That’s the way it is in Bieberland, where all lines are curved and intersect with each other. The image drives the fantasy, which fills the songs, which float the perfumes, which influence the lyrics, and it all merges back into the spinoff merch, from clothing to books to bed linens. Social media is the most direct line of all, because you never know when Bieber might respond directly or retweet something you sent. In one second, you can leap over the great gulf between fan and celebrity, and float in cyberspace with him.
Social media also means ‘haters’
But social media also serve the anti-fans – “you mean the haters,” as Bieber’s mother Pattie Mallette says during a phone interview – who mock his appearance and even his youth, and tap out anti-Bieber comments for YouTube videos that aren’t even his.
“It just comes along with the territory,” says Mallette, who recently published her own tell-all memoir, Nowhere But Up. “You can’t please everyone all the time. Some people are mean for the sake of being mean. Some misunderstand. You do what you believe in, and have important people around you who support you, and that’s all that matters.”
The swept-forward hairstyle of Bieber’s early days became the flashpoint for a particularly nasty line of comment about his sexuality. Sites sprang up of photos of lesbians with similar ’dos – as if to imply, somewhat absurdly, that this boy was no man.
The lesson here is that even if Bieber seems to have the social-media tiger by the tail, it still is a tiger – powerful when under control, ferocious when it turns on you. That part of the Internet makes every little thing into a referendum, where the choices are win or fail.
So, for example, when a photo surfaced last weekend of Bieber shaking hands with Stephen Harper over a Diamond Jubilee Medal, no one cared about the occasion as such, but everyone had an opinion about whether the star was dressed for it. The striped bib overalls and the reversed snap-back cap seemed to be telling us something, especially when lobbed against the business-suit formality of the Prime Minister and his portable flagstaffs. No respect, said some. No disrespect to the PM, said Bieber: Via Instagram, he explained that Harper came to the arena where Bieber was doing a meet-and-greet, and that it wasn’t “like I was going into his environment.”
Translation: In my environment, I have the power, I can do as I please, and even the PM is an emissary from another realm. Bieberland is, finally, an environment, not bounded by the plane geometry of a phrase like “360-degree marketing.” It spreads in all directions around the star.
The new meaning of superstar
Maybe that’s what being a superstar means these days: extending your mythology into a coherent environment that others can lose themselves in, as Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters do, as the girls smitten with Beatlemania did in the sixties, as the bobby-soxers did who swooned over a kid named Frank Sinatra. Bieber’s challenge now is to absorb change into his mythic environment without disrupting the whole ecology.
Can he do it? And if he does, in the short term, what storyline will the fully adult Bieber choose for the next stage, a few years from now? That of Prince, retiring into his own realm, throwing off the old media and the new, controlling everything himself?
One lesson Scooter Braun drew from the Michael Jackson story is that you can’t let the star become a hothouse flower, pampered by all, uncoupled from real life. The views we’re allowed of Bieber’s life in the celebrity bubble, in the concert film and recent book, show a family-loving sporty kid and spiritual being, and determined practical joker. By his own assessment (in Just Getting Started), he’s also competitive, and “a really sore loser.”
“I have to win, or what’s the point in playing?” he writes. Easy to say, as long as the game is running your way, and for now, at least, Bieber holds the winning cards.