Justin Bieber went banner in 2011 – both exceeding expectations and challenging his image as he started the transition from pint-sized pop star to inevitable manhood.
He continued his international tour, the one with the rightfully bigheaded title, My World. He was the subject of the blockbuster film, Never Say Never, a concert documentary in 3-D. Under the Mistletoe, a Christmas-album follow-up to 2010’s My World 2. 0, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Not everything went as smooth as Bieber’s peach-fuzzed face. The 17-year-old whiffed on a hardball question asked by Rolling Stone magazine: On abortion in cases of rape, the boy raised by a devoutly Christian single mother replied unsurely, “Um. Well, I think that's really sad, but everything happens for a reason …”
Then there was the matter of the California woman who accused him of impregnation, the supposed result of a 30-second sexual encounter.
And how could we forget this tabloid doozy: “Vocally, his balls have dropped,” said the singer’s manager, Scooter Braun, oblivious to the whole too-much-information thing.
But none of that seems to have quashed Bieber’s influence. Cody Simpson, for example, the pretty-boy pop singer from Australia, is in Canada this week essentially promoting himself as the new Bieber – which gives him something in common with his Canadian counterpart. Bieber, you see, wants to be the new Bieber, too.
Because he’s unnaturally youthful looking, Bieber’s teen-idol status is safe for a few more years. That paternity suit fit him as poorly as the velvet tux he wore at the American Music Awards, and was quickly withdrawn when Bieber’s camp started waving cotton swabs around. But his trials to come will be harder to pass than a DNA test. The question looms: How does Bieber make the long leap from boyz-2-man?
“What we do for a living is all about business trajectory,” says Randy Lennox, head of Universal Music Canada, whose parent company owns Island Def Jam, Bieber’s label home. “I think his talent and his diversity is consistent with the behaviour of someone who’s in this for the long term.”
That’s pretty square-jawed talk. A publicist with Universal said it more simply: “Justin Bieber is a first-round draft pick that’s working out.”
The thinking on Bieber is that he’s a talented kid, but, almost as important, one with his head on straight. He’ll need that and more, according to Canada’s original teen idol. “Right now, it’s all of this controlled chaos that goes with teen idols,” explains Paul Anka, who successfully went through a lot of bobby-socked hoopla in the 1950s. “But one day, he’s going to get to an age where he’s going to start finding himself. Does that destroy him, or does that keep him going?”
Anka, the Ottawa-born crooner who had a hit with Diana at age 16, discussed the Bieber phenomenon while he was in Toronto last week for a series of concerts. Coincidentally, he also has a Christmas album out: the soothing, restrained Songs of December, also on Universal. Anka sees Bieber’s management team as extremely capable. “Scooter Braun’s got the situation in hand,” says Anka. “Having the right people around him, and that includes wives and family, is the key component for these artists.”
So far, all Bieber’s moves have been the right ones. The hypertweeting to his followers has cultivated a loyal community. The swagger coaching has balanced out his more natural cherubic appearance. So have his associations with older artists (Drake and Usher) and his older girlfriend. (The pop singer Selena Gomez is two years Bieber’s senior; more importantly, she’s probably six years older than her boyfriend’s average fan.) Unlike in the early days of Bieber Fever, we don’t hear as much about the artist’s mother, who is apparently leaving the decisions to the pros.
The development of Bieber is on track; the only wrong turns have been the ones made in his Batman-themed Cadillac – he’s been pulled over by police a number of times.
Lennox, like Anka, applauds Bieber’s manager. “I credit Scooter,” he says. “He’s been transparent in his education of this young man. As a result, Justin is really wise beyond his years in terms of business acumen.”
If there’s a case study for Bieber and his team to look at, it’s the progression of another pop-singing Justin – Timberlake. The onetime ’N Sync singer is now a studly actor. Where his former puppy-loving paramour Britney Spears stuck with Swedish pop-tune doctors, Timberlake moved on to hipper associations with Timberland and Pharrell Williams. Timberlake’s 2006 album FutueSex/LoveSounds was a tightly focused vision of sleek, mature R&B that stamped the singer’s package as fresh.
Timberlake also updated his image by making appearances at highbrow charity events and museums, where photographers were welcome. Only older ladies were on his arm: Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, Cameron Diaz. His choices in movie roles were shrewd – no cute-kid characters.
For now, Bieber’s Christmas album is a small step toward something – even if it’s hard to tell what, exactly. It’s a buffet, really, with a little of this, a little of that – serving different audiences in a bid to broaden his appeal, much the way Bieber’s movie soundtrack featured Kanye West alongside country star Rascal Flatts. On New Year’s Eve, he’ll be in New York with Lady Gaga and Dick Clark.
According to Lennox, Under the Mistletoe was a “studio album interrupted.” Work had already begun on Bieber’s next album – Believe, to be released next year – when the idea of a seasonal CD evolved. (On Dec. 22, Justin Bieber: Home For The Holidays, an acoustic concert to be taped at a yet-to-be revealed Toronto location, airs on MuchMusic and CTV.)
And so, nothing is being rushed. Rightly so, according to Anka, 70. “It’s a time to be very, very careful, because when it goes, in our industry, it goes quickly,” he cautions. “The teen-idol stuff will come to an end.”
That it will. But if Bieber’s voice is changing, there’s no reason at this point to suspect anything else will drop. Acting is undoubtedly in the future, as is the new album, with collaborators likely possessing grittier images than current running mates Usher and Drake.
As for what else is ahead for the world’s youngest and smallest giant, stayed tuned. Justin Bieber 3.0 is well in the making.