Fri February 11, 2011
The Record

Justin Bieber's Big Weekend: Keep Your Eyes On The Haircut

Originally published on Sat February 12, 2011 4:26 pm

At the top of the page you can listen to Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz's interview with 14-year-old "Belieber" Abbie Byford. Byford publishes an online news letter about all things Beiber.

This weekend belongs to Justin Bieber. And while the hordes of his longest-standing fans might think it belongs to them too, the events of the next couple of days — the opening of his 3-D biography/concert film Never Say Never and his nomination for Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards — should mark the moment when Bieber fever infects a new host body: grownups. As much as the inevitable wild success of the film will be vindication for all the toddlers moved to tears by their love for the mop-topped 16-year-old, this is the end of his beginning. The sound of millions of young girls screaming your name is a sound the pop world loves, but it can't last forever.

So pay attention. If you go to the movie this weekend or sit down in front of the Grammys on Sunday, keep your eyes on the haircut, and try to hold on to those memories. 10 years from now, what will have emerged from the now just-forming Bieber chrysalis? An acoustic crooner? A multi-platform industry mogul? A washed-up reality star?

Best case scenario: the YouTube era's Michael Jackson, a less remarkable talent, but more approachable and well-adjusted. Someone who sells as much of every kind of product as anybody can these days.

So far, the ascent has been smooth and lightning-quick. Bieber released his first album just 15 months ago. His second went to Number One just five months later, and he filled Madison Square Garden with 20,000 shrieking pubescent girls (give or take a few parents) another five months after that. But he's hardly a sure bet for long-term success. He's put out two EPs, My World and My World 2.0, plus a set of acoustic versions of the same songs, soon to be followed by a set of remixes. The problem is his most fervent supporters are people whose money the industry takes seriously but whose taste it views as fickle and inscrutable.

More evidence of entrenched industry skepticism: none of his singles have ever topped the charts, and a list of the top 75 radio songs of 2010 in Billboard included zero hits by Bieber. He could probably retire on his 17th birthday off the receipts from his recent arena tour. If he wants a career, he'll have to change the way everyone who's not a teenage girl thinks about him.

I'm not suggesting that this weekend will be the tipping point, but it should be the moment when the carefully lined up dominoes begin to fall.

Never Say Never is a machine, a monster of a film that should gross hundreds of millions and make Bieber and his team into an undeniable force in the industry. Co-produced by Bieber and his manager Scooter Braun, the movie is cannily made, and advances two essential arguments. First: Bieber's fame is a piece of fate, the inevitable end of his god-given talent. Half of the movie is the story of how Braun discovered Bieber on YouTube, and how he helped expose the youngster to people who could hone his talents (home videos show Justin playing drums, guitar and piano). The other half of the movie, which follows Bieber and that coterie of supporters as they rehearse and perform an arena tour that ends with a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, pays tribute to the the star as a product of a handsomely designed, ruthlessly effective bit of music industry machinery.

The pairing of these two somewhat dissonant arguments (let's call it a shaky harmony?) makes the movie feel at once like a valedictory for the young fans whose love for Bieber burns with an almost unknowable intensity (as far as I can tell, the movie is in 3D just so young girls can see their own hearts leap out of their chests), as well as a plea to understand him as an artist with a future in the industry, one that will continue to grow given the right kind of investment. Pop isn't traditionally kind to the careers of young stars; the ones who make it past the gates of adult stardom — Justin Timberlake and Lil Wayne, to name just two examples — are the ones who capitalize on the artistic freedom that can accompany success.

That's the same argument Bieber's been making with his recent press tour (stops on The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live and Ellen, with an upcoming episode of Glee) and it's the one he'll have to keep making at the Grammys on Sunday night. In front of the industry, he'll have the chance to hint that he can handle more than cheerful, toothless love songs and rote, if well-executed, pop moves.

But his crazy success to this point means that he doesn't have to do much more than hint. The moment in pop history that will be dancing in the back of our minds as we watch Bieber start to make this transition will inevitably be Michael Jackson's 1983 performance of "Billie Jean" at the Motown 25 concert, where he debuted the moonwalk.

