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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Comment: Justin Bieber never had the same magnetism as other pop stars and now he's paying the price

Published 30/10/2016 | 02:30

Comeback: Bieber has struggled with fame since he exploded into the music world from the comfort of his bedroom
Comeback: Bieber has struggled with fame since he exploded into the music world from the comfort of his bedroom
Canadian singer Justin Bieber performs on stage in Telia Parken Stadium in Copenhagen
Justin Bieber on stage. Photo: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images
Justin Bieber. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Singer Justin Bieber leaves his hotel on September 22, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/GC Images)

Earlier this year, the New Yorker published an 11,000-word article on the rise and dominance of the all-conquering showbiz website TMZ.

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Among several fascinating anecdotes was the one about Justin Bieber, when he was just 15 and on the cusp of becoming a world-famous pop star.

The website had got hold of a short video clip in which he was filmed singing a jokey song about "n***ers" and the KKK. Bieber's manager, Scott 'Scooter' Braun, begged TMZ not to publish the clip and promised that he would give the site unfettered access to his star. Braun reckoned that if such a video emerged, it would kill his young charge's career before it had properly got going.

TMZ, which had spent $80,000 acquiring the clip, decided to hold off and a major crisis was averted for the Canadian teen and his all-powerful manager. In the years afterwards, Bieber's meteoric rise was painstakingly documented by TMZ and he was more than happy to oblige.

Singer Justin Bieber leaves his hotel on September 22, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/GC Images)
Singer Justin Bieber leaves his hotel on September 22, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/GC Images)

That was seven years ago and Bieber, now 22, is a household name and one of the biggest-selling pop acts of the past decade. He's also the figure who helped shift more music to the tween market (age nine to 14) than virtually anybody else, with the possible exception of One Direction.

But now, as he heads to Dublin for a pair of sold-out shows at the 3Arena on Tuesday and Wednesday, Bieber is in attack mode on the next stage of his career - moving into a pop market inhabited by an older and arguably less fickle fanbase.

If history is anything to go by, it won't be easy. Just ask Donny Osmond, the pin-up for 12-year-old girls everywhere in the early 1970s. He could barely leave his hotel room at the peak of his fame. Then, overnight, nobody wanted to know. He was washed-up at 20.

Bieber, some might argue, was washed-up at 18. After the first flush of enormous success, he went spectacularly off the rails. His meltdown made that of Britney Spears seem like small potatoes. Many were writing the obituaries for his short career.

Then, last year, he released Purpose - an album that even the greatest Bieber-hater would grudgingly accept was a half-decent comeback. It positioned him away from that ultra-throwaway pop of before and into a more interesting space where self-doubt mingled with the high-octane pop. It was an album that was strong enough to suggest there might be another chapter in his story.

But his current world tour has been pockmarked by problems, not least when he stormed off stage in Manchester on Sunday night having been irked when fans refused to stop screaming between songs.

Canadian singer Justin Bieber performs on stage in Telia Parken Stadium in Copenhagen
Canadian singer Justin Bieber performs on stage in Telia Parken Stadium in Copenhagen

And the shows have largely been met with a lukewarm critical reception. The Observer review, from one of his O2 London dates, put it bluntly: "Bieber feels virtual, a civilian promoted beyond his capabilities, a cypher in which bemused boredom has replaced the imperative to entertain."

Ouch. I saw him play the then O2 Dublin at the height of his tween years and there was little about him at that time to suggest there was a sensationally gifted youngster beneath that carefully coiffed hairdo. He's never had the sort of magnetism of a young Justin Timberlake or a young Bruno Mars - two people who have grown their careers impressively and look set to be around for the long haul.

Purpose showed that there's more to Bieber than initially meets the eye, but he's in a world where the live performance is of paramount importance. Today's pop icons - Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé - have honed their live shows spectacularly and all three were far greater talents than Bieber at his age, and the aforementioned Timberlake delivered a thrilling two-hour concert on his 20/20 Experience world tour. Don't take my word for it: see for yourself on the Jonathan Demme-directed concert film that's recently been added to Netflix.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on Bieber. It can't have been easy to be thrust from your bedroom (via several YouTube videos) on to the world stage while still just 15. Would you have managed it? Spears was 16 when she first became a household name and one could argue it's only now, in her mid-30s, that she's been able to make sense of it all.

It's not just dealing with fame - and the 24/7 demands of the likes of TMZ - but having to contend with the sort of promotional and touring schedule that would make even the hardest working CEO blanch. It's easy to sneer when young stars talk about exhaustion, but the 'get-a-real-job' brigade might be taken aback were they see the vast amounts of travel and promo commitments expected.

Even those who come from the less frenzied worlds of indie and MOR-rock have come to discover that their dreams of 'making it' have turned out to be far less rosy than first imagined.

Justin Bieber on stage. Photo: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images
Justin Bieber on stage. Photo: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images

Keane frontman Tom Chaplin - now on hiatus from the band - found himself in rehab after their first album went supernova. His impressive new solo album, The Wave, gives a sense of the disorientation he found himself in as he attempted to keep it all together. And there were hints of it 10 years ago: 'Crystal Ball' - written by Keane's chief songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley - was inspired by the claustrophobic nature of being in a band that was never off the road.

There are also hints of the same woes in the new Two Door Cinema Club album, Gameshow. Alex Trimble has talked at length of going "through hell" in the wake of their debut's remarkable success. "We were on the road constantly... The s**t hit the fan and we were not having a good time, and we needed the time to recover."

But back to Bieber. His manager's wish that the N-word video never see the light of day didn't come to pass. The Sun published it two years ago, but by then Bieber and Scooter Braun had made their millions.

Justin Bieber. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Justin Bieber. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

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