different. He just happened to come of age with the Internet. As quickly as he ascended from a YouTube sensation to the Number. 1 pop star, he's now tumbling back down. Bieber has entered that rocky second stage of life between childhood and adulthood, where adolescents are hard-wired to test boundaries and to confront authority. I don't think Bieber's critics are worried about these transgressions. I think they're more dismayed that he isn't going to stay young forever.

Adults and the media have a troubled, ambivalent attitude towards youth, one that they've had for nearly a century now. On one hand they are obsessed: They want to look young, to be best friends with their children, and to understand new youth trends and styles for the purposes of marketing. On the other hand, they think youth are a problem that needs to be controlled. This idealization and condemnation of youth is fueled by the simple fact that teenagers represent the future.

It's hard to say what the future holds for Justin Bieber, but condemning him isn't going to help. Rather than criticizing and gawking at Bieber's downfall as we did with Brenda Dean Paul, we should criticize the media culture that idealizes young entertainers as heroes. It's an unsustainable role to play, and Bieber's recent outbursts are perhaps a reaction to that pressure. Unlike Valentino or Sinatra, Bieber faces unrelenting scrutiny from the blogosphere. We shouldn't punish him for growing out of the clean-cut image that was manufactured for him. We should use history to better understand the power of our scrutiny. 

Matt Wolf's film Teenage is currently playing in theaters around the country. Catch the film for more insights into sheiks, shebas, bobbysoxers, and the fascinating story of Brenda Dena Paul and the Bright Young People.