The most remarkable moment of the Justin Bieber concert I saw July 20 at Boston’s TD Garden occurred before the singer even showed up. After suffering through two pretty bland opening acts, smarmy-generic Mike Posner and whiny-generic Hot Chelle Rae (who led with a cover of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”), the audience had to wait somewhere between half an hour to an hour before hearing a bang as all the lights dimmed. Then the big screen at the back of the stage lit up with a digital watch that started at 10 minutes and began counting down the seconds. It was this that triggered what was possibly the most feverish, electrified reaction I’ve ever seen from a crowd at any concert anywhere — you know, shrieking teenage girls, a demographic that easily made up at least 90 or 95 percent of the audience. As the seconds ticked down, the hormonal tension building in the arena was unbearable, with the fans’ collective anticipatory ecstasy so frenzied that the only release was to scream at the top of their lungs. Once Bieber actually came on stage, he ruined the moment. Not once during a two-hour show did he inspire animal cries as passionate as those before he arrived. I couldn’t help but think that he hadn’t really earned his fan base.
Bieber has been a fairly big star since the release of the My World EP in late 2009. Since then he’s released two full-length albums, three if the stocking-stuffer Under the Mistletoe counts, plus such cheap ripoffs as My Worlds Acoustic, Never Say Never: The Remixes, and Believe Acoustic. My World, Under the Mistletoe, and 2012’s Believe have all gone platinum in the United States with 2010’s My World 2.0, currently the top seller, having gone triple-platinum with three million American copies sold and counting. Internationally, Bieber typically sells at least twice as much in his native Canada, where My World 2.0 has also gone triple-platinum and Believe has gone double, and oddly in Brazil, where Believe has sold three million and My World 2.0 a hulking ten million, making it a “diamond” album in RIAA terminology. Critics attempting to explain his success rarely cite his music; much emphasis is placed on teen culture’s saturation in online media, as Bieber’s exposure first spread through his YouTube performances, and an estimated 46 million follow him on Twitter (though according to the BBC, about half of his Twitter followers are not actual people). That he should amount to a very real sex symbol for tweens is usually attributed to his marketing team rather than his singing, and more journalism has probably been devoted to his glorious battles against paparazzi than to the artistic content of his music.
Why should you care, you wonder. All this is pretty unremarkable; it only means he’s a typical celebrity. But it’s the rare celebrity who gets idolized the way Bieber does, treated with the hysterical semierotic reverence granted only to teenpop stars on the cusp of their virility. While this worthy calling certainly has consequential precedents in George Michael, Jordan Knight, and the great Simon Le Bon, the Bieber we know exists in the late-’90s mode. It was in the late ’90s that “teenpop” per se became a bona fide genre, when the historical practice of identifying adolescent girls as an explicit if not exclusive target audience and attracting them with adolescent singers became synonymous with a smooth, creamy aesthetic reliant on electronically orchestrated, tenderly synthetic ballads, with the occasional dancefloor banger thrown in for good measure. Unlike Britney Spears, who still plays the bad girl, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson provided wholesome, strong-in-theory female role models for their audience of young women. But it was boy bands like Hanson, 98 Degrees, and especially ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys who defined the genre’s sexual ethos. Although this tended towards shy vulnerability and coy understatement largely because many fangirls were still too young for anything else, nevertheless the boy bands consistently treated their performer-audience relationship like a high school romance: sweetly respectful, endearingly clumsy, ready to take that next step whenever you are. And this commercial tactic proved so potent that the style has remained a cultural fact ever since. Even today, nearly every male teenpop star takes his cues from Nick Carter and Justin Timberlake, Bieber included.
