For anyone in need of a dose of surprise pathos, I direct you to the Instagram video of Justin Bieber attempting to shotgun a can of Corona. The setting is Las Vegas; a dance version of Zombie Nation’s sports-arena classic “Kernkraft 400” booms overhead; girls in bikinis mill about. As a Bieber buddy—black baseball cap, sunglasses—downs his beer with ease, the 21-year-old pop star in a park-ranger hat cocks his head at an awkward angle and sloppily, slowly slurps. “I lost,” Bieber’s caption says, “but I didn’t go to college.”
It’s all too easy to see this scene as a symbol of Bieber in 2015, straining to prove himself as All Grown Up and not completely pulling it off. That he would eventually struggle in this way has been part of Bieber’s narrative all along. “Naturally, none of this can last," The Atlantic ’s James Parker wrote in a 2011 appraisal of the young Canadian. “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.”
The same prophecies have been made about all child entertainers, of course, from those that those who managed lifelong stardom to those who disappeared into obscurity. But there’s a unique poignance to Bieber’s efforts to transcend his status as a hero to children and a punchline to everyone else. Perhaps that’s because, unlike with the most recent and famous example of post-teen male success, Justin Timberlake, Bieber’s story is one of self creation—he came up through amateur YouTube singing, not through the Disney pipeline, and has what appears to be a deep and sincere connection with his fandom. Perhaps it’s that he’s been the symbol of Facebook-era teenagedom, and it’s not quite settled yet what his generation’s adulthood looks like. Perhaps it’s just those puppy-dog eyebrows. My best theory, though, is that Bieber’s story is compelling because it’s suspenseful—it’s very clear what Bieber wants, but it’s also clear that whether he gets it is not entirely up to him.