One minute Justin Bieber is hawking his music on QVC, the next minute he’s blow-drying his hair for an MTV special, and the next he’s busting Mariah Carey’s chops for being over the hill. The boy is everywhere, in seemingly 10 different places at once. And so it came as no surprise to watch him holding court in the American Idol studio audience Wednesday night, confidently soaking in the exposure as the Fox Network’s camera beams in for a close-up on this kid, who at first glance, looks a lot younger than his 16 years.
(Conspiracy theory alert: Do you think Justin is really 12 or something? Are we completely off-base here?)
Ah, the Biebs: the (young) man, the myth, the YouTube sensation, the Internet meme. We know he’s a constant Twitter trending topic. And that his second album currently sits atop the Billboard 200 after its first week on the shelves. But the question is: why? How did this shaggy-haired nobody from a small town in Canada become such a huge somebody after less than a year on the scene? Less than two months as a household name?
As the story goes, Justin was a mere tween when he started posting videos of himself singing cover versions of Usher and Alicia Keys songs on YouTube. As his videos started to gather a following and rack up views, they caught the attention of Scott “Scooter” Braun, a promoter in Atlanta. Scooter aggressively tracked him down and convinced Justin’s mom, Pattie Mallette, to let him represent her young son. Pattie, a very religious Christian, did agree to it, after praying, “God, you don’t want this Jewish kid to be Justin’s man, do you?” Scooter got Justin an audition before L.A. Reid, Island Def Jam’s CEO, and both Usher and Justin Timberlake tried to woo Justin — in the hopes of becoming his mentor.
Ultimately, Justin went with Usher and Island Def Jam, and he moved to Atlanta. The record label assembled a team for him, including “swagger coach”/road manager Ryan Good, who also works for Scooter’s company. But even the savviest handlers in the world couldn’t give Justin his greatest gifts — the ability to play multiple instruments, nonstop energy and a keen understanding of how to best use social media to interact with fans, and thus grow his brand. It’s these natural talents that make those who have been following Justin for the past year confident that his stardom is the product of real, homegrown talent and not just some pop star-making machine.
“Because he was actually pursued and in demand and had already built up a little bit of a persona and a fan base, he’s not quite as much of a product,” explained Leah Greenblatt, a music critic at Entertainment Weekly who first saw the Bieber phenomenon in action last spring. “I wouldn’t compare him to any of the kids who came from TV, I wouldn’t compare him to Justin Timberlake in *NSYNC. I would compare him to Justin closer to when he went solo … because all that boy band stuff was like a factory. They put out great pop songs, but none of those kids had any control over what they were doing. I think this is a little more distinct from that.”
Leah, who just reviewed Justin’s new album, pointed out that Justin has co-writing credits on every track on the record, although it’s unclear how much he actually writes. However, the ability to write your own songs has never determined a pop star’s success (see: Britney Spears). “There’s tons of fantastic pop stars who don’t write their own stuff,” she said.
Carissa Rosenberg, entertainment director at Seventeen, noticed early on that the record label had put together a big team for Justin — “Basically, his label thought of him as a priority,” she said — but his personality and appeal is what has made him a star. “These kinds of phenomena don’t happen that often,” Carissa said. “There’s always going to be a new sensation, but not everyone can be that popular.”
So what exactly is Justin’s appeal for young fans? Both Carissa and Leah list his accessibility and clean-cut image as key reasons for the outpouring of love from fans — and their parents. In this respect, he echoes wholesome Internet-born pop stars like Taylor Swift, who first garnered recognition from young girls and approving moms after posting her music online.
“There’s no guys out there doing what he’s doing,” Carissa said. “He’s young, he’s cute, he can dance, his music is like a teen girl’s fantasy. You want to be in his world. Not to mention he’s completely utilized Twitter and YouTube to really reach his fans. He responds to girls directly. To hear from a guy who you think is super cute directly, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is great.’”
“He’s really accessible to his fans,” Leah agreed. “He’s always putting up new videos, he might tweet you back, he’s not this remote superstar. You can almost track him in real time. That doesn’t make him exceptional, it just makes him really representative of pop stardom now, because Lady Gaga and Ke$ha do the same thing. And because he’s like this boy dreamboat, it means a lot to girls. I think it really gooses the loyalty that they have for him and the devotion.”
But how much of Justin’s Twitter feed is actually Justin and not his manager, or record label rep, or swagger coach?
“I don’t think you’re getting a false Bieber,” Leah said of Justin’s tweeting. “I think he lives for this stuff, he loves entertaining and he loves the interaction.”
(Photo via www.justinbiebermusic.com)