Children, do you still belieb? After the recent arrest of 19-year-old pop sensation Justin Bieber, even his most fervent “Beliebers” are experiencing a sense of disillusionment. On Thursday, they gathered outside a Miami correctional centre, where Bieber was briefly held after being arrested for drag-racing in a Lamborghini. According to the BBC News report, “many were in tears”.
On Twitter, the tone of some fans had switched to mild disappointment. “I am actually happy Justin got arrested,” wrote @MyCrushOnBiebr “Now he will FINALLY think about all he’s being doing”. Perhaps sensing this distress, Lady Gaga also offered her support to the Beliebers: “They deserve, just like any other fan, to feel strong for each other and Justin so they can continue to share the bond they have through music.” To non-Beliebers, however, this reaction to a hardly unexpected turn of events might seem strange. You could see this one coming as clearly as a yellow Lamborghini hurtling down a Florida highway.
Since he was first discovered on YouTube in 2008, Bieber’s massive fan-base has ensured that every dreamy toss of his floppy fringe is headline-worthy. The grown-ups might not understand the phenomenon of Biebermania, but they do understand that 50 million Twitter followers has got to mean something. To American news channel MSNBC, it meant interrupting a live interview with Congresswoman Jane Harman mid-sentence to bring “breaking news” of Bieber's arrest.
People who couldn’t hum a single Bieber chorus will be aware of his recent alleged hijinks: acused of calling a young fan “a beached whale”, defacing the walls of luxury hotels in Brazil and Australia with graffiti; “disrespecting” the Argentinian flag by cleaning a floor with it; throwing eggs at a neighbour’s house; suggesting that Holocaust victim Anne Frank would have been “a Belieber”; abandoning a monkey at an airport – and those are just the fun ones. Along the way, Bieber’s also been accused of mundane misdeeds like drug possession, punching paps, and cancelling performances. Clearly he’s not the messiah, only a very naughty boy – but you just try telling his fans that.
We know that fame isn’t a natural state for humans and the uncritical adulation it brings can reduce even well-rounded adults to tantrum-prone toddlers. But while such career derailments are almost inevitable, they don’t have to be tragic. So many others have done what Bieber is accused of doing – and much worse – that we know the steps to redemption off by heart. A stint in rehab, a mea culpa talk show interview, another life lesson learned, another fat cheque earned.
But the “comeback” route assumes a normalcy to come back to. For Bieber and other child stars the way is not so clearly signposted. If every day since you were 14, you’d been showered in praise, it can’t be easy to be humble. If you’ve amassed a fortune of £35m before your 21st birthday, you’ll find it hard to comprehend the value of hard work. If all the adults who guide you are also financially dependent on you, how can you know who to trust? If, in other words, you’re successful for being a child, how can you ever grow up?
Every celebrity story must also be a morality tale – otherwise why are we interested? – but the moral of Bieber’s is proving elusive. If you recall the sad tales of Judy Garland, Corey Haim, Lindsay Lohan, and all those others who went before him, it’s an unedifying spectacle – just the latest reminder of the entertainment industry’s ruthless willingness to exploit children – both the ones on the stage and the ones looking adoringly up at them.
But then, teen idols were never meant to be understood by grown-ups, were they? Every generation needs a Bieber to call its own. To his fans, he’s a safe way to experiment with intense new feelings, a means to establish an identity that’s separate from their parents. Eventually, they’ll realise he’s a wally and move on.
In the meantime, by watching him remain the ultimate and eternal teenager, those weeping Beliebers have learnt how to grow up. They haven’t been betrayed by their idol, he’s done exactly what he was supposed to. In fact, the only one we should feel sorry for is a little boy called Justin Bieber.