Over the weekend, I watched the Justin Bieber documentary “Never Say Never.”
I know I just lost 90 percent of my readers with that opening sentence, and that the only reason the other 10 percent are still hanging on is because they don’t know that Justin Bieber is the latest tween pop music sensation. Or that he is the reason young boys across the country are developing neck conditions from jerking their heads to keep their long “Bieber Bangs” in perfect form.
There, that should eliminate just about everyone.
I ordered the documentary from Netflix for my youngest daughter who showed a brief liking for Bieber last Christmas. It was obvious within the first fifteen minutes that Clara was uninterested in everything Bieber, and I have to say I’m glad. The footage of young girls screaming and crying over Bieber in a feverish pitch that hasn’t been seen since those other long-banged pop idols, The Beatles, was a bit disconcerting. But I have to confess, in spite of the preteen mania, I was hooked by the story of this young kid from a small town in Canada who made it big. Even critics who anticipated hating the movie, said they found “Never Say Never” surprisingly appealing. Which made me wonder: Who exactly was this documentary targeting? And, what was their point?
The frame of “Never Say Never” is built around Bieber’s 2010 My World Tour, and the ten days leading up to his debut at Madison Square Garden. Music icons such as Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, and The Grateful Dead have played this famous venue, and to sell out Madison Square Garden is to have made it big. The documentary interwove live concert footage and interviews with obsessed tween fans with the story of Bieber’s upbringing, his eighteen-month rise to stardom, and behind-the-scenes outtakes of Bieber interacting with his fiercely protective and supportive entourage of manager, bodyguard, stylist, and vocal coach.
As I watched his big production numbers from his tour, I was surprised to see that Bieber is actually talented. He can sing, dance, and despite his small stature, can fill an enormous stage with his presence. His songs are as catchy and annoying as any other pop music, but Bieber milks them for all they’re worth. But what was truly fascinating was learning who this kid was and how he got from there to here in such a short period of time.
In 1994, Bieber was born to a teenage mom, and was raised with the help of his grandparents. His glimmers of emerging musical talent were shown in a montage of grainy, home videos. In one scene, a bright-eyed, four-year-old Bieber received a bongo drum for Christmas. Immediately, he began to beat out a rhythm that I would be hard pressed to duplicate after a year of lessons. Some of his mom’s friends, who were musicians, took Bieber under their wing and taught him what they knew. Because money was tight, they even helped stage a benefit concert featuring Bieber playing with their band to help raise enough money to purchase Bieber a real drum set of his own.
When Bieber took second place in a local talent contest, he began posting videos of his performances on YouTube, the world’s largest video-sharing community. Soon, he was receiving positive feedback from complete strangers. One of those strangers was talent scout Scooter Braun, who accidentally clicked on one of Bieber’s videos and immediately saw his potential. Braun became his manager, and moved Bieber and his mom to Atlanta, but from there, it was an uphill battle. Even though Bieber had cut a catchy and appealing single, “One Time,” and had the backing of music star Usher, it was hard to garner interest in him. Says Braun, “Radio stations wouldn’t play him. They told me, ‘We don’t play 15 year olds.’ They said there was no platform for him. They said, ‘You need Nickelodeon. You need Disney.’”
So in the summer of 2009, Bieber and Braun hit the road, playing everywhere and anywhere: high school assemblies, malls, outdoor venues, and live radios spots at stations that weren’t even playing his song. “Everywhere he went, Justin won people over,” says Braun.
Meanwhile, Bieber was continuing to post new videos on YouTube and tweeting about where he was going to be appearing next. At first, a handful of fans started showing up, then a dozen, then a hundred, and then so many that at a mall in Long Island, New York, police were brought in to disperse a huge crowd of teenage girls who’d gathered in hopes of catching a glimpse of Bieber. And just like that, the radio stations began playing Bieber’s single. “What the people in charge didn’t get was that kids are now spending more time on the Internet than they are watching TV,” says Braun.
And for me, that’s what is so compelling about Bieber’s story. Through the Internet, social networking, and endless live performances, Bieber was chosen by his fans. He wasn’t shoved into a mindless sitcom aimed at tweens, and force-fed to audiences by the music industry as the next hot thing. He wasn’t a boy band who was carefully developed and then tested by marketing groups before being delivered to the general public. Young music fans weren’t told to like Bieber, they just did.
The music industry isn’t the only area where social networking and the power of Internet users is allowing consumers to make choices. Fede Alvarez posted a polished five-minute movie featuring giant robots on YouTube. His video was viewed 1.5 million times, and led to a $30 million dollar movie deal with Ghost House Pictures. Amanda Hockings, unable to secure a publisher, self-published her young adult paranormal novels, and sold them through online bookstores and as ebooks for as little as 99 cents. Her rising popularity echos Bieber’s in a way. In May of 2010, she sold a few hundred books. In June, a few thousand. By the end of 2010, she’d sold 164,000 total for the year. But what is remarkable, and again demonstrates the power of Internet-word-of-mouth, is that in the month of January, 2011 she sold 450,000 copies of her books, most of them ebooks.
There is something powerfully satisfying in discovering a song, video, or book that you love without an industry breathing down your neck. This might explain the frenzied loyalty of the young Bieber fans. Says Bieber’s tour manager, “Justin’s fans have a sense of ownership when it comes to him, because they feel like they found him before anyone else.”
Because of this, by the time Bieber released his debut album My World in November 2009, his fans were ready and waiting. It was an instant hit. He became the first artist to have seven songs from a debut album chart on the Billboard Hot 100. On Tuesday, August 31, 2010, Bieber played a sold out Madison Square Garden concert–just thirteen months after he’d performed in the rain at an amusement park for a crowd of forty.
You can tell from the film that this huge leap from posting videos and playing radio stations to performing a sold out 75-stop world tour is a little overwhelming for Bieber. There is pressure to be cool, to please the mass of screaming girl fans, and to keep the Bieber machine marching forward. But, despite the sudden fame, there were enough unrehearsed outtakes to convince me that Bieber is a still a pretty likable kid. He’s like the little brother of your best friend–kind of cute, kind of annoying and immature at times, but charming and funny enough that you let him tag along. But when you become as popular as Bieber, there’s bound to be some backlash. On YouTube, the same venue who made him, his video “Baby” is not only the most viewed video ever, but is also rated the most hated. When he appeared courtside at a Knicks basketball game in Madison Square Garden where he filmed his documentary, the crowd booed when his face appeared on the Jumbotron.
It will be interesting to see what happens to Bieber. Hopefully, he will somehow find a way to keep it a little real on this surreal ride he has begun, and won’t go haywire like Michael Jackson, spin out of control like Britney Spears, or seem world-weary by eighteen like Miley Cyrus. You can tell that his entourage of support staff is trying to keep him as normal as possible. His voice coach chews him out occasionally, Usher give him a lecture now and then, and Braun yells at him when he’s messing around too much. Maybe if Bieber can stick to his music and hang on to that infectiously happy spirit, he will be alright. I can’t help but root for him. As one critic said, “Bieber will convert you.”
My husband happened to catch ten minutes of “Never Say Never” last night when my oldest daughter, who previously declared Bieber “annoying,” decided she wanted to see the movie. Stephen walked back into the kitchen looking surprised, and asked, “What’s the deal with the Bieber kid? It seems like his story is pretty interesting. The music is kind of awful, but the kid seems okay.”
It’s hard to escape the appeal of Justin Bieber.