To make people think is not, perhaps, the primary intention of Justin Bieber’s music. But those who cannot imagine engaging with his music, or with the glittering array of Bieber merchandise (from singing dolls and comforter sets to fragrances and acne remedy), would find it less of an effort to wonder about what a teenage pop-star worth many million dollars may actually mean when he tells his many million fans that he is “officially retiring”. He then follows this up, immediately and puzzlingly, with a promise that he would never leave his fans: “I’M HERE FOREVER.” This is, of course, all happening on Twitter, where Mr Bieber is being followed currently by 48,053,036 people — mostly ‘Beliebers’ and some ‘haters’. It all sounds like a computer-game between good and evil with a cyber-mythic feel to it. And in that trash-mythology, Mr Bieber is a fusion of Superman and Peter Pan — superhero meets angelic choirboy. But this aggressively marketed formula is now turning into something else. Mr Bieber is growing up. His voice and body are changing, he is beginning to look and sound different, and if the magic does not manage to keep pace with this change, then the stagecoach might just turn into a pumpkin. So, either Mr Bieber retires from eternal boyhood and turns himself successfully into another sort of brand — or else, he could end up retiring from music altogether.
All child prodigies, from Mozart to Björk, have had to wrestle with the cruelty of natural growth. Being a child artist is difficult enough. But the strain of continual self-invention in order to survive as an artist beyond child-prodigyhood is a travail that could destroy many young people. With Mozart and Björk, the excellence of their art quickly became a quality in itself. So, they kept themselves going by drawing from the inexhaustible vitality of their own genius — of course, with the support of the resources of their times. There was no internet in Mozart’s time, only the family and the web of aristocratic patronage. But born in the mid-Sixties, Björk grew up into the internet era, as it were, exploiting its technologies in a myriad ways in the course of her thriving career. So, she is not a creature of the internet in the way that Mr Bieber is of the cyber age and must continue to be in order to survive in it musically and commercially. He is what he is today because of YouTube, supplemented by the power of Twitter, Instagram and other social networking sites. These allow real people to live spectacularly unreal, even surreal, lives, the brittleness and brevity of which are perfectly within this particular boy-wonder’s ken. It is these mechanisms of profit and fame that had made, and might now mar, him.
Both Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson rode the high wave of their own talents, but perished early as sad caricatures of their iconic selves. Mr Bieber cannot but be aware of the shadows cast by them — his incomparably more talented predecessors.