But Bieber’s career has also been constructed on the belief that there are types or templates in the pop spectrum that abhor a vacuum, and that reward those who step up to fill the gap. Braun didn’t happen on Bieber’s homemade YouTube videos purely by accident. As Braun told the New Yorker last summer, he was on a deliberate search “to find a kid who can do what Michael [Jackson] did. There’s a place in the market for a kid who can sing with an angelic, soulful voice.”
It helped that Bieber’s heart belonged to soft, poppy R&B – the YouTube performance that sold him to Braun was a cover of the Ne-Yo ballad, So Sick. Believe, the album, includes some overt mimicry of Jackson’s style, above all in Die In Your Arms, a song built on a sample from Jackson’s We’ve Got a Good Thing Going. It’s a conspicuous retro break on an album that dabbles freely in dance beats, and that shows the evolution of Bieber’s voice – warmer now, and lower, with a true falsetto taking over in the upper reaches. It hasn’t lost its boyish appeal.
“I want to emulate [Jackson’s] career as much as possible,” Bieber says in his recent book, Just Getting Started. “For me, making Believe is like Michael Jackson making Thriller after his insane worldwide success with Off the Wall.” Even if you overlook the hubris of that remark, the chronology is a little off: Thriller came out when Jackson was 24, three years after he made the transition to adult solo star with Off the Wall. But accuracy in the comparison isn’t as important as putting out a familiar successful narrative that Bieber wants to have people project on him. At this stage of the game, the focus of the Jackson template has shifted from sound to storyline.
Jackson all the way
“You want to dictate to the public who you want them to compare you to,” Braun told the New Yorker. He was content to put out Justin Timberlake as the first standard of comparison, but Bieber’s too big a star for that now, so it’s Jackson all the way – at least until we get to the less attractive stages of Jacko’s career.
Predictably, many Jackson fans are repelled by this presumptive throne-grabbing. They have a point: Bieber’s singing is never so electric as their hero’s and his dancing is still a big cut below the Jackson standard. But in Bieberland, saying flat-out that you want to emulate someone else is not a fault, it’s a sign of aspiring to something beyond yourself. It’s the Belieber gospel of personal transformation. And like many transformation fables, it’s grounded in the sneaky fear that you may not amount to much the way you are now.
Bieber is said to be the first superstar who rose up from YouTube and Facebook, though, as Braun insists, it was the old-fashioned ground game of relentless promotion to radio that really got the career rolling. The scenes in Never Say Never that show the unknown Bieber trekking from one radio station to the next are just like those in Coal Miner’s Daughter, about Loretta Lynn’s dogged climb up the same ladder.
Bieber’s social-media power came later and is perhaps nearing its peak right now. From a purely commercial point of view, his nearly 31-million Twitter followers represent one of the world’s most responsive mailing lists. When his first perfume, Someday, came out in 2011, all he had to do was tweet about it to make it the most successful new fragrance of the year. The 30-second commercial showed a girl spraying on the scent, and Bieber magically appearing at her side, then floating with her through the sky. They returned to earth in time for the onscreen slogan: “never let go” – a line that reappeared 10 months later in the chorus of Boyfriend as “never let you go.”