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Justin Bieber arrives at the premiere of "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" in Los Angeles this week. (Getty Images)
Justin Bieber arrives at the premiere of "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" in Los Angeles this week. (Getty Images)

Leah McLaren

When it comes to Bieber fever, call me a believer Add to ...

"My world got very big, very fast. And based on a lot of sad examples from the past, a lot of people expect me to get lost in it," writes 16-year-old Justin Bieber, in his official biography, First Step 2 Forever: My Story.

I wonder what "sad examples" he's referring to, given the all-you-can-eat buffet of tragically fallen child stars to choose from. Is he thinking of bald Britney and her paparazzo boyfriend? Or the strung-out Lindsay Lohan (in court again this week for reasons too depressing and predictable to go into here)? Or is it the apparition of the late Michael Jackson - a former prodigy who ended his days broke, ostracized and pill-addled and who's death coincidentally coincided with the release of Bieber's own first single - that nags at the back of the pop star's consciousness?

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We will probably never know. But that's not to say we can't try to understand Bieber better. To that end, I decided to take the tweener pulse on the Biebster (more on that later), but first a little history.

The singer was born in 1994, the same year I graduated from high school. Like me, he grew up a child of divorce, raised by a single mother in small-town Ontario.

Today Bieber is one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. He is certainly not the first wide-eyed, all-singing, all-dancing poppet to have captured the hearts and minds of tweens around the world, but he is the latest and, arguably one of the greatest, examples of the musical child-star phenomenon. This Sunday he will perform at the Grammy Awards, where he is nominated for best new artist and best pop vocal album.

But what exactly makes the Biebster so special? Is it his ecstatic, as-yet-unbroken soprano? His signature "swoosh" haircut? The endless succession of hoodies?

Not if you buy the narrative put forward in his recently released concert flick, Never Say Never. According to that story, Bieber is just an ordinary teenager living an extraordinary dream. A working-class boy plucked from obscurity in Stratford, Ont., and delivered to greatness by the democratic culture purveyor that is YouTube. In this sense Bieber is a self-made, self-taught creation - and reflection of - his devoted legions of fans. Unlike the similarly smooth-faced, hair-gelled outfits 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, Bieber was the real deal from the outset.

Indeed, his long-time manager, the creepily named "Scooter," is not a seasoned executive but a twentysomething former party planner. The record deal with Def Jam, the collaboration with Usher and Miley Cyrus, the tour buses and sold-out stadiums were to follow, but Bieber's beginning is what sets him apart from other manufactured former Mouseketeers. He was a solid act with a burgeoning fan-base before he ever set a trainer-clad foot outside Stratford.

Having said that, Bieber remains a polarizing figure - even with the pre-teen set.

For a balanced tween take, I consulted a panel of young cultural experts. Isobel Morton, 12, her younger sister Willa, 10, and Willa's BFF Janey Cozzi, 10, spoke to me in a conference call via Skype this week from their hometown in Waitsfield, Vt.

According to Janey - a die-hard Bieber fan - everything about her heartthrob is "amazing." She and Willa saw him in concert last summer and lost their voices screaming. They have advance tickets to the movie this weekend.

Willa, however, offers a somewhat more jaundiced view. "Sometimes he acts too cool for everyone," she says, "But what I do like about him is that he got his talent young, which is better than getting it when you're old because you get more practice."

Willa's hesitation to gush might be explained by the position of her older sister Isobel, an unashamed Bieber detractor. "He's self-centred and sounds like a girl when he sings and if he ever asked me out I'd hit him with a bat," Isobel says, showing me a picture of a double-chinned Bieber on her iTouch, which has been altered by the "Fat" app.

Janey strenuously objects. "That is not what he really looks like! That is so mean!"

I agree it is mean - and also kind of funny. I ask them if they know where Bieber is from. "He's Canadian!" they respond in chorus. So does that make Canada cool? The girls shake their heads - even Janey.

Willa remarks that although she likes some of Bieber's songs, "he needs to get braces."

"But you like him," Janey reminds her. "Like we put on Eenie Meenie really loud and sang all the words and make up dances to it."

Willa: "I do not."

Janey: "You do too."

Willa: "No I didn't."

Janey: "At my house you do."

Isobel rolls her eyes.

So there you have it: Justin Bieber, pop star and polarizing cultural force. Personally I'm with Janey. The fever is just too contagious to resist.

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