Justin Bieber, the superstar tween idol who takes flight (with the help of a harness and wires) during his spectacle concerts has now been accused of getting high in another way. On Friday, the celebrity website TMZ posted images of Bieber holding what looks to be a hand-rolled marijuana joint. The response from his legion of fans was immediate: "Justin Bieber sigh why why why why did u do drugs!" tweeted one.
The question is really not "why," though, but what – what's next for the squeaky-clean Christian boy wonder whose image may be sullied by his association with the West Coast party set? Lil Twist, the rapper, bon vivant and Bieber BFF, reportedly was the chief blunt-roller at the party in Newport Beach, Calif., where the offending snapshots of the Biebs with the alleged weed were taken. Lil Twist, 19, was also the lone occupant and man behind the wheel of Bieber's new Ferrari at the time a paparazzo was killed on Jan. 1 while following the car. It has been speculated that the paparazzo claimed he had earlier spotted Biebs driving and toking. "You can't fly unless you let yourself fall," Bieber sings on his latest album, Believe. And now his tumble may be happening, rapidly and out of control.
Late last year I spoke to former teen idol Paul Anka about the future of Bieber. "Right now, it's all of this controlled chaos that goes with teen idols," explained Anka, who successfully traversed a lot of bobby-socked hoopla in the 1950s. "But one day, he's going to get to an age where he's going to start finding himself. Does that destroy him, or does that keep him going?"
Neither Bieber, nor his record label or his U.S.-based management office, have issued a statement in regard to the public spliff allegations, though a tweet of his seemed vaguely apologetic ("i see all of u. i hear all of u. i never want to let any of you down"), and finds him somewhat humbled ("everyday growing and learning ... u get knocked down, u get up," he tweeted, perhaps quoting an old Chumbawamba lyric).
The feeling among some industry observers is that the drug allegation will not blunt Bieber's career. "There's not an 18-year-old in the world outside of an Amish community or the state of Utah that hasn't tried what's he's being accused of," says music business veteran Alan Cross, host of the online Secret History of Rock. "Why is this such a surprise to some people?"
The surprise is largely a result of Bieber's tightly controlled career under the Svengali-style management of Scooter Braun. Bieber's wholesome image is a part of his appeal, but now the teenaged superstar is out of his little-boy bubble. Even before the TMZ furor, it was clear that at some point Bieber would need to grow up and regroup – possibly out of the public eye, à la Michael Jackson or Justin Timberlake, two former child stars who disappeared for a few years before returning with a more mature sound and a new target audience to go with it.
"He does have to grow up," Cross says, "and develop an image beyond the guy who appeals to the screaming 14-year-old girls." Adds Alan Middleton, marketing professor at York University, "Maybe it's time to take a low profile and reposition himself to an audience not dependent on allowances they get from their parents toward older teens who really spend money."
Shortly after the alleged dope story blew up, Bieber visited a leukemia-stricken seven-year-old fan who was unable to attend his Salt Lake City concert. On Jan. 29, the singer is set to release Believe Acoustic, an unplugged reimaging of material from 2012's Believe with new material. But public relations and an acoustic guitar may not be enough to move Bieber through this patch.
Speaking about high-flying pop stars, Anka said this about downward turns: "That's when you see what kind of man you are and what control you have in your life. I went through it. Everybody goes through it."
For Bieber, the change might do him good.