Justin Bieber is a hugger. The 16-year-old musician, whose album My World 2.0 debuted at No. 1 on Billboard and has sold nearly 850,000 copies in just five weeks, doesn’t shake hands–he goes straight for the full embrace. But Bieber is so small that unless you are a preteen girl (which you very well might be; most of his fans aren’t old enough to drive), you’ll have to bend down to greet him. Bieber has a warm smile and overgrown hair that he brushes forward into his face. His giant high-tops are always untied. He seems at first like nothing more than the latest in a line of manufactured teen idols–the Britneys, Justins, Mileys and Jonases that have dominated teenage hearts for the past decade. But beyond his looks and talent, Bieber is something else entirely: the first real teen idol of the digital age, a star whose fame can be attributed entirely to the Internet.
Bieber didn’t arrive through the normal channels: he wasn’t a child model; he was never on Star Search or the Disney Channel; his parents didn’t audition him for commercials. In 2007 he was 12 years old and living in Stratford, Ont., with his single mother, Pattie Mallette. Mallette began posting videos of her son’s musical performances on YouTube so that relatives could see him in action: Bieber participating in a local talent show or singing and playing guitar at home. He covered pop and R&B songs: Matchbox Twenty, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys. And he was good. Really good. So good that strangers started watching his videos. Within months, his Internet following numbered in the thousands. Not bad for a middle-school student.
Late one night in 2007, Scooter Braun, an Atlanta-based promoter and music manager, was in bed surfing the Internet when he stumbled upon a grainy home video of Bieber belting out Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” “It was such raw talent, my gut just went wild,” Braun says, and then pauses. “Maybe I shouldn’t tell people I watched videos of Justin Bieber in the middle of the night.” Two weeks later, he flew Bieber and his mother to Atlanta and became his manager.
Braun and Bieber spent the next six months strategically building a fan base. Bieber would post new songs on YouTube, respond to messages from fans and interact with them. He was accessible; he addressed his fans by name and talked to them as if they were friends. Even now, with 2.2 million Twitter followers, he frequently responds to fans’ questions and retweets their greetings. “I also try to read all of my fan mail,” he says. “A lot of them send me candy, which I’m not allowed to eat ’cause my mom says it might be poisonous.”
Record labels don’t like to take chances, and none wanted to touch an untested teenage act. “They kept telling me, He’s not backed by Disney. He doesn’t have a TV show. He’s a nobody,” says Braun. But among other artists, word of Bieber’s talent quickly spread. Justin Timberlake wanted to work with him. So did Usher. “He sang and played the guitar for me, and I was like, Wow, this kid has even more talent than I did at that age,” he says. The R&B star struck a business deal with Braun; a Def Jam record contract soon followed.
As a songwriter, Bieber specializes in two subjects: tender ballads about his parents’ divorce and the kind of desperate puppy love to which anyone who has ever been a teenager can relate. His audience can be understood just by looking at his song titles: “U Smile,” “First Dance,” “One Less Lonely Girl.” This is the brilliance of Bieber. Kids will listen to anything if it’s catchy, especially if it makes them feel grownup, but Bieber’s music says something they actually understand. Nobody is going to believe a 14-year-old boy when he sings, “You’re my one love, my one heart, my one life for sure”–nobody, that is, except a 14-year-old girl.
By the time Bieber released his first, seven-song EP, My World, in November 2009, he had 50 million YouTube subscribers and was one of the most discussed topics on Twitter. Four tracks issued as singles had already topped the Billboard charts, making him the first artist to have four hit songs before ever releasing an album. Hordes of screaming, crying girls showed up to his concerts, inspiring headlines like “Bieber Fever” and “Biebermania.” Crowds at a November album signing at a Long Island, N.Y., mall got so out of hand that the event had to be called off. Braun was arrested for not canceling the event fast enough, a charge that is currently being reinvestigated. On April 26, police in Sydney canceled an event after fans became unruly. Two days later in Auckland, a crazed mob rushed Bieber at the airport, knocked down his mother and stole his hat.
New Kid on the Block
By the time my world 2.0 debuted at No. 1 in March, Bieber was everywhere. The video for his single “Baby” was viewed more than 107 million times. He performed on The Late Show with David Letterman, on The Tonight Show and at the White House. He appeared on Saturday Night Live. Bieber possesses a quiet confidence; he’d never acted before, but he nailed a skit with Tina Fey. He was cute. He was funny. People liked him–even some who could legally drink.
It’s these older fans who will matter when Bieber begins his all but inevitable slide into a more mature, sexed-up image. By album sales, he’s already more popular than the Jonas Brothers, ‘NSync or New Kids on the Block were at the same point in their careers. But he is so young, and his fame so new, that any speculation about his future seems wildly premature. Usher calls him “the beginning of a new generation of artists.” Bieber is simply grateful for what’s already happened. “I feel like I just won the lotto,” he says.
The day after his appearance on SNL, Bieber gave a small concert at New York’s Highline Ballroom for several hundred teenage girls, many of whom had waited for up to five hours to win tickets through a local radio station. The girls wore Bieber T-shirts, carried Bieber CDs and had Bieber backgrounds on their cell phones. “He’s so sweet. He’s not like every other guy who is just like, ‘Ugh, whatever,’ ” says Alicia Isaacson, 13, from Long Island. It’s a sentiment once professed for every artist from Shaun Cassidy to Paul McCartney. Every few seconds, a shrill cry of “Justin!” erupted from somewhere in the crowd. Security guards handed out water bottles and escorted those who felt faint or overwhelmed outside. Offstage, Bieber played with his baseball cap. “I’m really tired,” he confessed. “Right now my schedule is just go, go, go. Sometimes I just want to sleep.” That afternoon, he had cut his rehearsal to just half a song because he didn’t have the energy. But signs of fatigue were gone now, and he took the stage with force. For the first few minutes, the only discernible sound was screaming.