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Justin Bieber has always been a reliable indicator of emerging trends. His hairstyle in particular has forecast the aesthetics and attitudes of boys across the world. In 2009 floppy surfer fringes hid foreheads; a couple of years later the tussles were shorn in favor of a military-style cut.
This year, Bieber’s taking cues from Post Malone and his codified grubbiness. In a recent Instagram post, he poses next to Malone in a clearly inspired Hawaiian shirt, with unkempt hair and a Joe Dirt mustache. Diplo commented that he looked like "The trap Mathew McConaughey" [sic].
Being grossed-out lies close to the feeling of being turned on, and Bieber, with the help of Post Malone, is toeing the line between the two. While some may call this a refusal to submit to masculine beauty standards, what’s really happening is something much more cunning. The Hawaiian shirt, the bandana, the shit-eating grin -- they all fall under the authenticating aesthetic of White Trash.
‘White Trash’ has history as a stigmatizing phrase. It came into common usage in America around the 1700s, and referred to white citizens without money; those who refused to display the etiquette of the dominant race. It stands in opposition to the American Dream and the idea of perfectibility through hard and consistent work. While Americans are supposed to hit the open road in search of the dream, the White Trash sit stationary in a trailer, refusing to improve, denying self-help and self-care; instead leading an existence based on scars that cannot heal.
Its aesthetic is hyper-visual, with Hawaiian shirts and pink flamingos and bellies that crash into each other like bumper cars. Whites have been described as the “invisible race”, but the White Trash make their adversity remarkably apparent.
"Let’s consider Justin Timberlake. Once he was the good boy with the ramen hair; now he’s the despicable white man who makes more bank than the black men who have serviced his career."
“I definitely feel like there’s a struggle being a white rapper,” said Post Malone in an interview with GQ last year. He raised his objections when he was accused of being a “culture vulture”, and felt it unjust when Charlamagne Tha God asked him what he was doing to support the Black Lives Matter movement (a fair comment considering Malone’s appropriation of rap and black culture at large).
While this isn’t the first time white artists have been challenged for profiting from a minority culture -- there is a very long history of that -- they’re now being questioned for it more than ever. Let’s consider Justin Timberlake, for instance. Once he was the good boy with the ramen hair; now he’s the despicable white man who makes more bank than the black men who have serviced his career while he's given them nothing in return.
It’s a necessary re-evaluation, but the white artists themselves refuse to reckon with their actions. Post Malone’s refusal is especially reminiscent of white rappers of the 90s who felt themselves racially excluded when they tried to make a career in a black man’s business -- crying victim.
And that’s just classic White Trash. Elvis Presley, one of the its forebears, stole rock and roll from the likes of Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, then made it white. Today, through the same aesthetic, Post Malone and Justin Bieber are attempting to whitetrashwash rap, hip-hop, dancehall, trap.
"Eminem’s trailer-to-mansion story; Bieber’s love of his God and his Jesus and his shit hair; Malone’s Bud Lights, guns, blatant dirtiness -- this trashy cosplay draws attention to their so-called unfortunate whiteness."
They’re following in the footsteps of the most successful culture vulture of recent times: Eminem. When he rapped “Y’all act like you never seen a white person before” on his first number one single The Real Slim Shady, he had the listeners’ sympathies. Even my Tory nan loved it.
Like Malone, Eminem’s White Trash narrative and aesthetic guaranteed his success in an arena to which he didn’t belong. According to hip-hop scholar Mickey Hess, white artists rely on authenticating strategies, such as “being true to oneself”, and claiming “local allegiances” to their hometowns. Most crucially, they frame their own whiteness as a career disadvantage and a hardship.
John Waters, director of Pink Flamingos, has asked, “is ‘white trash’ the last racist thing you can say and get away with?” Eminem’s trailer-to-mansion story; Bieber’s love of his God and his Jesus and his shit hair; Malone’s Bud Lights, guns, blatant dirtiness -- this trashy cosplay draws attention to their so-called unfortunate whiteness. While sheer common sense tells us that it’s impossible to be racist to white people, these artists push for the narrative of the poor, disenfranchised white guy; as though they’re the real victims of racism.
Even the President of the United States exhibits the White Trash Aesthetic. “His hair is as teased and artificial as Dolly Parton’s; his eternally pursed lips recall Elvis’s; his orange skin suggests the kind of cosmetic mask that Tammy Faye Bakker once kept between herself and her viewers,” says The New Republic’s Sarah Baker.
His America is one in which White Trash, and therefore white rage, is a concern to be taken very, very seriously. It’s of no coincidence that his presidency commenced shortly after the Black Lives Matter movement took off, since what triggers white rage, says Carol Anderson, professor of African-American studies at Emory University, is black advancement.
Soon after tiki torches were carried across the streets of Charlottesville, the Kardashians had their White Trash party, Hawaiian shirts were traipsed down the spring/summer 19 menswear runways and Post Malone broke streaming records.
And then we have Bieber next to Post Malone, two of the richest musicians in the world. They’re thriving now more than ever in an America that is diverting its conversations on racial equality towards white people. Their White Trash aesthetic is a strategy that will keep allowing them to steal the intellectual property of those outside of their race, even while centralising their miserly struggles. And -- perish the thought -- this is only the beginning.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.