I know Justin Bieber has been around for a while and been done to death by the media and his obsessed teenaged fans. And his music — the kind of saccharine pre-teen pop that is so prevalent on mainstream radio these day — isn’t really my cup of tea. But like Taylor Swift before him, the kid is coming into his own. It’s time to find out a little more about the boy behind the brand.
The song I’m liking most — Where Are Ü Now — was produced by the DJ duo Jack Ü, a collaboration between Americans Skrillex and Diplo. And the result of the Bieber/Skrillex/Diplo merger is intoxicating, a tight arrangement of synthesized sound that moves from ballad to dance track and back again with ease. Another hit, What Do You Mean, produced by MdL but also part of Bieber’s 2015 release Purpose, also has a faintly African vibe thanks to a ticking back beat that far overshadows the singer’s breathy (read thin) vocal style.
[After discovering HAIM producer Ariel Rechtshaid through a particularly interesting New Yorker article a while back I’ve become just as intrigued by the creative machinations of producers as I am by the recording artists themselves.]
So anyway, back to Bieber. Looking for a little introduction to the star’s shtick, I turned to my favorite research vehicle: YouTube. And let me just tell you that typing Bieber’s name into the YouTube search engine is a little like looking for sand on the beach: it — he — is everywhere.
I learned that Bieber had a tough few years after being booed off stage at the 2013 Billboard Awards. That he hopes Anne Frank would have been a Belieber (I kid you not). That he explains away questionable behavior by saying he “had a bunch of knuckleheads around me.” And most importantly that he just really wants to “make it all about the music again.”
Ah, what nuggets the internet doth contain!
I also learned he’s painfully inarticulate. That he can’t or doesn’t try to remember simple facts like the release date for his next album. And that he’s walking a shaky line between boy next door and full-grown man, with all the double entendres that last part conveys.
We’ve seen “I am not a child” overcorrections before, from the Mileys and Britneys and Lindsays who suffered through early stardom alongside Bieber. But Bieber stands out to me because he’s one of the only male stars I know who works it like a girl. What other male celebrity strikes poses so simultaneously knowing and innocent? And posts such passive selfies in his underwear?
Let’s face it: If this hospital selfie were of a girl, surely it would be scandalous — too vulnerable (he’s in a hospital bed for Christ’s sake), too revealing (what hospital gown grazes the thighs?), and that hand… well let’s just say that hand is no virgin.
Sure, we’ve had other male sex symbols. There’s the grandfathers of the genre, like Elvis and Mick Jagger, but they so thrust themselves toward the viewer they turned being photographed into an act of aggression. And yeah there’s younger guys like Justin Timberlake and Zac Efron, but Timberlake refuses to take himself that seriously (God bless him), and Efron seems almost embarrassed by his good looks, as if acknowledging his own sexiness is tantamount to undermining it.
I’ve never before seen a man face the camera with such an ardent acceptance — nay, cultivation — of his role as sex object. And it’s the “object” part that’s most intriguing, because Bieber is playing the conquest instead of the conqueror here, and in so doing shifts gender roles around. He may as well have been standing over a blowing sidewalk grate in a billowing dress à la Marilyn Monroe.
Traditionally, women are the ones objectified, who play dumb (release date, anyone?) as a way to lower their threat level, and who put themselves in purposeful oopsy! moments that left them revealed. But not in this case — to borrow from Laura Mulvey, Bieber seems all too aware of the female gaze with this image, begging his fans to love him when he’s down while at the same time promising to love them back once he’s up again (nudge nudge wink wink).
And surely there are plenty such fans happy to comply. Personally I find it way more interesting to ask the boy What Do You Mean, but then again, good songs or not, I’m still no Belieber.