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.
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.”
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.