About a year and a half ago—when we were all still riding high on the platinum-certified Justin Bieber of My World 2.0; we didn’t even have the very spirited Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe, yet—I spent a day as a guest educator at an elementary school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In my role as underqualified outsider, I oversaw a battery of improv activities I had made up the night before (taught being too strong a word, for I taught those wee lads and lasses nothing, save that pretending to be in a school-bus accident is more fun than learning how to write in cursive). At my command, the Midwestern moppets acted out one fantastical situation after another: they walked through imaginary mansions in a game called “Real Estate Agent,” took turns delivering absurd one-word-at-a-time answers as a guest on my daytime talk show, “Three-Headed Expert.” When the time came for a relatively simple activity that required them to act out situations as I named them (“You’re at the grocery store!” “You’re coming home from school!”), I provided a couple of mundane prompts, and then, unable to control myself any longer, played my ace.
“You’re at a Justin Bieber concert!”
Some of the girls threw themselves on the ground in a shrieking rapture; others ran around the classroom in hysterics, shouting “Justin! I love you, Justin!” One young lady, offended by the suggestion that she ought to join this breathless frenzy, stood unmoving and angry, her arms hanging at her sides. “I hate Justin Bieber!” she whined. Most of the boys were with her, groaning, pretending to vomit, plugging their ears. Of all the scenarios I guided them through that day, the imaginary Justin Bieber concert was the hardest to break up. It took me several minutes to regain their attention.
WHILE I DON’T HAVE very many thoughts of an analytical nature about Justin Bieber, I have, like any West Coast native worth his salt, lots of feelings and impressions. Most of them are positive, and a majority of them are drawn from the documentary 3-D concert film Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, a thirteen-million-dollar project coproduced by the star’s mentor and champion, Usher, and his manager, Scooter Braun. Never Say Never reminds me of the Leni Riefenstahl Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will only in that it features a blond, blue-eyed wunderkind who must draw upon a deep, pure well of inner resources in order to perform feats of crowd-pleasing athleticism, and that it reinforces tired cultural myths about heroism, stardom, and power—aside from that, I have fun every time I watch it. (It doesn’t hurt that it was released on February 11, 2011, my twenty-eighth birthday.) After seeing it for the first time, I walked away totally swaddled in the aforementioned myths, believing not only that I could achieve anything if I worked hard enough, drank the healthful green drinks Usher made me drink after rehearsal, and listened to my voice coach Mama Jan, but the following, among other things:
- Considering how much raw energy, irrepressible charisma, and star power flows from Justin Bieber’s very being—the young man, driven on by this animating fire, can barely sit still; he practices dance routines compulsively during moments of downtime—it’s a good thing for him that he became a worldwide celebrity, otherwise I’m almost certain he would have been a criminal. It’s easy enough to imagine him, stripped of his God-given right to the stage, cooking crystal meth in his bathtub or trying to bite off some unsuspecting elderly man’s face while high on the new designer drug “bath salts.”
- Inveterate pop-music celebrities both admire and fear Justin Bieber, as evidenced by the look in their eyes when they watch him do his thing. Usher, purporting to see his own spunky adolescent self in the gifted young song-and-dance man, specializes in gazes of flabbergasted love. Others, smiling, betray terror at this relentless juggernaut of teen showmanship, this pubescent vitality channeled so perfectly toward its all-consuming entertainment goals.
The second time I watched Never Say Never, at home with two friends, I joined in the sing-along version of “Baby” that closes the film. One friend, a fan like me, belted out the lyrics. The other sat by in petrified silence. Baby, baby, baby / Oh.
I OWN ALL OF Justin Bieber’s albums and was counting down the days until today—the release of Believe. Imagine my disappointment, then, when tickets for the North American tour in support of the new album sold out in one hour. Wrapped up in my own ridiculous life, I learned of the sell-out while on vacation in Los Angeles, walking down Hollywood Boulevard to catch a movie. I had planned on possibly being the only twenty-nine-year-old gay man at one of these concerts, standing head and shoulders above a crowd of delirious teenage girls, mouthing the words to “Boyfriend.”
As the virtual boyfriend to seventy-nine million YouTube viewers, Justin Bieber has just now started staking his claim to pop-cultural manhood in the standard fashion: turning eighteen, punching out a photographer, appearing in magazines with fake blood on his face, inching ever further from dewy-eyed schoolyard crushes into the steadygoing, hip-hop greaser seduction of his latest video—a rooftop romp in which Justin serenades a stand-in for his Disney princess girlfriend Selena Gomez, gently caressing her skin between bouts of strumming a black guitar. A little bit Elvis, a little bit Usher, he’s no longer, as veteran producer L.A. Reid said in Never Say Never, “the Macaulay Culkin of R&B.” Watching his appearance on Ellen not too long ago, he appeared taller, a touch more muscular, and his signature hair—a beautifully blow-dried bob that he flipped back and forth with a slight shake of his head—had been cut and gelled into a flashy rooster’s comb, with all of the attendant suggestions of strutting, preening virility.
Trading in a mop for a pompadour—both drag-king staples—is just one of the ways teen sensations make the time-honored transition from pop cherub to heartthrob. Will the paparazzi soon catch Justin Bieber drunkenly doing donuts by moonlight in the parking lot of a Circuit City in L.A., Lindsay Lohan hanging out the passenger-side window? With more access to his self-made fortune, will he make of his recently purchased Calabasas mansion a carnivalesque Hearst Castle or Neverland Ranch, cultivating an Imelda Marcos–grade collection of gold high-top sneakers? Worse yet, will he get married and put out a single called “Husband”?
I sure hope so. I remain, forever, a fan, in thrall to the cult-leader charisma of Mr. Bieber—hyperactive little brother of imperial entertainment personalities, capering new arrival to a seemingly endless holiday party grown grim and deranged in its own decadence. A sure-footed tribute act to the whole guest list of desiccated myths about romance, straight courtship, masculinity, success, and a dozen other enchantments kept alive by song and celebrity, this radiant child from Canada has gone and made it in America. If this particular strain of popular culture was a dead Christmas tree—dry and drained and weak at the boughs, still strangely standing in the den come June—then Justin Bieber would be the sparkling star placed up top. I see no reason not to watch with heightened heart rate such an awe-inspiring star. Any moral panic about his manhood, at this point, would just be tinsel on the tree.
Evan James is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and at work on his first novel, a comedy that follows the lives of several characters in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington, as they variously redecorate their houses, make unpleasant watercolor paintings, write neopagan self-help books, and play tennis.