In Screaming & Scrolling, writer Jill Gutowitz explores pop culture through a humorous, honest, and critical lens.
“I think the older that I get, the more I realize that I’m not utilizing my gift, I feel, for the right reason,” Justin Bieber admits in his new YouTube docu-series Seasons. The first four episodes dropped yesterday, with new episodes airing Mondays and Wednesday on YouTube Premium, and chronicles the former child star’s return to music, following a seemingly vicious battle with his own mental health.
Right now, there’s no shortage of content in which pop-stars exhume their trauma. Between Justin Bieber’s docu-series, Taylor Swift’s highly praised documentary Miss Americana debuting at Sundance, and Demi Lovato’s emotional return to the Grammy stage Sunday, it feels like a reckoning is upon us; a generation of child stars-turned-pop icons are currently grappling with who they were in the 2010s. Audiences are tuning in to watch their poignant retellings of growing up on a world stage, but not with the same nosy, wide-eyed schadenfreude that was customary to the aughts and 2010s. The generation of consumers who grew up parallel to stars like these are also grappling with similar themes in our own lives; we’re all looking back on the last decade and trying to figure out what the f*ck went wrong.
What happened to us? Well, we grew up, which is traumatic enough. But we grew up in the nightmarish media landscape of the early 2010s that was still, unfortunately, telling us to stop being gay, fat, or different. It wasn’t until the last few years that TV shows, movies, pop culture in general really began diversifying narratives, promoting stories that weren’t just tolerant or inclusive, but celebratory of people who aren’t straight cis white men. Regardless, the damage had been done. A generation of young adults lived through harrowing real-life circumstances in the late aughts and early 2010s — the financial crisis, the final push for marriage equality, the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement — in addition to the little microaggressive messages that were transmitted into all of our TiVos and iPods and Blue-ray DVDs.
I’m sure I speak for others when I say that, as a teenager, I invested holistically in pop culture success stories; the Jonas Brothers skyrocketing out of a small town in New Jersey, or teenage Taylor Swift trading in her Pennsylvania blues for international stardom was a means of escapism for me. I dissociated from the real traumas I was enduring in my own life, mainly, repressed sexuality, financial stress, and resulting depression. Spoiler alert: Entering a Disney Channel fugue state did not help; I still ended up being gay and depressed.
This week, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who suffered through a challenging decade to “come of age” in. The stars I idolized — those previously mentioned Disney Channel fugue state personas — were coping in their own damaging ways. Demi Lovato has, devastatingly, suffered through a very (unfairly) public struggle with addiction, and was hospitalized in 2018 after a tragic near-overdose. Eighteen months later, Demi stood bravely — but shakily — on the Grammy stage, and cried out, “A hundred million stories, and a hundred million songs, I feel stupid when I sing — nobody's listening to me,” debuting her new ballad “Anyone.” It was heart-wrenching, hearing her exhume her trauma, something she’s become quite used to.
In 2017, Demi’s released a revealing documentary, Simply Complicated, in which she discusses coming to terms with her sexuality. In that respect, part of Demi’s journey mirrored my own; I grew up mortified by my own attraction to women, unaware that I was allowed to be anything other than a boring straight woman who wears scarves and says things like, “I gotta have my java.” Had I, or Demi, had a pop culture idol who had said, “Hey, being gay is OK,” or “Hey, people struggle with themselves, and that’s normal,” I’m sure I would’ve left my body a little less in the aughts and 2010s. Ironically, Demi became that person for many people once she came out as queer.
Demi isn’t the only 2010s pop idol, or twenty-something, who felt alone in wrestling her demons. Fast-forward to this telling week in pop culture, in which the message being communicated is overwhelming: None of us are OK.
At Sundance, Taylor spoke to Variety about her struggle with an eating disorder, which she reveals in Miss Americana. Swift told Variety that, in the past, she’d seen “a picture of me where I feel like I looked like my tummy was too big, or… someone said that I looked pregnant … and that’ll just trigger me to just starve a little bit — just stop eating.” Taylor added, “I think I’ve never really wanted to talk about that before, and I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about it now. But in the context of every other thing that I was doing or not doing in my life, I think it makes sense.”
I’m severely lucky to have eschewed the common and enduring trauma of battling an eating disorder, an experience that is so common amongst young people. Having overcome other harrowing tales of self-acceptance, like coming out as gay, or learning how to survive anxious-depressive swings, I feel lucky to hear Taylor, who I’ve been a fan of for over a decade, speak on this. She’s not saying she’s overcome, or that she’s a success story, so to say — she’s still brawling with the traumas she endured in the last decade. For many people, body image, sexuality, self-acceptance, sobriety, and issues in mental health are everyday struggles, not a phase we put behind us.
It’s impossible to ascribe one, or even a handful of reasons, as to why the stars of the 2010s are not OK. I think it’s a mish-mash of issues as a result of a challenging socio-economic landscape. I’m sorry to hear about the horrors many of these stars have suffered through, most of which were aggravated by and magnified by fame and social media. But it’s helpful to have these conversations, especially with stars like Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato — celebrities who are representative of an entire generation of fans and consumers who are still hurting.
“This isn’t about me,” Bieber says of his own career in Seasons. “It’s about helping someone who’s going through whatever they’re going through and just being able to talk about that thing.” He adds, “I think that’s a really cool way to look at what I do.” \
Now, I’m not exactly ready to lionize Justin Bieber as a voice of my generation, but I think his message is representative of a larger reckoning that’s upon us. In the 2010s, I wanted to be like Taylor and Demi — rich, famous, replacing the traumas of growing up with shiny toys and a Jonas Brother boyfriend. Today, I find myself still wanting to mimic them, but in healthier and more productive ways, like healing my adolescent wounds, moving forward in my life, and streaming Miss Americana January 31st on Netflix.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue