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Santa, Baby: A Scholarly Analysis of Justin Bieber’s New Christmas Video

December 5th, 2011 by Tavi Gevinson

Tavi Gevinson is the editor and founder of Rookie Magazine. She had Anna Faris write the best two-word advice column we’ve ever seen for her website, she was just profiled by the New York Times, and a lot of well-adjusted adults copy everything she wears. Oh, and she’s 15. This makes us feel very lazy. To say she is “wise beyond her years” would be like saying Dwight Schrute can be “sort of weird sometimes” or Albert Pujols is “pretty good at batting practice.”

We’re letting Rookie program a slice of Hulu this week. Yes, we’re totally using her to try to figure out what’s cool. Hopefully she’s not onto us.—Ed.

Hello, consumers of Hulu-curated content.

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or any politically correct alternative comes early this year, as I am taking over this site for an entire week to give you my choicest selection of videos. There is no theme, no recurring motif, not except for one that is simple, yet complex: transcendence.

We start off this odyssey through an avant-garde abyss with “Justin Bieber’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

It opens with a shot of a vague figure seen from behind, a shadow in a pool of light. What could it be? the mind begs, as the cinematographer manipulates our expectations with a Lynchian mastery. A highly sexualized clay version of Santa Claus, is the answer. Slowly, the world around us begins to make sense.

Other characters are introduced—a drumming penguin who calls himself “Topper,” a highly sexualized clay version of Tim Allen who calls himself “Justin Bieber”—and the film shows a degree of self-awareness by showing Topper at a camera and Santa (“Kris,” according to the chiron) slating a shot.

Finally, the thesis of the film is explicitly stated in the title and the lyrics: Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town! But what does it mean? We’re about to find out.

We know from about 30 seconds in that Topper has some self-esteem issues. Kris is writing at his table with a feathered quill while Topper stands idly by, watching with contentedly, seemingly unbothered by the fact that one of his peers, a fellow bird, has been slaughtered and made into pens, and his very own friend—perhaps even a mentor—has supported this system. The audience feels for Topper — we’ve all been there, haven’t we? — and it’s a painful two seconds to watch.

Hold your concerns, however, for soon after, Topper comes out on top in a much more powerful statement about animal rights in general. At about 0:55, Allen is shown on a see-saw, going about his life and strutting the way most careless humans do, only to be catapulted by Topper all the way from a music studio to the Swiss Alps. Yes, it is an extreme statement—in what world does a penguin launch a grown manchild into the air?—but one must be extreme in order to properly introduce the radical idea that animals are not only humans’ equals, but perhaps our superiors, as well.

In an homage to the psychedelic drug movies of the 1960s and ’70s (and perhaps making a statement on the current argument in the United States about the legalization of marijuana), a deer’s eyes turn into hearts at the site of Allen skidding through the mountainside on a snowboard make of air. Oh, that’s another thing. This film promotes eco-friendliness, because Highly Sexualized Tim Allen conserves resources by riding a snowboard made out of air.

While HSTA’s very popular Twitter has often symbolized, for journalists and other members of the media, the world’s rapidly increasing pace of communication, HSTA makes one question their perceptions of him as not much more than someone whose songs include words like “to all my Twitter followers” by having mail delivered in this film like it was in the olden days, in the 1990s, by birds and other woodland creatures. In this Cindy Sherman-esque play on identity and transformation, we learn that even today’s Media Mogul Prince has nostalgia for a simpler time. By stripping down the idea of a Tweet to a literal translation—an actual bird, carrying paper with words on it—he makes the audience nostalgic, too, giving an alarming look at what our society has been missing out on since we all shed our delivery birds and flannel to spread our wings and fly into the 21st century.

After a couple filler shots (after all, not everything can be as powerful as the penguin seesaw) the lights go low and the pool of light from the introduction makes an ominous return. The tone of the video then darkens considerably as the penguin plays drums in sunglasses and a scarf from Old Navy. And HSTA, he tones down the cheer, and speaks, not sings:

So it’s that time of year

When you let all your problems go

…and…you know…

Shake it, shake it, baby.

