Our little Bieb is (sniff) growing up
The album, dropping Tuesday, is widely perceived as the Canadian singer’s attempt to transition into a more mature sound, and to win over older fans — those likelier to request an autograph on their bosoms than their binders.
But even as Bieber’s evolved pre-release singles earn critical praise, questions remain about whether the 18-year-old will find industry validation or end up a mere footnote in teen-idol history. “I’ve predicted a Justin Timberlake moment, when all of a sudden (insiders) might — might — find critical value in what he does,” says Steve Jordan, founder of the Polaris Music Prize. “I’ve been laughed at for predicting that. But we’ll see, we’ll see. It could happen.” Believe features guest beats by Ludacris, Nicki Minaj, Drake and Big Sean, and producer credits that read like a Who’s Who of music. Though all bets are off until every track is out, critical praise for lead singles Boyfriend and Die in Your Arms suggests Bieber may soon have a permanent seat at the grown-ups’ table.
There’s even talk in Polaris circles of a future nomination for the prestigious prize — an outcome that would surely have hipsters hanging themselves by their skinny jeans.
“There’s a long history of teen idols who proved themselves to be truly talented — and even ones whose talent may not lie in their vocal range,” says Jordan, citing Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and Elvis Presley as examples of the former, and Britney Spears and Madonna as the latter. “As long as his audience grows with him, and he grows with his audience, he’ll be fine.”
James Keast, editor-in-chief of music magazine Exclaim!, remains skeptical, noting the singer has too effectively made a punchline out of his own “Bieberness.” At this year’s Oscars, for instance, the diminutive dreamboat told host Billy Crystal he was there to “get you the 18-to-24 demographic.”
“His career seems to be, at this point, just being Bieber,” says Keast. “The fact he’s hanging out with Kanye or Skrillex or whoever, really seems transparently like, ‘Oh, look at me, I’m edgy.’”
Indeed, it’s easy to interpret the high-profile collaborations on Believe as a kind of fig leaf, with the young singer hiding behind other performers’ established credentials. And given the palpable stigma he faces, it’s no wonder.
MuchMusic’s Lauren Toyota is among those taking notice.
“When he first came out, our automatic reaction was to go, ‘Oh teen heartthrob, he’s not going to last.’ But very quickly he’s established a huge fan base, and respect from adults in the music industry,” says Toyota, co-host of this year’s MuchMusic Video Awards.
“I feel like as much as he’s matured in certain ways, and is experimenting with a bit of an edgier sound, he’s doing it in a way that isn’t shocking his fans or making them uncomfortable.”
Max Valiquette, managing director of strategy at Canadian ad agency Bensimon Byrne, predicts Bieber will benefit from the prevailing ethos of being “allowed” to appreciate pure pop artists without smirking or irony.
But the road to validation will be fraught with push-back from those whose pop education didn’t begin with High School Musical.
“The greater your entrenchment with younger pop fans, the harder it is to transition into conquering the adult market,” says Valiquette. “The challenge for an artist like Justin Bieber is that people feel guilty listening to his songs.”
Valiquette hastens to add, however, that the same hurdles existed for JT before leaving ’NSync in the early 2000s.
“If you told me at the time of Tearin’ Up My Heart or I Want You Back that, 15 years later, Justin Timberlake would be this acting-singingdancing- Saturday Night-Live- hosting quadruple threat, I would’ve said you’re crazy. But here he is,” says Valiquette.
“The primary lesson is this: surround yourself with the best people, and be so good that it’s impossible to ignore you.”
Justin Bieber’s new album drops on Tuesday. It remains to be seen if he will be able to win over older fans.