Singer Justin Bieber performs on NBC’s “Today” show in New York November 23, 2011.
I used to have some fun with the teens in my church youth groups by challenging them to find the story of the little drummer boy in the gospels. Of course, their search was in vain as it’s a story from recent Christian tradition but not scripture. In contrast, pop singer Justin Bieber’s new version of “Drummer Boy” is much easier to find these days. It is featured on his new album
Under the Mistletoe
, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s 200 chart last week. In addition to the fact that this is the first time in the history of the Billboard 200 that a male singer topped the charts with a Christmas album, Bieber is donating a portion of the album’s proceeds to his Believe charity, which benefits such organizations as Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Teenage Cancer Trust.
You’d think all this would bring nothing but good press for the young singer. Yet some are criticizing this self-professed teen Christian for what they deem questionable lyrics on his Christmas album. Is there anything to this criticism? To be sure, the first single of the album, “Mistletoe,” might raise an eyebrow or two. In the midst of singing a love song to his “shawty” (slang for “pretty girl”) and admitting that he’s eschewing traditional holiday activities (like celebrating with family) so he can spend all his time with her, suddenly the wise men make an appearance:
Ey, love, the wise men followed the star
The way I followed my heart
And it led me to a miracle
Eh love, don’t you buy me nothing
I am feeling one thing, your lips on my lips
That’s a very, merry Christmas
To be fair, this track was written by Canadian songwriting team The Messengers, but since Bieber is the performer he gets the blame for conflating the search for Christ with the search for young love—a pretty pitiful comparison to be sure. The miracle of Christ’s birth hardly seems to be an apt metaphor for Justin’s receiving a Christmas kiss, but perhaps we should cut this young guy some slack. Particularly since his version of “Drummer Boy” offers a pretty catchy updating of a Christmas classic. Critics are suggesting that the bridge of the song in which Justin raps along with Busta Rhymes amounts to a bastardization of the true meaning of the carol. I’m not so sure. I suppose it depends on whether or not you can wrap your brain around lyrics that include references to Michael Jackson and the Bible in the same breath:
Playin for the king, playin for the title,
I’m surprised you didn’t hear this in the Bible.
I’m so tight, I might go psycho.
Christmas time so here’s a recital.
I’m so bad like Michael, I know I’m still young but I go I go.
The new lyrics, interspersed with verses of the original carol, go on to mention BlackBerrys (the cellphone), Twitter, wearing chinchilla coats, and even nods to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. These references are likely to displease his hardcore Christian audience who prefer their yuletide tunes remain unadulterated.
But there is a surprise waiting for us if we are willing to wait until the end of the song. The tag ending once again features Bieber in rapping-mode, but this time he’s sending out an appeal to respond to the true meaning of the Christmas season:
If you wanna give, it’s the time of year.
JB on the beat, yeah yeah, I’m on the snare.
It’s crazy how some people say, say they don’t care,
When there’s people on the street with no food; it’s not fair.
It’s about time for you to act merrily;
It’s about time for you to give to charity.
Rarely do people even wanna help at all,
‘Cause they warm by the fire, getting toys and their dolls.
Not thinking there’s a family out hungry and cold,
Wishin’ wishin’ that they had somebody they could hold.
So I think some of you need to act bold;
Give a can to a drive, let’s change the globe.
More than one reviewer of this track has blasted Bieber for a trite message of encouraging his teen listeners to change the world by giving a can of food. But isn’t this really the message of “The Little Drummer Boy”? The carol sings of a boy who thinks he has nothing to give the Christ child and it is Mary who encourages him to give the simple gift of himself and his music. Bieber does the same. He draws in his teen audience with a catchy beat and fun lyrics but then hooks us finally with a call to do what we can to help those in need, even as we are surrounded by the excesses of the holiday season. I wonder that he might have better luck with getting youth to hear that message than many in the Church might, even with a month’s worth of Bible study lessons and sermons.
Rev. Brian Kirk is an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves an inner-city church in St. Louis, Missouri. He also teaches as adjunct faculty at Eden Theological Seminary, and co-writes the blog rethinkingyouthministry.com.