Burnt by the spotlight: Justin Bieber - the world's most scrutinised teenager... ever
There's never been a teen idol quite like him, whose celebrity has distorted his take on reality to an absurd extent. But is that so surprising?
In his seminal memoir Just Getting Started, the pop star and cultural phenomenon Justin Bieber describes a rare moment of normality in the madhouse of celebrity. The scene begins with Justin, a month into "the first leg of the North American My World tour", looking mournfully out of the window of his hotel room at the hundreds of fans thronged below. Nearby, his friends Ryan and Chaz are skateboarding. Justin is sad. "You see," he explains, "my buddies had a freedom I no longer had. All I wanted was to do something normal and skateboard with the guys, but I knew that if I went downstairs to join them it would create chaos."
Justin explains all this to his manager, Scooter, and after thinking for a moment, Scooter hits on a plan. He heads downstairs and brokers a deal with the crowd. "We know you guys respect him enough to give him this moment," Scooter says. "We are going to let him be a normal kid for one night. Is it a deal?"
The fans agree. The deal is struck. And so, in a turn of events a little reminiscent of the legendary Christmas football truce that brought peace to a small section of the Western Front in 1914, Justin got to hang out with his buddies. "I skateboarded for about an hour and a half," he remembers. "Literally, all of the fans sat down on the pavement and watched me without a fuss or a scene."
This, then, is the limited definition of normal to which Justin Bieber aspires: a situation wherein the hundreds of people who stare at everything you do agree not to wail hysterically for a bit. Of course, because this is Justin Bieber we're talking about, and he is all about his Beliebers and he loves them more than anything in the world and also they spend quite a significant amount of money on his merchandise, he's at pains to be clear that he doesn't want them to go away completely. "There is a funny thing about this story," he says. "When my fans don't surround the hotels, I actually do get upset because knowing that they're there gives me comfort. And who knows, maybe more stories like this can take place with you! Thanks!"
And that, perhaps, is the definition of what is truly ordinary for this 19-year-old curiosity. Some people like a soundtrack of whale song to drift off to sleep; Bieber prefers the lulling squeals of hysterical children. Shakespeare's King Henry V, disguised in a cloak so that he might move freely among his soldiers, understood something of the constrictions faced by a child star coming of age. "What have kings, that privates have not too," he asked, "save ceremony, save general ceremony? And what are thou, thou idle ceremony? What kind of god art thou?"
The comparison is an imperfect one. (It would be a brave director who reimagined Henry in Moon Boot trainers and an exotically low-slung pair of harem trousers; nor could you see the young king succeeding in his attempt to blend in with the troops in a gas mask or a Chanel balaclava, Bieber's customary nods to anonymity.) Above all, while his plaintive quest for normality may have been authentic, it must be said that, in recent times, Justin's appetite for idle ceremony has seemed healthy enough. He has had quite a run of late, this humble native of Stratford, Canada, who once had his heart set on being a carpenter. You will have your own favourite, but I was particularly struck by the tale of his pet capuchin monkey, Mally, seized by a German customs agent on account of a lack of the proper paperwork for animal importation and now living out his days in a Munich zoo. Before Mally, there was Pac, the hamster which Justin gave away to a dewy-eyed fan with the instruction "you gotta take care of him", and which sadly died within three months.
Nor have his troubles been confined to the animal kingdom. Over the last year, Bieber has developed a reputation for being persistently late to the stage, apparently because of an excessive appetite for video games; more generally he is said to have displayed the sense of entitlement that I suppose is an inevitable part of a life in which you can post a smiley face and expect 116,543 people to retweet it. I didn't know there were such things as indoor skydiving centres, but Justin and his entourage did, and they accordingly found one, arrived as it was closing up, did a spot of indoor skydiving, and then left without paying or posting the social network plug that had been promised in lieu of cash.
There are frequent altercations with the paparazzi and the denizens of nightclubs, culminating in an incident last week in which Bieber's bodyguards allegedly pummelled a man who was trying to retrieve a friend's bow tie from a cocktail waitress who was leaving with the star's entourage. (Dear reader, I tried to explain that more straightforwardly, but I'm afraid it's just an inextricably convoluted situation.)
"Never complain, never explain," said Kate Moss, but that's not Bieber's attitude. Many of these incidents have resulted in indignant tweets, and Instagram posts, and award-acceptance speeches, expressing disappointment in the media and sections of the public. "I'm tired of the countless lies," he wrote, in one such outburst. "I'm 19 and it must be scary to some people to think that this is just the beginning." When he puts it like that, it's hard to disagree.
