This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 26, 2010
Bieber, Justin (Profile)
The sign on the door says "Mozart," but it's a safe bet that Wolfgang Amadeus never had a dressing room equipped with leather recliners, a super-sized flat-screen TV and an Xbox console. Nor, presumably, did his tour rider call for loaves of Wonder Bread, Cool Ranch Doritos, Fruit Roll-Ups and candy Swedish Fish. Still, something is missing. Justin Bieber's mom, Pattie Mallette, looks at the choice of Pop Tarts - strawberry and apple strudel - and clucks, "Where are the grape ones?" before scurrying off down the hall. The day has enough complications already. Pop's reigning prodigy is suffering greatly from Denver's thin mountain air. Dizzy with a splitting headache, the Stratford, Ont., teen has been snarling at anyone brave enough to enter his darkened tour bus, pull back the Spider-Man bedsheets, and try to wake him for a scheduled 2:30 p.m. interview. Having two albums with combined global sales of 4.5 million and counting - My World and My World 2.0 - apparently doesn't buy that much rock star slack. Fifteen minutes later, his bodyguard Kenny, a former Atlanta radio DJ, strides through the door. Tucked in behind like a Smart car in an 18-wheeler's slipstream is the world's most famous 16-year-old.
The handshake is limp, and he's got the resigned air of someone visiting the principal's office, but every hair has been carefully swept forward into his signature, and oddly retro, mop-top. (Ringo Starr recently accused him of "stealing" his haircut.) The black V-neck, grey jeans and colour-coordinated Vans are crisp and new, betraying the hand of the stylist and "swagger coach" who travels as part of his entourage. He is perfectly polite. And for the tens of millions of young girls around the globe who have their bedrooms, school lockers and persons festooned with his image there is more good news: up close there is zero indication of impending adulthood. At just five foot six and 107 lb., without even a trace of peach fuzz, Justin Bieber seems destined to remain in his cuddly phase for a long time to come.
"It's cool," he says, summing up his sudden fame in the way only a teenage boy can. "There's definitely a lot of people telling me I'm great and stuff, but I keep a group of people around me that keep me humble, like my mom and my manager."
Three years ago, he was a small-town kid with an oversized voice busking for money outside Stratford's Festival Theatre. (He used the summer's proceeds to take Pattie, a single mom, to Disneyland, on their first-ever family vacation.) Videos she posted on YouTube of his covers of R & B hits by artists like Chris Brown and Ne-Yo became a tween sensation, drawing the attention of Scott "Scooter" Braun, an Atlanta music impresario. In 2008, he moved Justin and Pattie to Georgia, and put the then 14-year-old to work with various writers, all the while feeding the Internet frenzy. The first single, One Time, was released online in July 2009. The album My World debuted at No. 1 in Canada when it came out last November. Just four months later, the follow-up disc, My World 2.0, topped the charts in both Canada and the U.S. The video for his single Baby has racked up 240 million YouTube hits since February.
How big a phenomenon has Justin Bieber become? Since last fall, he's performed twice for America's first family. (Malia and Sasha Obama are big fans.) He had a spot on Dick Clark's New Year's Eve broadcast, and Macy's July 4 celebrations. He's been the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Oprah dedicated an episode to him and his fans. And it's not just a North American thing. The Stratford kid, who had never been on a plane until he went to visit Mickey Mouse, has now been to Europe six times, Japan twice, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Ask for the highlight of one of the most remarkable years in pop history and Bieber will tell you that it's a "toss-up" between meeting the President and Oprah. "I watched her growing up. She's amazing." Drill deeper and he'll admit that seeing the L.A. Lakers play the Denver Nuggets from courtside seats on his 16th birthday, with close to a dozen buddies from back home, was the real moment. "Kobe Bryant's my guy," he says. The NBA final's MVP even knew who he was - his daughters are fans too.
Ask about the low point, and there's what sounds like a fairly well-rehearsed line about the need to stay positive. If he's bothered by the kind of unrestrained adulation - the kind that has seen police in New York and Australia shut down appearances for fear his fans might trample each other to death, or earned a Web developer death threats for a browser plug-in blocking all mentions, or photos, of the singer - he's canny enough not to say it.
