Entertainment March 2011

Daydream Believer

Justin Bieber found teenybop perfection with an insolent naturalness, a shimmer of religious transcendence, and a mastery of social media. Can he make the moment last?
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Autumn Whitehurst/Art Department

I get it, believe me—the fever, the yearning, the collapsed distances. I once wrote a letter to Jimmy Osmond, transatlantically, inviting him to come and live with me over the summer holidays. And Jimmy, compared with this, was just a pie-faced kid in a white suit. This is perfection. This is a boy suspended above the masses in a heart-shaped trellis, a boy with his baseball hat reversed, cradling an acoustic guitar and exhorting his fans to prayer. This is a dancing hairstyle and an unbroken voice. This is the lyrical distillate of 50 years of hysteria. This is Galahad in puffy sneakers, brandishing his virginity like a lightsaber. This is barely even pop music—this is angelology.

By this, of course, I mean Justin Bieber, age 16 and eleven-twelfths. You are aware of him. He has sold a zillion records and stormed a zillion hot little hearts. What do you make of that mop of his? If you’re an un-Belieber, a hater, it makes him look like a Lego character with its hairpiece on backward; if you’re a fan, it’s a sign. Smooshed forward from his crown by the gales of love that pursue him always, laid on impasto by the Great Artist but then tapering into tip-of-the-brush teasings at his temples, it is beautiful. Bieber is beautiful. His music is beautiful. Some of it, anyway. “Baby,” even with the clonking middle-section rap from Ludacris, is elemental sentimental pop, three and a half minutes of spray-on serotonin and tingling Brill Building strings. “My first love broke my heart for the first time!” (Had Ludacris been available to the Brill Building songwriters, no doubt they would have used him too.) “U Smile” is a gorgeous Jacksonoid piano-pumper, with Bieber suffering chivalric agonies—“Your lips, my biggest weakness / Shouldn’t have let you know / I’m always gonna do what they say”—as his voice bears the melody aloft on a cluster of vowel sounds plump as Renaissance putti. Hey-yey! Wo-woah!

This year, just in time for Valentine’s Day, came the Bieber movie, a full-length in-cinemas-everywhere life-of-Justin 3-D epic called Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Commercially speaking, this is rather remarkable. No one ever made a movie about Nik Kershaw. Perhaps, in preparation for the event, you already purchased your special $30 pre-release package (includes glow stick, bracelet, souvenir VIP laminate, and purple 3-D glasses). Never Say Never is Bieber’s Truth or Dare, his ABBA: The Movie, his (in a way) The Man Who Fell to Earth, and it follows other works of Biebography in emphasizing the up-from-Nowheresville side of the story. Proclaims the trailer: THEY SAID IT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN. (Did they?) THEY SAID HE WOULD NEVER MAKE IT. (Who said that?) Whatever—the point is that Bieber overcame the odds. Born in 1994 and raised in Stratford, Ontario, with only his huge and unmistakable charisma to help him, he dramatically rescued himself from a null state of non-superstardom and Canadianness.

How did he do it? With YouTube, that’s how. Kissed in his cradle by the witch of the Web, Justin was throwing up little promo reels by the time he was 12. Singing a Brian McKnight song into the bathroom mirror. Or sitting on some municipal steps somewhere, busking mightily about the Lord: “You’re my God and my Fa-ther!” he bellows through the legs of passersby, the wooden body of his guitar reverberating with his shouts. “You’re forever the same / How could I feel so empty now when I speak your name?” (The song is an altered version of 1998’s “Refine Me,” by Jennifer Knapp.) He’s a handy little drummer, the clips show, and a nifty little dancer. He can blast through a ballad but is equally at home with the nibbled syllables and melismata of contemporary R&B. And the, ahem, “star quality” is impossible to miss: the insolent naturalness before the camera, the lifting eyebrows and swerving octaves.

His mother took him to church and envisioned him as a singing prophet, but the world of Pop was calling to him, calling—had been all along. “The day I was born,” records his 2010 memoir, First Step 2 Forever: My Story, “Celine Dion was solid at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with ‘The Power of Love.’”

