News Column

Is Justin Bieber here to stay?

July 15, 2013

YellowBrix

July 15--Thousands of pre-teen and teenage girls will descend upon First Niagara Center tonight for -- you know who -- Justin Bieber. They will stake out the area hours before his sold-out concert, assuming they didn't start yesterday. They will sing every word to every song and squeak and squeal and scream well before he comes onstage and well after he leaves. Many will cry, some might faint.

Everyone else in Buffalo -- from begrudging parents to eye-rolling readers of this article -- will probably just have one question: Dear God, why?

It's a question worth asking in the wake of any wave of Bieber Mania. While the little girls lose their minds at the very thought of Bieber, the rest of us are left wondering what all the fuss is about -- or just making fun of the little dude. But wisecracks about his music or hair or public life or other easy targets still don't get to the bottom of the 19-year-old who sold 15 million albums; the celebrity who, with almost 42 million followers, is the Web's most popular Twitter user; the young man who is, arguably, the most famous Canadian of all time.

To help explain Bieber's world to the non-Beliebers, we asked a few pop culture connoisseurs to assess his life and legacy so far. We wanted to know: Beyond the screaming girls, Twitter fanatics and tabloid stories, is there really anything exceptional or enduring about Justin Bieber?

The verdict: Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Cynicism is the easiest response to Bieber Mania and the most common of our informal survey.

"Every couple years, there is some kind of teen sensation," said Donny Kutzbach, co-owner of the Town Ballroom and Funtime Present. "Someone that appeals to kids and has massive crossover appeal and just becomes a superstar. We're still living in Bieber's moment."

Kutzbach is attending tonight's concert with his 10-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter -- "If the kids weren't begging me, I would never go," he assured -- and he said his kids are good indicators of how, in pop music, even the most militant listeners have short attention spans.

His daughter "loved the Jonas Brothers for a couple years," Kutzbach said. "And she loved 'High School Musical.' And now she loves Bieber. And in two years, it will be another way."

But while other commentators shared Kutzbach's aversion to Bieber's music, they also respected the star for already proving a certain staying power in his brief career. Bieber's debut EP, "My World," entered our world in 2009, and four years later, he's still effortlessly selling out shows, while the Jonas Brothers are struggling to fill seats on their current tour and "High School Musical" is already an artifact of the last decade. One of Bieber's greatest accomplishments might be the simple fact that, as his teen years end and his voice finally drops, he's still on top of the world.

"He is by no means a one-hit wonder," said Robert Thompson, professor at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a nationally cited pop culture authority. "He is not a flash in the pan. He's already made it from going to be a really little kid to a young man."

Thompson said that Bieber's appeal is both obvious ("His songs are immediately singable") and cyclical (he "falls into a long string of nonthreatening, almost feminine, cute boys," from Bobby Sherman to Justin Timberlake). But Thompson also observed that, in one sense, Bieber represents a pop music revolution: He's one of the first social media pop icons. Bieber's career started when a talent manager accidentally discovered performances Bieber's mother uploaded on YouTube, and with many of his music videos breaking records for worldwide views, Bieber has, in a sense, never left that site. Now that the days of inescapable pop stars -- your Elvises and Beatles and Michael Jacksons -- have disintegrated in an infinity of online subcultures and subgenres, Bieber has done a better job than anyone else at transcending nebulous demographics. You may hate him, and you may not even know his songs, but you definitely, at least, know who he is.

"Even if the whole thing would collapse right now," Thompson said, Bieber would still be remembered for that breakthrough.

"He's not just a transient chapter in the history of American entertainment," Thompson said. "He is really one of the first significant examples of a superstar bred by YouTube ... the superstar of the new digital era."

Jud Heussler, music director of Kiss 98.5 and host of the station's afternoon drive show, also credited Bieber's social media presence, noting that he wisely uses his Twitter account to "humanize" himself by directly corresponding with fans -- albeit through 140-character love notes.

"To a normal person, yes, it's an act," Heussler said. "But to the kids who follow him and are loyal to him, that's the world." Even with this digital devotion, though, Bieber still inspires some old-fashioned fanaticism: Heussler said that Kiss has been flooded with calls from young girls, asking if the station knows when Bieber is arriving and where he'll be staying.

The question now, of course, is whether Bieber's impact will outlast his tweets and YouTube views. Some of the great pop stars in American history -- Jackson, Timberlake, Stevie Wonder -- have taught us to expect that child stars might evolve into something greater. Bieber has already made occasional stabs at a more "mature" image. He released an acoustic album in 2010, as a small step away from his highly processed pop. He finally ditched his shaggy dog haircut and even got some tattoos. And John Hugar, a staff writer for the music site buffaBLOG, said that Bieber's newest single, "Boyfriend" -- a hushed-voice, overtly sexual come-on -- made him think he "could be wrong" to dismiss Bieber's talents.

But questions of Bieber's future are now tied into another question: his behavior.

After maintaining a squeaky clean image for a few years, Bieber inevitably became a TMZ target this year, with a series of bizarre incidents that are even stranger than the usual tabloid fodder and paparazzi fights. Some highlights: In April, Bieber drew worldwide scorn after visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and writing in the guest book that Frank hopefully "would have been a belieber," the term for his most rabid fans. In June, his pet monkey, Mally, was confiscated in a Munich airport as Bieber brought it along his world tour. Last week might have been Bieber's weirdest one yet: He was kicked out of a Chicago bar for drinking with a bunch of under-21 friends (the bar was subsequently cited for a violation), and a TMZ video caught him urinating in a mop bucket in a New York City restaurant and screaming expletives about Bill Clinton as he ran past a picture of the 42nd president.

Is this the beginning of Bieber's downward spiral -- the time when he finally cracks under the pressure, and starts resembling Britney Spears or Amanda Bynes more than Timberlake or Wonder? Thompson argued that even these baffling antics are mild compared to the usual debauchery we see from music stars. (Even Clinton agrees: After Bieber apologized for the incident, Clinton reportedly replied, "If that is the worst thing you have ever done, all is well.")

Thompson said that no publicity is bad publicity, and that the bad boy image, whatever its motivations, might just be a bridge into adult stardom.

There are "certain types of fans who loved the old Justin," for whom his recent behavior "is very disturbing," he said. "But there are others who might come to the whole Bieber Mania because of that stuff ... There's no indication that he's waning."

Heussler, of Kiss 98.5, said that if Bieber is still around in five years, he might join the ranks of America's most important pop stars by then. But what are the chances of that happening?

"I don't know," Heussler said. "We'll see if he self-destructs first."

email: jsilverstein@buffnews.com

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