Last Saturday afternoon we were sitting in a movie theater waiting for the 3-D documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never to start when a group of preteen girls ran in, babbling. They started out sensible enough (“I love Justin Bieber so much!”) but, overcome, they devolved quickly into a kind of unhinged, polite stream-of-consciousness (“My best friend's birthday is tomorrow!”). Outside, near the bathrooms, more groups of tiny hyperactive girls went speed-walking by us, apparently skipping from Never screening to Never screening. Earlier, in the lobby, a different group of girls went bounding toward the movie's poster. One girl took charge, embracing the frame holding an image of a hoodied Bieber. Her friends followed suit, each taking their turn giving it a loving squeeze and squealing. When everyone was done, the first girl went back for seconds, and this time she really held on. Before she finished, and just for a couple moments, perhaps subconsciously, she gave Justin Bieber a series of slow, meaningful humps.
In the year and a half since Vulture first wrote about him, Bieber has exploded: 3.7 million albums sold, reports of riots from Long Island to Australia, a movie that grossed $30 million in its first weekend, just missing the No. 1 box-office spot. And, as AEG Live's chief executive Randy Phillips gushes in Never, a place in the rarefied air of the touring arena acts, in his first go-around.
But why? It’s easy to understand teenage girls going nuts for a wholesome kid armed with radio hits expertly crafted by top industry songwriters. It's a bit tougher wrapping your head around the particular level of shrieking megafame Bieber has so rapidly attained. He’s not excessively talented: His voice is accurate but thin; his dancing, at best, is competent and rote. At first pass there is nothing dramatically different between the general appearance, musical style, and marketing of Bieber and, say, Jesse McCartney, one recent blip on a lengthy lineage of teen pop predecessors that never even so much as sniffed JB's current stratosphere. So is there a good reason Justin Bieber is this famous?
The company line is that Bieber’s massive success is rooted in the particulars of his YouTube ascendance. The message, as articulated by Never Say Never director Jon M. Chu: “He wasn't chosen by a big corporation; he was chosen by the people, kids at home in their living room who are on the Internet all day long.” Manager Scooter Braun, to the New York Times: “We supplied more content. I said: ‘Justin, sing like there’s no one in the room. But let’s not use expensive cameras.’ We’ll give it to kids, let them do the work, so that they feel like it’s theirs.” And Chu again: “He's kept the relationship a one on one, almost sort of a texting relationship with his fans, through Twitter.”
Is that really it? It's not a novel marketing strategy: Nearly every new artist throws up purportedly impromptu YouTube clips, nearly every new artist tweets excessively. But you could argue that Braun and Bieber have executed it better than most; that the details of their approach to creating the perception of open communication channels with fans, whatever they are, must be, considering the results, cleverer than the rest of the competition. (And, in the same vein, you could argue that the behind-the-scenes machinations of Usher and L.A. Reid — two members of the extended Bieber team who have driven music industry successes for decades — must have been more effective as well). Basically: that, partially, Bieber's success can be attributed to lucking into a team that has embraced the new models and that works harder at, and is smarter about, applying them.
It's true that Braun used some of the same tactics with his previous artist, the rapper Asher Roth. Braun discovered him on the Internet as well, that time on MySpace, and also flew him to Atlanta, where they together worked on establishing industry connections and creating online buzz. And Roth, mostly on the back of the radio hit “I Love College,” was commercially successful.
But Roth is not, as New York's Alex Morris described, after a first-hand experience with Bieber, “adorable in the tawny, guileless way of a small woodland creature.” Also: “[Bieber's] eyes are moist and fawnlike, his lips a blend of pout and puck. His downy cheeks seem never to have been affronted by anything as indelicate as a razor. About the side-swept perfection of his hair, there is really nothing left to say.”This is a level of nonthreatening adorableness even other teen pop stars find impressive.
Consider the fate of the Jonas Brothers, the most recent act before Bieber to attempt teen pop stardom. Despite a similarly intense full-court press — sitcoms, fluffy national morning-show appearances, their own 3-D movie — the campaign fizzled (they're currently in an undefined state of inactivity). Coming up with theories why Bieber took off instead of the Jo Bros is easy: Their music was slick pop rock that they wrote themselves; his is slick PG R&B written by industry professionals. (The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, the team behind “Umbrella,” “Single Ladies,” and many more songs you probably love, wrote his biggest hit, “Baby.”) And the Jonases' personalities were a bit of a blank, their unified commitment to purity rings eventually reading almost like a tell to a creepy behind-the-scenes mass brainwashing. But, most likely, Bieber is more successful than the Jonas Brothers because teen girls find Bieber's particular sexless good looks to be superior to those of either Nick, Joe, or Kevin Jonas.
Bieber is more successful than Miley Cyrus too, and she was a legitimate phenomenon. But that one's even easier to understand: Teen girls are the market, and teen girls can be obsessed with another teen girl only in a certain limited way. And someone like Chris Brown — a superior dancer and singer with similarly top-notch songwriters in his stable — never stood a chance, even before his assault charge: His good looks and movements were a little too mature even when he debuted, at the age of 16.
At this point, Bieber's PR campaign would politely like to remind you of one of its major sticking points: Bieber separates himself from those other teen idols because he is not a product of the machine, branded by neither Nickelodeon nor Disney. But do teen girls really care if there are or are not corporations backing their obsessions? As a general rule, no. Still: The idea of a Bieber as an impossible underdog victor is, at the very least, another positive angle to push. It's a simple message to grasp, and it has locked in. In one clip from the movie, a Bieber fan calls her idol “such an inspiration. He came from, like, such a small town. It gives us hope.” It doesn't at all matter that the struggles of Justin Bieber — a multimillionaire before his 17th birthday — are, in fact, comically nonexistent. The message is effective.
But there is also something less cynical at play. By all accounts, Bieber should be creepy. He's 16, but he looks 12 (or, alternately, he looks like a lesbian). He spends most of his time around people at least a decade older, all of whom, including his mother, are employed by him. He is shrieked at, constantly. And so he shows up on late-night shows and you expect another automaton. But you get something closer to a realistic approximation of, as advertised, a normal teen miraculously shoved into stardom.
His fake takeover of Funny or Die, in which he parodies himself as a petulant child star, is a representative highlight: “It's mine. I bought it. And now it's Bieber or die. Anything that's not Bieber, dies.” He does know how to make fun of himself. He does, somehow, know how to carry himself. These were not things, all evidence indicates, taught to him in a secretive teen-pop-star crash course. This means he has — and boy we dislike typing this probably as much as you dislike reading it — a natural star quality.
That's why his team was game to build a documentary, and not just a concert film, around him this early on. If he were a blank, it'd be impossible to hide for the duration of the movie. But in Never Say Never Bieber pals around with his friends and pouts to his mother and earnestly expresses gratitude and plays spastic air guitar and in general sincerely exhibits the kind of range of human emotions we at times assume the truly famous transcend. If there's one thing to communicate to non-Beliebers about the legitimacy of the phenomenon, it's this, his non-creepiness. It's his greatest asset.
And then all these things combine and reach a tipping point and push him over a certain edge, and then Bieber is no longer Bieber, but a stock representative of crazed teen obsession. And then he's fodder for a whole new realm of pop culture: TV news magazines and national ad campaign managers and late-night comedians and anyone else looking to tap a mass audience. And then he exists not so much as himself but as a symbol that anyone can readily identify. And then, eventually, we stop and wonder how he got there.
Or, as more colorfully put in this YouTube video by young Belieber Tara: “If you hate Justin Bieber, kill yourself.”