Beliebers. We know, we know. They’re kids. Let them have their fun.
So what makes him so special?
Well, there’s a bunch of things. First, a relatable, adorable backstory: Canadian preteen sings around the house, his mom uploads it to YouTube, he becomes a viral sensation. Second, really good, really smart marketing: music-industry pro Scooter Braun happens across his video, becomes his manager, Bieber signs to Usher’s production company and, again with the YouTube, builds one of the most loyal fanbases in modern pop history. Third, that hair.
Didn’t he get it cut?
We wish you wouldn’t bring that up. We’re still a little broken up about it, to be honest with you.
So wait, he just goes from YouTube videos of him singing around the house to international superstardom?
Kinda! But it’s not like his songs came out of thin air; at fifteen, he already had some of the best songwriters in the industry writing for him. His 2009 debut single, “One Time," was co-written and -produced by the unstoppable team of The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, and hitting No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was a very respectable placing for an unknown Canadian teenager with a popular YouTube channel. The follow-up, “One Less Lonely Girl,” was co-written by his mentor Usher, and its floating, nagging hook provided the template for Bieber’s signature sound: light, high and surprisingly rhythmic.
Are you about to say that “Baby” is good?
It is good! Okay, the Ludacris verse is unnecessary and kind of embarrassing, but it served to position Bieber as credible in the context of pop radio, where Ludacris is a familiar, goofy presence. Even if hardcore Beliebers think Justin doesn’t need to waste his time with lesser (by which they mean other) talents, he has to show that he can work in the established context of pop radio. And he does; “Baby” (another The-Dream/Tricky combo) was one of the highlights of 2010 pop, a feather-light combination of rolling soul rhythms and blissful, soaring choruses.
Fine. But he’s nothing without those studio wizards, right?
We’re not so sure about that. Sure, he’s got that husky, fluid voice, but he won’t forever (it’s already started to change—O tempora! O puberty!), but he’s a talented, capable and charismatic singer even without the weak-in-the-knees effect of a particular timbre. Plus, for a gawky teenager, he can dance. And act. And he interviews remarkably well; he knows how to be charming, and he’s good at putting people at ease. We remember our own teenage years, and cringe. Plus he’s started to write some of his material: the effervescent, dancey “Somebody to Love” and the soulful ballad “U Smile” were both partially credited to him.
So what’s with all the hating?
You tell us. “Baby” set the YouYube record for being the most disliked video ever (at least until Rebecca Black’s “Friday” got popular). A lot of the specific insults lobbed Bieber’s way can be dismissed as juvenile misogyny and homophobia—see the comments on his videos, we won’t dignify them by repeating them here—but there are some otherwise reasonably intelligent people who think he’s just the worst thing ever. A lot of this goes with the territory of being a young male pop star (people used to hate on Fabian, Donny Osmond and the New Kids on the Block, too), since girls liking something often means that people who would prefer girls to like them get mad at it. And then some of it is just people not liking pop, and being annoyed that they’re being made aware of it. He’s still relatively unformed, as pop stars go; a handful of good songs doesn’t necessarily mean he’s got a long career ahead of him, but all the people who snarked that a year later nobody would remember the kid who sang the opening lines to “We Are the World 25 for Haiti” are no longer snarking it.
With so much attention, he’s got to be a basket case, right?
Apparently not. He seems to have a good head on his shoulders, and under the tutelage of the least-basket-casey man in pop (Usher), he’s being given solid advice and support with Dealing With It All. He’s nice to his mom, supported by his hometown church, infallibly sweet to his young fans and just pretty Canadian all round. Even when his position as a pop culture icon ends up making him the butt of Internet memes like Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber or “U Smile (800% Slower),” he tends to be a good sport, and when furious Beliebers vandalized Wikipedia pages of people who won Grammys when Bieber didn’t, his Twitter was a surprising voice of reason.
Wasn’t there some kind of movie?
There was! Justin Bieber: Never Say Never didn’t exactly set the box office on fire (during a slow week), but in terms of tween-aimed pop-star documentary concert films, it did about as well as the top dog in the field (Miley Cyrus’ Hannah Montana: Between Two Worlds), and better than similar efforts from Michael Jackson and the Jonas Brothers. And in between world tours and awards shows, he’s been keeping busy guest-starring on television shows (he got killed on CSI, which we believe is the requirement for a SAG card), keeping up with his product endorsements and charity endeavors, and working on his next album.
And the kid is only sixteen?
Seventeen. He’s had a birthday. (March 1. And you didn’t even send a card!)
That means he’s on the way out, right?
Predictions about any given artist’s transience—or, while we’re at it, longevity—end up embarrassing the prophet as often as not, so we’ll just say: A lot of already-rich people are betting that Bieber will continue to make them even richer. Throughout history, it’s generally been understood to be a wise policy not to bet against the rich.