I should specify that this is white teenpop we’re talking about. While it wouldn’t have been possible without early-’90s new jack swing and a long procession of R&B stars making the cultural climate appropriate both for music that exploited teenage lust and that music’s relative innocence, the fact remains that conventionally, black love-men and white love-men sound very different and play to different markets. And I’ve often wondered, given that male pinups have predominantly female fans, why exactly female pinups also have predominantly female fans — if young women can swoon over a Justin Timberlake album, why don’t young boys fantasize about Britney en masse? But it’s silly to quibble over the limits of the teenpop following. Quite simply, the music is made to engage and educate teenage girls. Where most celebrity-audience relationships resemble romantic ones only superficially, here the metaphor is made explicit and directed at a demographic for whom it becomes irresistible. At its most generous, this music can be poignant and beautiful, and at its most gleefully sexual, it can be riveting. Always it is defined and vindicated by the passionate devotion it enables.
Justin Bieber’s main rivals are One Direction, five British lads whose “What Makes You Beautiful” has sold four million, and on a lesser scale The Wanted, whose studio albums The Wanted and Battleground have both gone platinum in England. But Bieber is the only contemporary teenpop solo artist with any corporate clout. Backed by star producers like Usher, Tricky Stewart, and Terius Nash, the My World EP, as such commercial operations go, was really kind of charming. Most of it was filler, but the gentle heartsong “One Less Lonely Girl” and especially the shamelessly sweet “One Time” were enough to popularize Bieber’s style of frisky, bouncy bubblegum. Once My World sold more than anyone expected and the star producers realized their child star’s true potential, suddenly he started singing schlocky ballads on 2010’s full-length My World 2.0 in a classic case of common-denominator pandering. To prove how parent-friendly he was, he released Under the Mistletoe in 2011, returning to original material in 2012 with Believe. Compared to My World 2.0, Believe is an adult-contemporary move, but both are grotesque, the main difference being that on the latter he has trouble hitting the high notes. Mired in agonizing sensitivity and gross heartthrob poses, these two studio albums exemplify teenpop’s creepy, manipulative side.
Circa My World 2.0, Bieber still possessed a high, prepubescent voice, squealing like one of his own fans. Since then his voice has deepened considerably, and he now drawls softly and purrs breathlessly in equal measure, whispering sweet nothings in a wet murmur. My World 2.0 is the musical equivalent of a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card, soaked in cheesy nostalgic clichés. On Believe he’s lost his innocence, but the muscle-flexing he compensates with is even harder to take. The music is slick and beefy, and the fantasy has definitely turned erotic. He preens, he croons, he pants, he sweats, he puffs up his chest, he’s your average readymade hunk, and he’s both dull and nauseating. Where the best teenpop captures the feeling of emergent sexual discovery, Bieber candidly embraces received sexual paradigms, from macho aggrandizement to overwrought sincerity. Compare the Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me” (written in 1997 by Max Martin) to Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me” (written in 2012 by the committee of Rodney Jerkins, Andre Lindal, Nasri Atweh, Sean Anderson, and Justin Bieber) — the Backstreets’ “I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you did as long as you love me” is admittedly a little banal, but it’s also weirdly metaphysical, and its trust and generosity are undeniable. Bieber’s “As long as you love me we could be starving, we could be homeless, we could be broke” is the worst sort of antimaterialistic twaddle. Like hell you could, you rich child star.
Bieber used “As Long As You Love Me” to climax the concert before the encore. Somehow a big pillar had risen from the center of the stage while we were all distracted by the light show. As our teen idol stood on top with his arms outstretched singing this horribly disingenuous song, I wondered how the several thousand girls in the audience could possibly take him seriously. Didn’t they realize they were being lied to? But I was fooling myself. The great paradox of teenpop is that its attraction for teenage girls has nothing to do with music per se. Standard teenpop theory defines the genre as an unequivocal exercise in transitional fantasy fulfillment; the intense erotic fixation these girls develop over male pinup singers is rationalized as a healthy way for the girls to mature, projecting their own dreams and desires onto a shared image of the ideal lover until they’re ready for an actual boyfriend. As art, the music can beautifully explicate the performer-audience relationship in question, but it is ultimately supplementary. These girls loved Bieber not out of bad taste or even callow innocence but because of the need to believe. Rolling Stone‘s Jon Dolan was right to select “Thought of You” as Believe‘s key track. Its chorus goes “I’m in love with the thought of you / Not the things you do,” and that’s how Bieber’s fans feel about their hero.