Rich Juzwiak on the trials and tribulations of the 21st century's most important teen pop star
From the magazine: ISSUE 90, Feb/March 2014
“Basically, the ’stache is to make me think or feel a little bit older,” Justin Bieber says at the beginning of Believe, the second documentary feature about his life and career. That’s Bieber in a nutshell: eager to convince the public that he’s more than they think he is, and showing his hand at every step. He is acutely self-conscious, eager to accelerate his own outward signs of aging and thereby embodying the truism “youth is wasted on the young.” It’s hard to say if every generation gets the teen idol it deserves, but this one certainly did with Bieber.
Bieber is as fake as any pop star. But does his openness about his fakeness give him a unique realness? Maybe. He’s been telling us that he’s been maturing since at least the 2010 release of his My World 2.0 LP, which included the song “Baby,” written by raunch-master The-Dream. His music has been carefully crafted to trace his passage into adulthood by the team of grownups that’s been pushing him along his career path: his Svengali manager, Scooter Braun, and his stage mom, Patricia “Pattie” Mallette. His sexuality started publicly budding on his 2011 Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe, of all places. It took Bieber and four co-writers (including Chris Brown) to hatch “Christmas Eve,” a song so hilariously awkward that it brought us back to our own early fumbling attempts at expressing lust, albeit not in front of the entire world: You leave some cookies out/ I’mma eat ’em all.
And then there’s his relationship with R&B, the genre he most often works within these days. When Bieber explains this aspect of his work, he’s convoluted, though that’s kind of perfect, too: he very well fills the role of a white person who’s bad at discussing race. “I’m very influenced by black culture, but I don’t think of it as black or white,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in a sprawling profile last year. “It’s not me trying to act or pose in a certain way. It’s a lifestyle—like a suaveness or a swag, per se. But I don’t really like to say the word [swag] anymore. It’s kind of played out.” Keep in mind, this is someone who once literally employed a “swagger coach”—these things aren’t as innate as he’s making them out to be.
But nowhere is Bieber’s attempt to channel black culture more apparent than on his most recent album, Journals, which collects all of the songs released via his “Music Mondays” single campaign, devised to promote the Believe doc. Commercial R&B doesn’t need to innovate to be great; it only has to cleverly point to work that has come before it, and Journals does that extremely well. There are throwbacks to late-’90s Timbaland and nods to the pop two-step of the early ’00s, including a Craig David sample on the song “Recovery.” Mostly, though, the record is indebted to the more recent, atmospheric R&B popularized by Drake and his producer Noah “40” Shebib. Bieber references his buddy Drake at one point, and there are also lyrical homages to Frank Ocean, Trey Songz, Lloyd and Jeremih, a seeming attempt to credit himself by association.
This wouldn’t be a problem if those artists were his peers, but they can actually sing. Bieber just competently carries tunes. On record, his emotional range is about as limited as his vocal range; practically any given Journals track finds Bieber moving from chill to bothered by the hook, then back again. Sometimes, he flirts with a falsetto, but his strained method of emphasis, of projecting raw emotion, comes out like a whine—and not just a whine, but the same whine every time. R&B is about selling the song, but Bieber’s unvaried delivery can make him seem like he’s standing behind a glass display case of merchandise, giving the same pitch to each passerby. His technique hasn’t matured at the rate of his body, and he can no longer coast on precociousness. Maybe that’s the problem of branding itself (change too much, and you’ll confuse people), or maybe it’s a product of the abundance of positive reinforcement he’s received (millions of screaming fans can’t be wrong, right?), but no matter what, his static vocal technique makes his claims of maturity unpersuasive. You can put on a big show about your humanity and growth, but when you sing soul music without soul, you’re going to have a difficult time winning over R&B devotees. Journals made little impact on the charts, and none of its constituent singles could manage to hit the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100.
What makes a bad year for a celebrity, though, often makes a great year for a human.
The relative commercial failure of Journals, and that of the Believe doc (it grossed $6 million in its first two weeks in theaters, compared to Never Say Never, his 2011 documentary debut, which netted $30 million in its opening weekend alone) capped a rough year for Bieber. It was a period that found him lashing out at paparazzi, being filmed pissing in a mop bucket in a restaurant, proclaiming “Fuck Bill Clinton,” visiting a brothel, being arrested for driving drunk, appearing high as hell in an Instagram video, being photographed holding blunts, having his crew drug-searched on multiple occasions, having his pet monkey seized by German customs officials, illegally tagging multiple buildings in foreign countries, partying with strippers and being videotaped while sleeping by a Brazilian woman with a hardcore porn past.
What makes a bad year for a celebrity, though, often makes a great year for a human. As Bieber the public persona spins out of control, Bieber the person is probably having the time of his life. For observers, too, it’s a lot more fun to watch him go crazy than it is to listen to his music, even though his spiral isn’t especially novel: reconciling those two sides has always been tough for former child stars. If Never Say Never presented its subject as a miracle, Believe aimed to show him as a mortal. By becoming Bieber’s first bona fide flop, it did that a little too well.
A bitter paranoia pervades the latter movie. “Haters” are repeatedly invoked, and there’s even a candid moment when director Jon M. Chu tells Bieber that as a young megastar, he’s a prime candidate to become a train wreck. Bieber dismisses it, painting P.R. gloss over the notion to match the rest of the film. He seems sick of it all. Can you blame him? Charades is an exhausting game. He seems to yearn for a normal life to accompany a career’s worth of assurances that he’s already been leading one. In a December 2013 radio interview, he announced that he was retiring, and then later that month, said the same in a series of tweets: “My beloved beliebers I’m officially retiring… The media talks a lot about me. They make up a lot of lies and want me to fail but I’m never leaving you, being a belieber is a lifestyle… Be kind loving to each other, forgive each other as god forgave us through Christ Merry Christmas I’M HERE FOREVER.” After both instances, in a seeming attempt at damage control, people from his team, including Scooter Braun, said that Bieber was just kidding.
In last year’s Hollywood Reporter profile, Braun is quoted as saying, “He’s the only person in humanity who’s grown up the way he has—with smartphones and cameras on him 24/7. Another kid can go out and have a good night on the town, and no one gives a crap, but Justin is the most googled person on the planet—for four years straight!” What starts out sounding like a bid for compassion ends up a brag, if a tragic one. Is it any wonder that Bieber is revolting against his lot? He said it himself in a voiceover that played at the start of every show on his last tour: “Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands and fly.” Good luck on your landing, kid.