Newsmaker: Justin Bieber, the boy in the plastic bubble

Ben East takes a look at the life and career of the Canadian teenager.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod
Powered by automated translation

Turning up for his own concert two hours late, lashing out at a photographer, collapsing on stage, cancelling shows and getting chucked out of expensive hotels. It sounds like the antics of the frontman of a devil-may-care rock'n'roll band, determined to blaze a trail of destruction across the planet. But this is the unhinged world of a teenager whose last single made the distinctly unanarchic observation that "all around the world, people want to be loved", and who, on a previous song, extolled the virtues of eating cheese fondue by the fire. A singer who, when he starts his gig late, makes schoolchildren cry, rather than incites impatient rock fans. Welcome to the bizarre world of Justin Bieber.

It might seem inevitable that an adorably floppy-fringed teenager who was a global phenomenon by the time he was 15 would, in the end, feel the need to cut loose a little. But the career of the Canadian superstar has been so expertly stage-managed, headlines such as "five signs that Justin Bieber is losing it" still feel like something of a surprise. After all, this is a boy whose debut EP of squeaky-clean pop went straight to number one in his native country, and then blew up all over the world. His assiduous use of Twitter - he is now responsible for the most popular celebrity account in the world - mobilised his 35 million followers into a devoted army of "Beliebers".

So why is there the sense that Bieber's popularity isn't as concrete as it might seem? After all, residents of Manchester received a rather anxious email on the day of his gig in the English city reminding them there were still tickets available. The general consensus is that the concert in Portugal last week was cancelled because of a "business decision" - ie, sales were terrible. Reviews of the Believe tour have almost all noted a strange lack of personality in the performance.

Perhaps too much is being expected of a teenager in transition. One thing's for sure, whatever anyone thinks of the music, when the Bieber bandwagon reaches Dubai for his show on May 4 it will be big news. We'll know which hotel he stays in, what restaurant he eats in and which shops he frequents. And, most importantly, we'll definitely know how he will behave.

Indeed, the media circus surrounding Bieber's very public adolescence is reminiscent of the intrigue that enveloped Michael Jackson. The comparisons are apt: when Justin Bieber burst on the scene as a 12 year old - his mother, Pattie Mallette, posting videos of her endearingly cute son singing Chris Brown and Ne-Yo covers on YouTube - the man who would make him a star, Scooter Braun, saw him as someone who could "do it like Michael Jackson". Not the best comparison, but Braun had a point - he hoped that Bieber could, like Jackson, "sing songs that adults would appreciate and be reminded of the innocence they once felt about love".

And while adults haven't, on the whole, particularly taken Bieber's songs to their hearts in the same way they did Beat It, Thriller or Billie Jean, in the end his dominance of the teen market has been more than sufficient.

Thus far, there have been two Bieber albums proper (we're not counting the split release, Christmas, acoustic or remix records) given mixed reviews by adult critics - The New York Times memorably called his debut My World "an amiable collection of age-appropriate panting with intermittent bursts of misplaced precociousness". But this record wasn't aimed at an adult critic; it was clean-cut, aspirational - some might say inspirational - teenybop pop made for its young audience.

Last year's Believe, with Bieber's new fringe-free haircut on the cover, suggested a progression (when he wasn't apeing Justin Timberlake). But it wasn't quite the step into adult territory Bieber craves. And that's the problem he faces. Justin Bieber is still a children's entertainer at heart.

Take the television news reporter who dared to suggest Bieber's late entrance in London extended to two hours. Surrounding him - in fact shooting him down - live on air were children around the same age as the singer when he started out. Turning 19 earlier this month (which, incidentally, he called "the worst birthday ever" after his friends were turned away from a London club) his career in pop is in a delicate phase: the tired tears of kids up past their bedtime at that infamously late London gig suggest his fans aren't growing up with him.

But does it matter when there are 35 million Beliebers? Well, it does when Bieber himself no longer behaves in a way in which they can relate to. For now, they cut him some slack. In fact, it is with some trepidation that any journalist writes anything that purports to be disparaging of Justin Bieber; any throwaway comment daring to suggest that he is someway short of saintlike status is met with a barrage of Twitter hate. The actress Olivia Wilde - who recently wondered in one harmless tweet whether Justin Bieber should perhaps put his shirt back on during his trip to London - ended up on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno discussing some of the staggering 17,000 abusive responses she received.

Still, Bieber hasn't discovered the vagaries of celebrity life. This was a boy who, on his 16th birthday, had his friends flown out to Los Angeles to celebrate with him. They didn't watch a movie and eat pizza, like normal teenagers. They sumo wrestled with the Dallas rapper Lil Twist. "I'm only 16 once," he told Billboard magazine. "I got to live like it."

That most 16-year-olds probably don't sumo wrestle with rap stars didn't appear to matter. In fact, there's an argument that his fans were probably amused by his antics. But there were a few worrying comments in that Billboard interview of 2010. Bieber said that he didn't get nervous anymore, and knew that he already had enough fans to fill stadiums such as New York's Madison Square Garden. He believed that if he replied to a fan tweet with a banal line such as "never give up" that it would "change their life".

Perhaps, for a 14-year-old girl, it would, but such attitude was the first hint that fame was changing Bieber. It is absolutely true that his use of social media was groundbreaking five years ago. The YouTube videos were just the start - the connection with fans via Twitter was hugely impressive. And a sales trick, at heart: Justin Bieber wasn't just chatting about his life or his new songs, he was aggressively marketing them: "Everyone buy the ONE TIME video on ITUNES right now and let's see if we can get it into the TOP TEN with the amazing MICHAEL JACKSON. Thanks" went one tweet from 2009.

Fifteen million album sales later, Bieber does now wield a strange kind of power. Last year, it was his support of Carly Rae Jepsen's superb single Call Me Maybe on Twitter that encouraged Braun to sign the Canadian songstress to his Schoolboy Records. The viral, homemade video in which Bieber mimed actions to the song at what appeared to be a house party boosted a tune that has been parodied by everyone from the US Army to a professional cycling team. It's possible to suggest none of this would have been possible without Bieber's initial patronage.

It would have been interesting to see how the adult fan base he needs to develop would have taken to Call Me Maybe if it had been recorded by Bieber. It will take an infectious song like that for the singer to make the transition from child to adult star, but he does at least appear to have the ear of people who know a thing or two about success at an early age. Apparently, Will Smith offered Bieber some pearls of wisdom while he was in London. We know this because Bieber tweeted/name-dropped "love to the big man Will Smith for the great talk" - and One Direction's Louis Tomlinson remarked that he didn't see "anything out of character in comparison to any other teenagers I know".

And Bieber's workrate cannot be called into question. His relationship with Selena Gomez was destroyed by their opposing schedules, and there is the definite sense that it wouldn't harm his long-term prospects if he was given time to live a little outside the limelight, rather than careering around the planet on a world tour. Strangely, for all the insights into his world via Twitter, we know very little of Bieber as a - what is he, a boy? Teenager? Man? - beyond the fact he loves his fans, doesn't like paparazzi, and "never wants to let any of you down".

But then, the very highly visible social media networks that made Justin Bieber mean that he can never really sit back, take stock and work out what to do with his life. After all, 35 million people watch his every move. When his mum first uploaded those videos onto YouTube, she couldn't have had any idea what she had begun.

weekend@thenational.ae