Justin Bieber is part of a rolling road show that boasts 12 buses and 10 tractor-trailers. In addition to the band, backup singers, dancers and opening acts, his "family" now includes crew, catering staff and a full-time tutor. Every night he plays before thousands of teens, but he hasn't set foot in a school for over a year. During the summer, he's bringing friends in for a week at a time, but that won't work come the fall. He can't remember the last time he went for a walk by himself. "I think I was at my house in Atlanta and I went to the grocery store or something," he says. "It was maybe five months ago."
"It's good to be here in Denver. There sure are a lot of blonds." The 200 or so young girls whose parents have shelled out an extra $350 a pop for them to attend a "sound-check party," squeal, regardless of their hair colour. They and their chaperones - all women - fill the first three rows of this evening's concert venue in the Mile-High City's suburbs. Up on the stage, only feet from their grasp, the object of their puppy lust is holding court. Justin Bieber solicits questions from his fans. Have you been to Alaska? "No." What's your favourite thing about being famous? "I get to travel the world and meet a lot of beautiful girls, just like here." He performs a run-through of his hit Never Going to Let You Go, waves and darts back through the curtains, leaving screams in his wake. Clutching Bieber loot bags, the moms and daughters make their way to the VIP room backstage for a buffet dinner of chicken fingers, hamburgers, french fries, and mac and cheese.
Down the hall, another room has been cordoned off with black curtains. Outside the door, several dozen more tweens and teens who have won tickets to the "meet and greet" are impatiently waiting. Bieber and his bodyguard arrive from backstage on a pair of Segway scooters. The 16-year-old takes his place and the first fans are ushered in. Hi, hug, smile, click, bye, repeat. Everyone gets what they're looking for, a trophy picture with the boy of their dreams - except for maybe the two heavily pancaked young ladies of indeterminate age, sporting push-up bras and the kind of form-clinging outfits their fathers surely never saw them leave the house in. They thrust a white teddy bear into Justin's hands, with a message and their cellphone numbers scribbled on the back of a heart-shaped tag. The dreamy smile never leaves his face, but still suffering from altitude sickness, it's not clear whether he even noticed. "My mom gave me codeine," he says. "I'm falling asleep standing up."
When the rest of the fans start filing into the concert hall, it's clear that few are quite so grown-up. The majority are between about 8 and 15, wearing a standard uniform of homemade Justin T-shirts with "Bieber Babes" and "Love You Forever" written in Day-Glo or glitter. The lineups at the souvenir stands are 30 feet wide and 10 people deep. The glow sticks and posters at $10 each are popular. An official charm bracelet with silver heart goes for $20. The concert shirts are $35. For parents, a discreet sign notes the availability of $2 ear plugs. Nearby, the few fathers in attendance are taking advantage of the shortest beer line ever. Courage.
Bieber may have only been in the music business for a year, but one area he and his management have dead on is marketing. In an age where record sales have plummeted, he can still move product. Some of it is good old-fashioned blandishments; fans in Canada who purchased physical copies of My World got a chance to win a private Justin Bieber concert. He's also been flogged directly at moms' deeper pockets - My World 2.0 was offered for "pre-sale" on the U.S. shopping channel QVC, along with an exclusive DVD. Corporate alliances are key - his current tour is sponsored by Xbox. Bieber's greatest industrial strength, however, is his interaction with his fan base.
Along with the YouTube videos, he and the people around him have harnessed the power of Twitter more effectively than any artist before. He posts one- or two-line messages to his 3.6 million followers as many as a dozen times a day, filling them in on what he's doing, or "retweeting" their notes to him. It's the kind of real-time relationship the record companies had never thought much about. Mike Alexander, his international PR rep, recounts the story of Justin's first promo trip to the U.K., months before My World was released. The singer tweeted he was in London and heading to the label offices. By the time he arrived, a crowd of 600 was waiting outside.