In a stark turn from the serenity and subtle intensity of what we’ve just seen, the entire cast then breaks out into song, dance, and more psychedelic hearts. Topper, who has presumably gotten over some of his personal issues since we first saw him, even has a dance solo in one moment’s glory.

One of the film’s most radical messages is then upon us, as we watch Kris instruct a room of elderly men on toy-making, an image on which I could write an entire thesis about cross-generational collaboration and the reversal of child labor practices, but that’s all for another time. These gifts are then distributed to a group of inner-city children in rags, who for some reason have gray hair (probably because they are poor). Could Justin Bieber be suggesting, perhaps, that we will soon see a day in which quality, handmade toys — toys which went through not a child-labor factory in Asia but a log cabin of nice old grandpas discussing golf over a cup of joe — can be produced cheaply enough to reach underprivileged kids? It’s an ideal, sure, but an ideal that may just be universally compelling enough for everyone to work toward.

Soon thereafter, a brother and sister fight over a toy truck in their home, the image a symbol for the relatively recent shift in the American marriage’s gender roles as more women have been getting jobs and playing the family breadmaker. This struggle between patriarchy and feminism is resolved, however, once the two see our principal cast dancing outside their window. This moment— poignant; profound—seems to be a statement on celebrity culture acting as a distraction to Americans who do not know how to deal with their own problems. Bieber’s self-awareness here in commenting on a culture of which he is so much a part gives a wink and a nudge, and reminds the viewer of the film’s own self-awareness that we saw in the beginning.

The film begins to come to a close with an elderly man with a white beard flying into the sky—undoubtedly a metaphor for God. We then return to the drum set we saw at the beginning and at the climax of Highly Sexualized Tim Allen’s speech, only this time, there is no darkness; rather, the whole setting is illuminated. Illuminated with the light shed by Justin Bieber on topics of animal rights, America’s war on drugs, environmentalism, technology in the modern world, socioeconomics, and the nuclear family ideal in relation to feminism, and religion.

Happy politically correct day of presents, everybody.

See you next time,

Tavi

Last comment: Apr 22nd 2014 20 Comments
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  • eercm says:

    Shigekog, you seem to have mixed Barthes with Foucault :)

  • Damien says:

    Hi Tavi,

    I produced and directed this video, and I really enjoyed this review – great insight, and great humor. Keep it up and happy holidays :)

    Damien

  • Shigekog says:

    In Roland Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author” he argues that any original intentions of the author must be disregarded because it takes an outside perspective to fully comprehend a text, or Justin Bieber music video. The only position that matters is the viewer, or the one doing the interpreting. It doesn’t matter what the producers had in mind – Tavi’s interpretation stands until someone else gives a semiotic reading to the piece.

  • JK says:

    A very accurate and profound reading of this work (although, I will never watch the video, so whether or not it is truly, I will never know).

  • natsavage says:

    I love when people don’t get it and then post really long and insane responses to further my amusement.

    Thanks, America!

  • Medman says:

    Some of the previous comments are pretty absurd. How could anyone interpret even a single line of this piece to be serious? If you watch the video, you clearly see that she’s just poking fun the entire time. Some very funny lines complement what turns out to be a pretty silly music video.

    Also, the argument that Justin Bieber isn’t talented is equally stupid. Regardless of whether you like his music or not, he can sing very well and has obviously connected with a significant fanbase across multiple generations. Yes, he’s “just” a kid, but he’s better trained and more vocally capable than the majority of major music celebrities out there today. And @This is News, Justin Bieber is not associated with Disney at all, and his current direction suggests that if he can recover from his voice changes (which this video suggests he can), he’ll be successful for a long time.

  • Adriana says:

    These comments make me concerned about the reading comprehension level of the general public.

    Tavi, this is brilliant and beautifully written. WELL DONE, LADY!

