Crushed Out: Carl Wilson on how Justin Bieber is changing the shape of celebrity for the worse
Justin Bieber changed the shape of teen celebrity. He needs to change it back, before it’s too late
T here are times when it’s best to render unto tweenagers the things that belong to tweenagers. When you were 11, your parents probably didn’t get the deal with Peter Frampton or the Fresh Prince Will Smith. And, as the Backstreet Boys put it, you wanted it that way. That rule doesn’t apply to Justin Bieber, the 16-year-old warbler from Stratford, of all places, whose records set records on YouTube and iTunes. This particular crush magnet warrants grown-up attention. For he is a harbinger of the changing shape of celebrity to come.
When Bieber was 13, his devout Christian mother encouraged him to post his amateur act on YouTube. She prayed he would become a Prophet Samuel, a voice of salvation to his generation. He’s more like the canary in the gold mine.
The issue lies not in his music, which is better than average (not surprising, since it’s custom-designed by R&B star Usher and hot producer The-Dream). Beneath their cyborg sheen, Bieber’s songs smartly conform to the puppy-pop template set back when Paul Anka was on his knees begging “please” to Diana. By trade, teen musical idols offer up ant-trap-sticky melodies and hooks that hammer home the singer’s longing for the understanding ear of that one ordinary-yet-special girl. Bieber is no exception: with its doo-wopping chorus, his ginormous hit single “Baby”—the video has been viewed on YouTube 219 million times—could have emerged from Phil Spector’s studio in 1963.
But Bieber Fever—that strain of hysteria that induces screaming girls to hurl themselves at limos and inspires boys to mimic Bieber’s moppy-floppy coif—isn’t really about the singing. It’s about Bieber’s role as crown prince of the digital realm, YouTubeing and tweeting and Facebooking himself into such ubiquity that you need to install Shaved Bieber software to avoid him. He’s a viral folk hero, the most lucrative Internet meme ever, like a Keyboard Playing Cat gone ultra-pro. Thousands were already subscribing to his YouTube feed months before music-biz bigwigs in Atlanta happened upon it and signed him. And his trademark version of public precocity is replicating like spam among the first generation to claim texting as its mother tongue.
His sole significant forerunner was the Mississippi rapper Soulja Boy Tell ’Em, who at 17 used his 2007 “Crank That” YouTube dance craze to top the pop and ring tone charts. Bieber recently threw the fading star a lifeline by doing a duet with him (arranged via iChat, naturally). A less obvious peer is Tavi Gevinson, the 14-year-old from suburban Chicago who’s leveraged her fashion blog into a couture career that has her jetting to runway shows, snagging front-row seats with Anna Wintour and hoarding swag like a seasoned maven. In her world, as in Bieber’s, lines between the professional, the promotional and the personal never existed. On their heels is the 12-year-old Oklahoman Greyson Chance, who posted his grade-school piano performance of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” on YouTube in April and a month later secured a record deal via Ellen DeGeneres. His rise was so fast that reporters speculated Big Media had a hand in it all along. I doubt it. The music industry isn’t savvy enough to do more than capitalize on pre-made innovation. They’re taking their cues from the tech tots, which is why you can expect many more Justins, Tavis and Greysons to come.
Aside from talking up the business model, no one seems to be asking how this relentless on-line self-marketing affects the complicated dynamic between fans and stars. Adults tend to dismiss the likes of Bieber as anatomically incomplete plush dolls for girls who aren’t ready for the real thing—picture Lisa Simpson reading Non-Threatening Boys Magazine. The androgyny of male teen idols also hints at the fact that an 11-year-old girl’s most urgent desires have little to do with boys. They’re about feminine identity—her own, and her place among other girls. Bieber is mainly something to squeal about together, a team sport. But his reach-out-and-touch-me habits alter the whole game. He spends two hours a day on Twitter, where he has more than 3.3 million followers (follow him and maybe he’ll follow you back!). He regales his fans with tweets like “Gotta chill but trying to party. My baby jesus likes to party” and “When you smile i smile, and when my friends hurt i hurt.” He holds on-line video-chat sessions, in which he half-answers questions but mostly makes bunny eyes at viewers. This illusion of intimacy compromises the pubescent usefulness of a star’s mystique, and has the potential to turn fantasy fixation into higher-stakes obsession. After Bieber met reality TV starlet Kim Kardashian at the White House Correspondents Dinner in April, he jokingly tweeted that she was now his girlfriend. Kardashian immediately started receiving menacing Twitter messages, like “I will shank you!” Bieber had to go into soothing mode, stating that she was just a pal: “No need 4 threats. Let’s all be friends and hang out often ;)”
Still, girl culture is resilient, and the fans will be all right (and grow out of it). Does the same go for their idols? Child and teen stardom has always been fraught, as we’re reminded by the recent death of broken-bad sitcom cutie Gary Coleman and the epic tragedy that was Michael Jackson. We’ve seen the Britneys and the LiLos driven to the brink by the paparazzi they court. Bieber and his ilk pre-empt the media and are their own best stalkers, leaving the surveillance cameras on 24/7. If past idols were robbed of the space to mature in private, Bieber is giddily throwing it away. As he gets older, he’ll have scant wiggle room between the hazards of stunting his own adulthood and the risk of scandal, unless he finally switches off the webcam and suffers the consequences of depriving his fans of the access they expect. The Internet may kill the Internet star, but Facebook suicide is better than the physical kind. We all prefer the story where the magical boy never has to grow up, but in real life it’s not a pretty picture for the Peter Pans.
in concert Aug. 21, Air Canada Centre
Carl Wilson wrote about Céline Dion in his book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.