Bieber's name is mentioned 125,000 times a day on Twitter. The singer isn't shy about going to the well. A day rarely goes by where he doesn't exhort his Bieber Babes to watch a video, tune in to a TV appearance, or call the local radio station and request one of his songs. And it works both ways. Backstage in Denver, Duane Chapman, a.k.a. Dog the Bounty Hunter, is walking around in his evening attire: jeans, a leather jacket with "Rebel Spirit" written on the back, no shirt and some golden dog tags dangling from his burnt orange neck. His fifth wife, Beth, has a Justin shirt stretched perilously across a bosomy frame. They are in the house because their youngest daughter enlisted 3,000 of their own Twitter followers to help her score free tickets. "We called it Bonnie's bounty for Bieber," says Chapman.
It's the kind of give-and-take that makes Scooter Braun smile. Lounging on the venue's rooftop terrace with the mountains at his back, the 29-year-old in the black T-shirt and green John Deere hat doesn't exactly project the image of a music mogul. And like everything about Bieber, that's by design. "The secret to my marketing with Justin was to keep it organic," he says. Bieber was signed and in Atlanta being groomed for stardom, but online, his fans kept seeing the same homemade videos - the only difference being that Scooter was now shooting them.
A Billboard magazine story this past spring identified 14 "key players" on Team Bieber, including nine senior record execs. When it's brought up, Braun snorts. "You want to know how big Team Bieber is? Honestly?" he asks. "The captains are me, Pattie and Justin Bieber." The kids who follow Justin know he isn't like Miley Cyrus, or the Jonas Brothers, springing wholly formed and neatly packaged from a TV show. They claim him as their own discovery, a difference Braun believes will be crucial in making Bieber a "sustainable" brand, pushing into TV, movies - beyond the confines of bubblegum pop. "We define our demographic by Justin, not the corporation we signed to. There's no agenda beyond what's good for him and the fans," he says. "Our plan is until he's 50, if he can hack me."
The signature sound of a Justin Bieber concert isn't his sweet, clear voice, soaring above the disco keyboards and thumping bass. It's the ear-splitting shrieks of his fans. Imagine a rusty fleet of turning streetcars, or thousands of mice being simultaneously crushed underfoot. In the 8,000-seat Denver venue, their screams frequently shatter the pain threshold. God help parents with tickets for bigger shows.
A lot of effort and money has been put into the music. Baby, for instance, was written by the same guys who penned Single Ladies for Beyoncé and Rihanna's Umbrella, both monster hits. But there's no mistaking what the true product is. During the concert's scene changes, photo and video montages of Justin's "early" Stratford years play on massive screens. When the crowd responds with the most deafening howls of the night, Pattie bounces up and down and high-fives the sound engineer.
Bieber grew up in modest circumstances. His parents weren't that much older than he is now when he was born, and split soon after. (Jeremy, his dad, lives in Manitoba, where he and his new spouse were recently crowned "Winnipeg's coolest couple" by a local FM station.) The singer says he enjoys being able to order whatever he wants in restaurants, although that's almost invariably spaghetti bolognese. For his 16th birthday he bought himself his first car, a black Range Rover. "It's big; if I crash it, I won't get hurt," he says.
The many adults who surround him seem to take their duty to help him grow up, avoiding the pitfalls of early fame, seriously. Dan Kanter, a 29-year-old Torontonian who doubles as Bieber's lead guitarist and musical director, likens it to his past as a camp counsellor. Braun calls his protege "family." It's an overused word in the business, but here the sentiment seems sincere. "I see a large part of my job as protecting him and being there for him, like a parent, or an uncle," he says.
Bieber makes no secret that he's not keen about some aspects of his new job, particularly the endless promo rounds and photo shoots. Talking in the dressing room, the one subject that seems to really capture his interest is hockey. A shifty winger - "I can dangle," he brags - he continued to play even after the move to Georgia. "I'm small so I had to be somewhat dirty," he says. "I slashed ankles and stuff, I won't lie. I learned how to hip check and get low on the big guys."
Once his career starting taking off, he had to quit his team. He played once last winter. On the tour bus, he has a copy of hockey video game NHL 2K10. "I have to play it by myself," he says. "In the States, nobody else knows how."
Maclean's July 26, 2010