It is all there. Anyone who wants to binge-watch episodes of Justin Bieber’s story just has to turn on a computer. Much of it has played out through a lens of some sort – of his mother’s home-video equipment, his own smartphone, paparazzi, and the ever-present eyes of surveillance cameras. A film of the life of the 19-year-old Canadian pop star – who made $58-million in the 12 months ending last June, and is No. 9 on Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful celebrities – exists even though no one was intentionally producing it. You couldn’t write a better drama. There is innocence. There is pathos. There is suspense. There is tragedy. The only thing missing is how it will end.
It’s riveting not because the story of a young star warped by fame is new. It isn’t; it’s a cultural trope, and most of us can rhyme off the names of those who have followed that particular narrative arc: Lindsay Lohan, Macaulay Culkin and, for a time, Britney Spears.
Bieber’s drama, heightened recently by his surrender to Toronto police in connection with the alleged assault of a limo driver, pulls at us in new and complex ways. He encompasses so many of our deeply held cultural hopes and fears. His story speaks of the strange and wondrous ways that life can change, that redemption happens, that talent can lift someone out of difficult circumstances. And it can also be read as an indictment of modern permissive parenting; a cautionary tale about a fatherless upbringing in a single-mom home. Bieber is a big black hole that sucks up all our biggest wishes and worries.
Over the years, I have interviewed many people who have been afflicted with that great H1N1 virus of the soul, which is how I have come to understand fame. And yet, I often feel its effect when I encounter it. When I watched Bieber’s first video on YouTube, recorded when he was 12, I felt that stirring of the heart when you witness raw talent. (At last count, it had roughly 46 million hits.) At home in Stratford, Ont., he would break into song, unaccompanied, and when finished, collapse on a sofa, a shaggy-haired, sweatshirt-clad vehicle of some otherworldly voice. That kind of raw talent restores faith in what we are and can be.
Bieber had never had a singing lesson, but his YouTube popularity soared, capturing the attention of talent scout Scooter Braun. In 2008, on the cusp of superstardom, he and his mother, Pattie Mallette, made an appearance on a Christian daily talk show. You can watch that, too. It’s a stunning scene that a Hollywood director could not have cast any better. Mallette, a single mom, sits on a sofa between a collection of coffee-cup-clutching women, talking about her redemption. She had suffered sexual abuse and violence starting at age 5. At 17, she tried to commit suicide. In the psychiatric hospital, she found God. A year later, she got pregnant with her boyfriend, Jeremy Bieber, who split from Mallette when Justin was 10 months old.
On the show, Justin cuddles beside his mother, swishing his blondish mop top out of his eyes as he turns to look up at her adoringly. She explains that he was courted by Justin Timberlake and Usher. They are moving to the United States, she announces. They have just signed a record deal. A new life will begin.
“God can do anything,” the host enthuses brightly.
And because Bieber, in the first blush of fame, fulfilled the script we all want to read – that of someone who is grateful for his talents, humble and innocent – his fall from grace was all the more painful. Sure, his love of God was a little over the top. In a televised interview, he once cited Job as his role model because he kept his faith despite losing everything. Still, we lapped it up. That’s the prevailing tension in popular culture, after all – the desire to believe in the power of goodness at the same time as cynicism tries to destroy it.
And so, now, that tension has snapped. Bieber (Twitter bio: “Let’s make the world better”) has gone from our biggest hope to our worst nightmare. Once close to his mother, he has now aligned with his father, who didn’t live with Justin while he was growing up. The man was reportedly hanging out with his son in Miami on the night of an alleged drag race last week, possibly a misguided enabler in an inverted power dynamic. The fame, now morphed into morbid curiosity, has expanded to include both parents, who each maintain active Twitter accounts of their own, with millions of followers. Even they want a piece of him.
The Bieber script is now of an all-too-common broken family with a lost son, whose parents’ authority has been eclipsed by the searing light of fame. His mother has said that Justin “wants me to continue to respect his boundaries. …You have to sort of let them make their own decisions.”
Meanwhile, “his father can’t really be a father to him any more. They’re kind of like buddies,” offers Susan Bartell, a family psychologist in New York. “If you take the fame out of it, Justin’s behaviour is understandable. It’s the way a lot of kids in a dysfunctional family behave – they act out, they drink, they do drugs – but they don’t have the money or fame, so we don’t get to view it this publicly.”
There was a time when Bieber seemed to have fame in perspective. “If you start taking yourself more seriously than God, then you’re in trouble,” he once said in an interview. Now he is viewed as being in its relentless grip.
“When fame strikes too early, there is really no context in which to face it as a child or adolescent star. All they see and feel is the acclaim from the outside world, and they start believing what they hear,” explains Donna Rockwell, a Michigan-based clinical psychologist specializing in celebrity mental health. “Bieber said to the police officer, ‘Why are you stopping me?’ ” says Rockwell, referring to what transpired that night in Miami. “He was shocked. … There’s a false sense of entitlement.”
And so we watch some more, spurred on by a mixture of love, dread, pity and guilt. His story is all dark and light, inspiring and sad, a testament to how fame is an elixir and a poison. That he implores his fans to belieb was once a chant of solidarity and love – an affirmation of the glory of fame and how it allows us to transcend hardships. Now, ironically, it has become a strained cry of hope that he will be able to survive that with which we have burdened him.
Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites.