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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 2.17.11

The Bieber

Ju$tin invade$ the $ilver $creen in Never $ay Never

by Rick Levin

As I waited in line at the concession stand clutching two bags of Twizzlers, I noticed a gaggle of adolescent girls flocked behind me, none taller than Frodo. The three of them were dolled up in Bieber gear and giggling to beat the band. Turning full around, I asked the ducklings if they were here on opening night to see the Justin Bieber movie. "Aren't you?" one of them replied, eying the sack of sterilized 3D glasses poking from my jacket pocket. "But of course," I said, "who isn't?"

The Levin Enthralled by the Bieb

I asked the girls how old they were. Thirteen. Then I had them guess the average age of a Bieber fan and one of them, somewhat generously, estimated that demographic range to fall between 13 and a half-century. Did everyone at her school love the Bieb equally? "No, not everyone," she answered. "There are Bieber haters."

But why would any red-blooded American hate the Bieb, I asked, feigning disgust. And this teen triumvirate, without missing a beat, sang out in perfect unison: "They're jealous."

Dear Reader, are you jealous of Justin Bieber? I'm not. Should I be? After sitting through the better half of his new film, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, I find the question itself baffling, if not a tad disturbing.

Justin Bieber is huge, global, larger than life. Discovered on YouTube and signed by freelance marketing executive Scooter Braun to Island Records, Bieber's debut single, "One Time," was released in 2009 and charted across the world. At that age in life when Playstation, Pepsi and jacking off pretty much define the existence of most American male adolescents, Bieber already had a platinum album to his name. He was the first musician ever — not the Beatles, not Michael Jackson — to have seven songs from his first album peg the Billboard Hot 100.

So the real question, for me, is this: In the strange universe of pop music, is there a discernable difference between a "mania" and a "fever"? Can it be measured in degrees? When the Beatles first invaded these shores in 1964, they ignited an unprecedented mass hysteria that had all the outward symptoms of an airborne epileptic virus — teenaged girls screaming themselves hoarse, weeping uncontrollably, passing out in a swoon. Beatlemania may have provided a sort of adolescent sexual release in our puritanical society of the Easy A, but — as some have argued — the band was also a conduit for a more asexual catharsis, a spontaneous outlet for all those new, confusing fears kids had about everything from asshole parents to wholesale nuclear holocaust. The 16 (almost 17) year-old pop star Justin Bieber — with his neo-bobbed swath of silky sideways hair, his pneumatic lips, doe eyes and Cheshire grin — certainly fits in the same category of cultural phenomena as Beatlemania. But he is something new as well, a fever very of and for this new century. The technology that just sped revolution in Egypt is the same technology that rocketed Bieber into the big time.

In many ways, Justin Bieber is the latest incarnation in a lineage of pop stars whose ancestry can be traced from African music to the blues and rock-and-roll, on through a series of imitative white-boy miracles from Elvis to Jim Morrison to George Michael. In more recent years, however, with the advent of the internet, that particular species of singer has taken on a new sheen of self-awareness.

Celebrity now moves at the speed of light. Our pop stars are so very far away from us and yet so near at hand, always accessible on screen, just a mouse-click away. The World Wide Web has delivered unto us such aggressively self-made mega-stars as Eminem, Kanye West and Justin Timberlake. Bieber, with his casual style and infinite aplomb, belongs in this stable of musicians. He seems utterly in control of what he's doing, with oodles of talent, smarts beyond his years and confidence bordering on arrogance.

The movie itself is an epochal fart — it reveals nothing of what's inside that whiff of stardom. The basic facts are there, presented in (mostly non-3D archival footage) home videos and snapshots of the boy's childhood: Raised by his comely young mother in Stratford, Ontario, Bieber from an early age displayed a precocious knack for rhythm and an almost Dylanesque drive to get his foot in the door of the music industry. There's no doubting his phenomenal talent, which Never Say Never all but drowns out with a glitzy, pandering, pedo-technic stage show that is all flawless Vegas dance routines and audience come-ons. Adore me, Bieber seems to sing with every inch of his body, and I will make you whole. He is bubblegum Jesus come to lay hands on pre-pubescent pimples, turning them into beauty marks.

The girls sitting to the left of me and my man date let out ear-piercing screams every time Bieber appeared in graphic, glorious, towering 3D. They cooed at his baby pictures, and then fondly called out the name of every member of the Bieb's entourage, well before any of them were identified on screen. "Whoo, Pattie!" they yelled when the Bieb's mom, Pattie Mallette, appeared. "It's Bruce! I love you Bruce!" They knew his manager on a first-name basis, his grandparents, his best friend, even Kenny, his security guard ("Go, Kenny!"). Before the movie began, they led a series of cheers that were well received by the rest of the Cineplex crowd (including yours truly, though not my man date): "When we say Justin, you say Bieber! Justin! Bieber!" And once it got rolling, the girls would jump up from their front row seats every now and then and dance around on the sloped concrete beneath the screen. At one point, when Bieber looked impishly into the camera and said, "I'm about to change my pants, so you're gonna hafta go," these girls — along with others in the seats behind us — yelled "No!"

It's hell being a star. No privacy, not even in the can. But you'd never know this was an issue watching Never Say Never, which is less a documentary than an interactive photo album designed to pull every vulnerable string in the collective psyche of teenage girls and middle-aged women. Despite all the cinematic pandering and hyped portrayal of Bieber Fever, the man-child himself seems unfazed, cool as a Canadian cucumber. He is polite and respectful, and ever ready to perform. In fact, there is nothing about Justin Bieber that approaches the morbid fascination inspired by certain other celebrities: No coked-up hookers, no heroin habit, no dark side of rage. Bieber is sweetness personified. To the extent the film allows us to bear witness, he appears to act entirely his age: playful, mischievous, mildly rebellious, cute as a button, sugary as cotton candy and enormously generalized in his sentiments ("Just follow your dream," etc).

What's more, the Bieb appears to be genuinely gracious about his elevated status and appreciative of just how lucky he is — clued into the immaculate timing and good luck that brought him eight zillion light years from Bumfuck, Canada into the glare of the international hotlight. And, judging from the movie, there will be no future meltdowns, no Britney Spears/Lindsay Lohan-style fuck ups of colossal proportions. The Bieb is ice. The Bieb knows the game and how to play it. The Bieb, in fact, might be an android, a flexible piece of gristle and polymer dreamt up by a flailing music industry and constructed like Frankenstein's monster from all the saleable detritus of popular desire. He is, in the final tally, consumerism incarnate.

Yes, I realize I have just compared Justin Bieber to Christ, the Beatles, cotton candy, Bob Dylan and a NAMBLA-rific humanoid robot — in short, a musical cipher capable accepting and reflecting back all human longing. But of what, exactly, does that longing consist? "One day I Tweeted him 100 times," declares one of the movie's many fangirls. And in the concessions line I overheard another girl declare to her friend: "He's so hot. I want him … I mean, not like that … you know …"

Teenage girls seem genetically predetermined to form such intense attachments veering toward obsession, but there's something curiously asexual, or maybe pre-sexual, or maybe meta-sexual, about the way they squeal and hoot and shimmy and shake for the Bieb. It's all out of whack with reality, like an involuntary Pavlovian spasm that is at once bestial and highly calculated — the preening ego's equivalent of a mating call. There is incipient insanity in the Bieber scream, an explosion of unformed identity set off like a powder keg. The new Bieber movie very intentionally lights the fuse on that bomb, with close-ups, MTV jump cuts and lots of 3D Bieber finger pointing at YOU and wolfish Bieber eye contact with YOU.

The zipless fuck offered by Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is a tortuous tangle of abstinent desires that's all wet. It's a dry hump. Surveying the audience, I began to wonder if the passion young women feel for Justin Bieber is more homoerotic than hetero-selfish. Girls band together and bond over the Bieb's body, expressing their forbidden love through the unthreatening androgynous vicarious vessel of a pubescent pop star that remains as unattainable as an audience with the pope. People want to put Justin Bieber in their pocket like a boy bauble, a consumer talisman that bestows innocence on the precipice of scary adulthood. If that isn't the most marketable good in the world, I don't know what is.

Never say never to a chance. Never say never to a sucker. Never say never to another couple bucks. Two Twizzlers, two small bottles of water and admission for two slightly creepy older men to the Eugene debut of Never Say Never in glorious Real 3D: $40.50. Never say never to a righteous profit margin.

So when I say Bieber, you say — ka-ching.