On that stage, Jackson proved that he could own everyone's attention by doing something no one else had ever thought of. Bieber won't match that this weekend. That moment comes around so infrequently that it can't be designed. Instead, here's what Bieber's camp has to be hoping for: that after this weekend, there will be fewer arguments against the idea that Justin Bieber is a huge star. It'll be a subtle shift, an effort to get a new audience to embrace their star without alienating his core supporters. But 10 years from now, the moment could matter more than we realize. I wouldn't bet against them.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


GUY RAZ, host:

Now, while many people around the world have been captivated by the events in Egypt over the past 24 hours, millions of girls are far more focused on another news item: it's opening weekend for a new film on the life of teen pop superstar Justin Bieber.

Unidentified Woman: I've been a fan of his from when he posted his first video, and I'll be his fan until he posts his last video.

(Soundbite of song, "Baby")

Mr. JUSTIN BIEBER (Singer): (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, oh...

RAZ: The movie is part documentary, part 3D concert film. And it tells the story of how the famously floppy-haired Bieber went from making his own YouTube videos to topping the Billboard charts all in less than two years. His fans are known as Beliebers. And one of those Beliebers is 14-year-old Abbie Byford. She publishes an online newsletter about all things Bieber, and she's on the line from her home in Hull in the United Kingdom.

And, Abbie, I understand this movie doesn't come out in the U.K. what, I think until next weekend. How are you going to possibly get through the week knowing that, you know, all those American fans have already seen it?

Ms. ABBIE BYFORD: It's going to be hard.

RAZ: I imagine. By the way, I noticed that your email address is abbielovesbieber@ - I'm not going to give the domain name, but you are obviously a huge fan. And you run a website called Justin Drew Daily. First of all, tell us a little bit about what's on the website.

Ms. BYFORD: Well, it gives updates of like the latest videos and news every day, like, about five times a day or something. And we have like a gallery with loads of pictures. There's about 50,000 photographs of him.

RAZ: And how do you find out news about Justin?

Ms. BYFORD: Well, I get stuff from magazines. And I scan it in and search people and, like, a lot of like news websites, get it from them and like credit them.

(Soundbite of song, "One Time")

RAZ: Okay. So a lot of parents are going to be listening right now. And, you know, a lot of them just might not get Justin Bieber. You know, they might not get the whole thing.

Ms. BYFORD: Yeah.

RAZ: So can you explain why so many, you know, preteens and even teenage girls love him?

Ms. BYFORD: Probably because of his voice.

(Soundbite of song, "One Time")

Mr. BIEBER: (Singing) When I met you girl my heart went knock, knock, knock. Now them butterflies in my stomach won't stop, stop, stop. And even though it's a struggle, love is all we got. So we going to keep, keep climbing to the mountaintop.

Ms. BYFORD: And also, of course, he is like pretty cute.

RAZ: I guess that doesn't hurt. So does he know about your website?

Ms. BYFORD: Yeah. In about April in 2010, he had direct messages on Twitter saying that, I love your site, thanks.

RAZ: On Twitter he direct messaged you?

Ms. BYFORD: Yeah.

RAZ: That must have been one of the greatest moments of your life.

Ms. BYFORD: Yeah. I was really excited when I saw it.

RAZ: What do you think would happen if you met him? What do you think you'd say to him?

Ms. BYFORD: Probably talk about my site because, well, I'd want to know if he'd like look at it properly and stuff.

RAZ: But you wouldn't do anything weird like tell him, you know, I love you, and give him a big hug and kiss?

Ms. BYFORD: Maybe - well, I'd probably be embarrassed.

RAZ: That's Abbie Byford. She runs Justin Drew Daily. It's a fan site devoted to teen pop star Justin Bieber. The film about Justin Bieber's life, "Never Say Never," opens this weekend.

Abbie, thanks.

Ms. BYFORD: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "You Smile")

Mr. BIEBER: (Singing) I wait on you forever any day hand and foot. Your world is my world, yeah. Ain't no way you're ever going to get any less than you should 'cause baby, you smile... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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