None of this is terribly serious, I guess, and the boy should not be denied the right to mess up, as everyone does at the age of 19. (I don't recall ever showing such callous disregard for the well-being of a hamster at that age, but I had plenty of shortcomings of my own. Even Nick Clegg set fire to a greenhouse.) All the same, the mood music is distressingly familiar. You know you're on thin ice when Mark Wahlberg – who blinded a guy and did time in jail before he even released a record – remarks, as he did last week, that you need to "pull your trousers up" and "stop smoking all that weed, you little bastard". Bieber's erratic form poses the question that always attaches to child stars, perhaps more so to this one than any before: yes, this is just the beginning. But what the hell is he supposed to do next?
Marky Mark knows better than most how strangely intoxicating fame can be, but even he can't fully comprehend this experience, which is without historical precedent, really: to be thrust into the spotlight before you are remotely formed, and then to be scrutinised relentlessly by your hordes of slavish followers – some 48 million on Twitter alone. Is he a good kid? Is he a bad kid? Who knows? Such terms are useless when their object has had his brain so thoroughly reconfigured by a set of circumstances that none of the rest of us can understand. He is simply a celebrity kid. Probably no teenager has ever been so relentlessly scrutinised for such a high proportion of their life. When I see him remind his Twitter fans to buy his latest book, or watch an MTV special, I think, incongruously enough, of generations of Dalai Lamas, their lives similarly mapped out before they have a chance to know themselves, their devotees hanging on their every word before they have worked out what they want to say. And yet even they wouldn't quite understand it. The Dalai Lama is, after all, permitted to meditate.
Not Justin, whose relaxation techniques are a little less spiritual, though he claims a close relationship with God. In the accounts of the most recent nightclub incident, one detail in particular stands out. There's a video of Bieber scouring the room with a torch, using it to pick out the women he wanted to approach his table. That's the pulling technique of a man who understands the power of the spotlight; perhaps this is how he feels on stage, you muse, as if anointed by some benevolent, incomprehensible being who appreciates his killer bod.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps he's just an idiot with a flashlight. Anyway, those women who do wish to bask a little longer in his reflected glory, by heading home with him at the end of the night, are apparently routinely asked to sign a non-disclosure form. The document is said to warn of activities that are "potentially hazardous". "You should not participate," it goes on, "unless you are medically able and properly trained." The risks range from "minor injuries to catastrophic injuries, including death".
The whole sequence is a neat summary of the trappings of modern fame: arbitrary, dangerous and corporate. It is rarely written about well, but David Baddiel has posed some interesting thoughts on the subject in his return to stand-up. He was properly famous, he explains, around the time of Euro 96, and "Three Lions"; now he is a little bit famous. And yet even now it's strange. It makes people feel that they can take liberties they would never dream of with anyone else. They feel you are their property, preserved in aspic, existing solely to be observed. "No one has the time to see these people as three-dimensional beings who can change with time," he said in a recent Independent interview. "You get pinned as something that's not you."
This is a perceptive account of the processes of the ordinary sort of fame, whereby someone becomes well known after many years of obscurity. But it doesn't tell us much about Bieber. Baddiel complains about having his sense of himself overwritten by the world, but how does that work when you are already famous at the very point at which the rest of us are developing that sense? In that case, there would surely be nothing to overwrite. Consider Queen Victoria's alleged habit of sitting down without checking whether a chair was behind her, for the simple reason that she always knew someone would be there to put it in place. Does Justin have a credit card? Can he rewire a plug? Has he ever run out of toilet roll? And how will he react if such mundanities become part of his life? After a start like his, fame would be tattooed into you – it is, in fact, tattooed all over him – even if seemed to go away. Fame would not be an encumbrance that changed how others thought of you. It would be fundamental to way that you understood yourself.
Perhaps Wahlberg is a little harsh: in such circumstances, it is only natural to veer somewhat off the rails. Even Bieber's infamous transgression at the Anne Frank House – where he committed a full Accidental Partridge in the guestbook by expressing his fervent hope that she would have been a Belieber – makes more sense when you think of it this way. Such a remark, I submit, could not have been made by anyone with the haziest sense of proportion, of his place in the scheme of things, of his self. Poor Justin. It is to be hoped that he is ultimately able to evade the worst privations of celebrity; it is to be hoped that he loves what he does. It has only just struck me: in the whole process of writing this piece, I never once thought to listen to him sing.
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