Sometimes a pet monkey isn’t just a pet monkey.
As Justin Bieber discovered last week when German officials confiscated his pet capuchin Mally for lack of appropriate documentation, the monkey-owning game is more complicated than it looks.
Whether the pop star ever wanted Mally seems arguable — the pet was a gift from record producer Mally Mall, for whom he is named. Given no choice, Bieber surrendered his monkey to the Germans and continued his tour of Europe. Given four weeks to retrieve little Mally from the lock-up Bieber has yet to make his monkey-owning intentions clear. He may simply leave Mally to the care of the Germans, at least some of whom have already declared their intention to give the capuchin a far more monkey-appropriate home, among other monkeys as opposed to fast-living, uneducated teenagers. And this may be the best possible news, not just for poor, paperless Mally, but also for Bieber, who seems to be the more imperiled of the two. By far.
Just past his 19th birthday Bieber has lately transformed himself from his earlier, tweenage dreamboat image to something older and stupider: A wealthy, tattooed prat whose main pursuit involves swan-diving fainto every celebrity sinkhole on the tabloid map. Missed shows; unforgivably late shows; public tantrums; embarrassing ejections from nightclubs; unexplained lapses of consciousness; endless Twitter screeds about the dreaded ‘hatas,’check, check, check, check, check and check.
Bieber’s a lot of things, but sophisticated isn’t one of them. For all that he can sing and dance, and possesses what seems to be a canny ear for hit songs and an eye for new talent he shows very little comprehension of who he is and what he’s trying to achieve. This is problem. For to be that successful at that age; to wield untold riches, glory and power at a point when his peers have yet to graduate high school; elevates Bieber to an Olympian height that amplifies every twitch and Tweet into a signifier for something bigger. “Worst birthday ever!” he informs the world, frowny icon attached, and tectonic plates shift.
Now, suddenly, comes a monkey. A baby capuchin (just 16 weeks old!) custom-ordered for the young demi-god with the world by the tail and no fucking idea what he wants out of it. The shiftless rich do this sort of thing all the time — see also the menageries belonging to the various Kardashians, Hiltons, etc. But in the hands of a true cultural phenomenon a monkey can be a very dangerous thins. Consider the most famous monkey owner in the history of popular culture.
When Michael Jackson introduced the world to his pet chimp Bubbles (not technically a monkey, but come on) he had the soft-eyed creature dressed as a smaller version of himself, bearing his furry double in his arms as if he were his own son.
Clearly, Michael knew what he was doing when he introduced a child figure into his iconography. No pop star could ever be more savvy to the symbolic power of his image than MJ, and for a long time he controlled public perceptions of himself with the confidence and focus of a magician. But the superstar was also the most valuable member of a showbiz family whose patriarch, Joseph, was as seethingly ambitious, relentlessly demanding and entirely fucked-up as a father could be. Look at those lovely old films of the sweet, smiling Jackson 5 belting out “ABC” and “I Want You Back” and think about the glowering presence standing just offstage, toting up missed steps and ill-sung ‘ooohs’ for that night’s thrashings. To see the grown-up, world’s-most-popular-human Jackson grinning for the cameras with an often-identically dressed child who was actually a pet chimp portrayed the Jackson family drama (and particularly Michael’s devastation at the hands of his father) in the terms of a Freudian burlesque.
If Bubbles was meant to symbolize the lost innocence of the helpless Jackson 5-era Michael, then the grown-up, Bubbles-protecting Michael represented the caring, non-abusive father his own father never was. But then something disturbing happened: MJ became friendly with a child actor named Emmanuel Lewis, who had become famous portraying the title character of a sitcom called “Webster,” about a young orphan adopted by wealthier, whiter parents. The singer and the actor hit it off, and just that quickly Bubbles was gone, morphed into Lewis, who also seemed to enjoy riding MJ’s hip while being perfectly silent.
But Emmanuel’s presence also invested Jackson’s psychodrama with disturbing new layers. For while he continued to alter his own facial structure, thereby removing all physical evidence of his connection to Joseph Jackson, Michael was now presenting himself as a new version of his father: the sire of a well-known child star, and one whose preternatural talent (the 13-year-old Lewis had a growth disorder that made him appear to be a kindergartner who just happened to speak like a middle-aged joke writer) that attracted money. As Bubbles had become Emmanuel, had Michael become a kind of Joseph? Oh, but Michael was all about innocence, right, so then came Neverland, and the private amusement park, and the sleepovers with other famous and non-famous kids and then the allegations….so many allegations. Bubbles never said a word about any of it.
Back in Germany Bieber’s Mally is holding up well. German PETA has been monitoring the capuchin’s care, and reports that it’s going remarkably well: Mally socializes easily with other capuchins and his human caregivers, too. Even if Bieber never calls or writes or returns to claim him, Mally is a high-profile capuchin who will do well in life. Meanwhile, though, Bieber has started posting snapshots of himself cradling Mally, and other shots of the 16-week-old capuchin sleeping with his tiny arms around a stuffed animal. “He’s just like a human!” Bieber commented. No, he’s just like a capuchin. You’re the human, Justin, and now it’s time for you to get your furry ass socialized.