Those YouTube videos garnered thousands of hits, eyeballs, unique visitors, one of whom was the Atlanta hip-hop manager Scooter Braun. Braun tracked Bieber to Stratford, flew him to Atlanta to meet the industry, Bieber signed a production deal with Usher, and the rest is history, or soon will be. Bieber wasn’t from the Disney factory, and he didn’t have a show on Nickelodeon, so the marketing plan was skewed toward his already established constituency in social media: lots of Facebooking and YouTubing and sugary tweets to his millions-strong Twitter army. “Music is the universal language no matter the country we are born in or the color of our skin. Brings us all together.” (May 19, 2010, 11:37 a.m.) Braun described the strategy to The New York Times: “We’ll give it to kids, let them do the work, so that they feel like it’s theirs.” The kids have performed reliably. “I’ve been a fan of him from when he posted his first video,” testifies a hard-core Belieber in Never Say Never, “and I’ll be his fan ’til he posts his last video.”

The Monkees had their TV show; Bieber has the Web. Carl Wilson, author of the acclaimed book on Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, has noted Bieber’s “McLuhanesque fluency” in cyberspace. It comes with a price. Sex slurs, death rumors, pranks, random venom, swarmings of hostility and obscenity: the underbrain of the Internet is magnetized to Justin Bieber. But the Beliebers have his back, furious little proselytes. Slag him off in a comments thread and they’ll be all over you: “You dumbass, every one like you hate JB cuz you envied him, actually I just don’t know why you hate him!!!” The occasional wistful note of grievance sounded via Twitter from Bieber HQ—“It’s funny when I read things about myself that are just not true. Why would people take time out from their day to hate on a sixteen-year-old?”—suffices to keep their indignation on the boil.

His claim upon their hearts is no mystery. The kid is teenybop-perfect, eagerly suspending his charm-particles in the requisite solution of pure nonentity. He smiles, he thanks, he praises; he displays a persona from which every hint of psychology has been combed out; and he wonders, mildly but without cease, just who the right girl for him might be. “I haven’t been in love yet but I’ve felt love,” he told M magazine in 2009. “It’s a beautiful emotion that you can’t really describe.” No matter that he could, presumably, be slathered in gratifications at the snap of his princely fingers; or that he drops a saucy hint, here and there, about Beyoncé or Rihanna or Kim Kardashian … Justin is alone, silhouetted against the blast of his fame. He pines nonspecifically, a knight-errant with cloche hair at the foot of an invisible tower. “Is she out there?” he calls, echoingly, at the end of “Somebody to Love.” “Is she out there?” And the pulse of longing goes forth, like sonar, to reverberate in the cells of a million unformed libidos.

It’s cruel, really. And they’ve been doing it for decades. Here’s David Cassidy in 1971, meek and un-phallic, soliloquizing his way through the Partridge Family’s “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted”: “Y’know, I’m no different from anybody else. I start each day, and I end each night, and it gets really lonely when you’re by yourself. Now where is love? And who is love? I gotta know.”

But David Cassidy performed the rest of that song in a pushy, forgettable ’70s tenor. The Bieber voice—as captured, say, in the acoustic version of “One Time”—is more druglike: a chemical purity of tone with something frictional in the breath, a soft croak or crackle, the faintest rasp of incoming puberty. Potent stuff: the philosopher’s stone of the music industry. Add to it the shimmer of quasi-religious transcendence, the Protestant Pop ethic with which a video like “Pray” is loaded up—images of Justin embracing unfortunates while he sings about closing his eyes and seeing a better day—and you have a product to knock the Archies, the Bay City Rollers, and the Backstreet Boys right on their bubblegum asses.

Naturally, none of this can last. “I’m going down, down, down, down,” he sings in “Baby,” the voice itself depthless, evaporating as it hits the lower range. But he is going down. His collision with biology can be postponed no longer. Gravity, muscles, sag, paunch, depression, hair growing in the ears … All too soon, all too soon. For the music industry, for Justin Bieber, for us poor fools who adore him, this is the magic moment. And to gaze upon it without blinking, you will need those purple 3-D glasses.

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor
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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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