From the archives, originally published Nov. 30, 2012
Justin Bieber’s new video is shot from the point of view of a girl having a casual date with him. We see the girl’s hand stroke the back of his neck as he plays guitar, hear her laugh while they picnic together on a blanket, and when Justin leans in for the kiss, his voiceover sings: “If I was your boyfriend … ”
The video is a commercial for Bieber’s latest perfume, Girlfriend; the music comes from his recent single, Boyfriend. The one-minute clip is as compact and pointed a summary as you’ll find of the dream that binds Bieber to his young fans, and that helps so many other people shun him.
But Girlfriend, the video, is also about an invisible clock, the one that’s counting the days left for Bieber to depend on very young girls buying the fantasy that they too can be his one and only. Stratford, Ont.’s boy wonder is now a young man of 18. His voice, clothes, hair and music have changed since he squeaked out his first hit single, One Time, nearly three years ago. As fans in Montreal saw during his tour stop on Monday, and as Toronto will see during a Rogers Centre show Saturday, Bieber’s fawn-like early image is vanishing into something a little tougher and more grown up.
Can he round the corner, make the transition and remain a superstar? Will those little girls who scream his name at concerts stick around as he and they grow older, while our speedy media culture churns up new attractions and other fantasies?
One of the main dreams he has been selling so far is about the timeless Bieber moment, when you’re in the presence and everything is love and nothing is lacking, just like in the Girlfriend ad. Maybe it’s not surprising that even while Bieber’s body is changing before our eyes, he insists that nothing essential is different.
“I’m not changing; I’m just getting older,” he told Oprah Winfrey during a lengthy interview broadcast last Sunday – the same day scattered booing arose before he played the Grey Cup halftime show. “I’m just growing up, guys,” he said. “Being a teen heartthrob is fun … but I want people to really respect my music. This isn’t a gimmick; this isn’t people putting someone with nice hair and a good smile on TV.”
In last year’s Bieber concert film, Never Say Never, former Def Jam mogul L.A. Reid called Bieber “the Macaulay Culkin of music,” but the star and his manager Scooter Braun must be praying for a fate happier than Culkin’s after the actor’s baby face wore off. And Culkin was relatively sheltered: He didn’t have social media and YouTube on his case 24/7, relentlessly judging every perceived moment of his life. Bieber does, and has projected his image and story so widely and successfully that he’s cut off any possible retreat behind the notion that he is, after all, just a singer. As critic Mikael Wood wrote in a favourable Los Angeles Times review of Bieber’s recent album, Believe, “Bieber’s singing ranks among the least important drivers of his fame.”
Playing the aspiration theme
The most important may be his digital-age twist on the Horatio Alger story, wherein a cute boy busker from the steps of Stratford’s Avon Theatre gets a lucky break on YouTube, personally flogs his songs to every radio DJ in America, and ends up selling out Madison Square Gardens in 22 minutes. Bieber’s tale is all about aspiration rewarded, which the Idol TV shows and Susan Boyle proved is the most powerful narrative in popular music. It doesn’t matter if the aspiration is simply to possess the star, in whatever way you can imagine. As one of his fans tweeted last week: “I don’t need a boyfriend, I need Justin Bieber.”
He plays on that aspirational theme in his songs, tweets and public statements. In the broadest sense, every Belieber has been taught that to believe in Justin is also to have faith in yourself.