  • derp says:

    judging by the some of the genius comments here, apparently, no one on hulu understands satire. tavi #1

  • badlotus says:

    Clever comments, Tavi. But unfortunately I hope you realize your peers will most likely send you threats and possibly even attempt to find and vandalize your home. (However, since your peers– I use the term loosely– and potential enemies are 10-15 year girls, I don’t think you should be seriously worried. ;) you are a prodigy.)

  • Selena says:

    JESUS. These comments are insane. This is so obviously a joke, how could you spend 500 words trying to “disprove” it. “I think this was supposed to be humerous”????????? IT IS. GOD.

  • Isabele-George says:

    I’m gonna heave a huge sigh before starting this battle.
    Ok, you DO realize what this video is, right? It’s all scenes from the classic children’s movie “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” from 1970. These are all original scenes from the movie, with Justin Bieber added in. So while I admire your articulation and analysis, it is all a moot point once you realize that you are analyzing scenes from a children’s movie from a drug-hazed decade that preceded a lot of the views on issues you bring up.
    I do realize you are being ironic for much of this, but (and this might completely be due to my utter inability to recognize irony or sarcasm, despite utilizing it heavily myself) I have to ask how much is serious.
    I’m sort of hoping this is all an elaborate joke. I think it is, but I’ll have to ask a few more socially well-adjusted friends of the kind who can recognize irony before I decide.

  • audrey says:

    tavi you are amazing in every way.

  • IRONEZDED says:

    This was a ridiculous video and Tavi did it justice. You could say that Bieber’s rendition was nonessential, banal and the video uncreative and on the cheap, but at least Tavi didn’t sell out and do the same by stating the obvious. If you don’t get it, don’t bother dissecting it ad finitum for your febrile brain. I just wish she’d been around to lay it on me when New Kids On the Block did their asinine “Have a Funky, Funky Christmas.” Irony is dead but apparently ageism is not.

  • .... says:

    Stab in the dark: s h e ‘ s n o t s e r i o u s .

  • This is News says:

    I just don’t understand the mentality of people. She’s pulling things out of this that, very well, weren’t put there for that line of reasoning. A brother and sister fighting over a truck during christmas /may/ be a shot at gender role realization, however, more probable is its an image true as time, sibling rivalry, a need for a new perspective into materialism at christmas time a plot device to drive home every “nostalgic” moral we’ve learned from the very thing the’re copying, claymation christmas. To think that 1. Justin bieber had much of a hand in this is preposterous. 2. That a industry centered around preteen or “tween” generations and the money they produce would spend time to quantify a video about stylized claymation is silly. and 3. To try and pull some sort of amazing doctrine about love, relationships, morals, ideals, politics, agendas, or as she so BOLDLY states it transcendence from a child stars music video is the equivalent to finding true inner harmony and spiritual peace from the expendables. It’s colorful claymation for children of all ages quit placing your social stigmatisms and moral propaganda on top of superfluous noise and colors. On a side note , I think he’s an untalented individual with no direction, he’ll fall out just to be replaced again, and again, and again as it has for years when dealing with Disney. As for the video decent, as for the blog waste of time to read, even more of a waste to have spent this time responding. She might be “smart” for her age but at 15 shes got a long way to go.

  • Derp says:

    She’s 15 dude

  • adam warnecke says:

    i feel… refreshed. that’s the only way i think i can sum it up. i feel like i just had a great yoga session. if you were to take tavi’s voice, remove all trace of irony, and replace it with paranoid fear, you’d know exactly what it sounds like inside my head. thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • TELLYAWHAT says:

    A PERFECT close reading of this video. KRIS = RON WEASLEY

  • 10000li says:

    Is Tavi a first-year pop-culture student? Whoever she it, I hope she didn’t get paid for this tripe. I think this was supposed to be humorous, but she needs to read and learn from Alan Sokal’s essay, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”

    Until then, she’s “not even wrong.”

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