The headline on the March 3 Rolling Stone reads “Super Boy.” But apparently nobody told photographer Terry Richardson. The leather-jacketed teen glowering at the lens may be slight of frame, but he is indisputably well on the way to manhood. In a matter of weeks, his jaw has become noticeably more square. And Richardson has applied his notorious gift for persuading subjects—usually young female models—to set aside modesty and reveal what they would normally conceal. Justin Bieber turns out, after some work with a blow-dryer and a light application of hairspray, to possess a dark, surprisingly saturnine pair of eyebrows.
In short, for the first time, he has been made to look something like his actual age. Which, for the record, will be 17 on March 1.
Bieber’s late bloom—signalled by the cracking of his voice onstage at the American Music Awards in November—is, from a business standpoint, a moment of danger. His partner and mentor, R & B performer Usher, nearly saw his career derailed when his own voice broke. Now, in his determination not to let the same thing happen to his protege, Usher is micromanaging everything from Bieber’s vocal coaching to his diet. The good news is that biological maturity may help resolve some of the weird tensions that have made Bieber an unusually hated performer.
Pop has a long history of powerful-voiced boy singers, from Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson to the Hanson brothers, but none can have had quite the same Internet-age experience of early celebrity as Bieber. On Feb. 2 he attended a New York Knicks home game at Madison Square Garden; when his face appeared briefly on the Jumbotron during a time-out, the crowd began to deluge him with such an overwhelming chorus of boos that players on both teams were looking around in confusion, perhaps wondering whether Hitler had suddenly entered the building in a black bubbletop Mercedes.
It’s not the first time Bieber has met with seemingly random hostility. He drew boos at a BBC music festival in Wales last May, though on that occasion his detractors lost the volume war with his young female following. A YouTube video of Bieber getting hit in the head by a tossed love offering at a live appearance has rung up nearly four million views; a short clip of his ultra-bloody death scene on TV’s CSI has 11 million, presumably not all from fans of the show. When talk-show host Conan O’Brien mentioned Bieber’s name in the set-up to a joke on Nov. 22, his normally co-operative audience erupted with boos. O’Brien, obviously not expecting the negative reaction, yelped, “What the hell’s that all about?” and cut short the gag. “I’m not doin’ a joke now about him! Take it out! I just feel like I can’t… he’s a kid! He seems like a very nice kid, too!”
O’Brien played the incident for laughs, but music fans, particularly on the Net, do seem to forget that Bieber is a child. Bieber-haters, spontaneously self-organized in Internet prank factories like 4chan and Reddit, have repeatedly gamed the Google Trends’ “hot searches” lists so that they contain scurrilous folklore: “justin bieber takes estrogen pills,” “justin bieber removes left testicle” (why the left?), “justin bieber hermaphrodite.” An October incident at a Richmond, B.C., laser-tag parlour had people ready to believe that a fame-crazed Bieber had “punched” a much younger child; it soon became clear that he had simply had a minor run-in with a fellow player and his hysterical parent. Hackers added pornography to Bieber’s page at the U.K. music site Last.fm, and Web pranksters got gossip sites to reprint a wholly invented rumour that his mother, Pattie Mallette, was entertaining a $50,000 offer to pose for Playboy. (This last incident represents a mystifying failure of the blogosphere’s ability to apply the smell test: does anybody really think Justin Bieber’s mother is short on cash?)
Bieber took the Playboy rumour in stride but admitted to being “grossed out” by it. At 14, when his cult was still just gaining steam on YouTube, he appeared with his mother on the long-running Canadian evangelical talk show 100 Huntley Street, where Mallette talked about how her “church family” had helped her through single motherhood. (The pair attended a charismatic Protestant church in Stratford, Ont.; by the time of her TV interview, Justin had already begged off from weekly attendance.) Bieber’s religious upbringing and instincts have obviously played a part in his commercial success in America. Though he doesn’t proselytize, Christian parents sense that Bieber can safely be admitted to their children’s imaginative world in the “practice boyfriend” role, even though his producers and handlers might not be welcome themselves.
Pages: 1 2