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?

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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