Bruce Dale, a 67-year-old retired automotive-industry factory worker from small-town Canada, is telling me about his grandson.
“He was a good kid – but he was a boy! He was always pushing the limits. No matter what – if he got into [ice] hockey, he’d push the limit, to the point of being obsessive. Soccer was the same way. He and I travelled all over Ontario playing hockey and soccer. It was fun – part of my experiences, too!
“And when he moved to Atlanta, he had nothing to do for almost the first year. Finally his mom said, ‘We have to get him into something…’ So she told his manager to find him a hockey team. And they did. He joined up with it – and as usual, he likes to be good, ha ha ha. Anything he does, he wants to be the best. And he pushes the limits until he is.”
Ask him where this tiny tyro’s work ethic might have come from, and Dale shrugs. “From the time he was little he was always pushing himself,” he repeats. “He’s not a kid who needed to be pushed. He’s that hyper and that highly strung that he would push himself.”
Justin Bieber’s dad, Jeremy, meanwhile, thinks for a second when I ask at what age he first noticed that his own son had talents that were perhaps unusual. “Around three,” he decides. “That’s when he started playing drums, and reciting books and the Bible and whatnot. So he was special right way – he could read really early as well. And recite things – his memory is incredible.”
Ever since I can remember I’ve always loved music,” Justin Bieber is saying to me. “Being at church when I was really young, I used to go on the drums and I used to watch the drummer. My mom could see that I was really into it, so she kind of furthered… just helped me…” he falters.
He might be the most recognisable, most famous teenager in the world, and a slick one to boot (slick music, slick image, slick hair, slick eyebrows). But he’s still a teenager. Occasionally Bieber is all tongue-tied, repetitive and waffly. Even eight million album sales and a total 2.7 billion combined YouTube views can’t help you with that. Even appearing on a recent cover of Forbes business magazine – he’s earnt some $108m in the past two years alone, according to that august publication – won’t mature you faster than nature intended.
His mother, Pattie Mallette, a single mom since she and Jeremy parted when only-child Bieber was an infant, “would buy drumsticks so I could drum on the floor”, he continues. “Because drumsticks were only $10, $20, so she could afford that. But she couldn’t afford a drum set.”
After his home-made videos – the peachy, soulful adolescent from the Canadian sticks covering R&B and pop hits – became YouTube sensations in 2008, Mallette fielded a flood of offers from the entertainment world. Apparently with God’s counsel, she decided she liked the cut of Scott “Scooter” Braun’s jib. And so, at the young American music-biz entrepreneur’s urging, she relocated with her 14-year-old son to Atlanta, crucible of black-music culture.
“My mom did whatever she could to motivate me,” recalls Bieber of his formative years. “She brought friends over that played drums to show me stuff. She was always very supportive of what I loved to do.”
Would he say he had a happy childhood? “Yeah, of course. I experienced not having a lot of money and being poor. I would consider myself poor back then. I didn’t get new clothes often, and when I did, it was like, my grandparents helped out a lot when they could. I felt like that really helps me today. Especially with money – I see the value of money. When I used to go to restaurants with my mom, I had to look at the menu [carefully] – I couldn’t order drinks because they were too expensive; I’d only get water. Me and my mom would split a meal because we couldn’t afford two.
“That’s the type of stuff I went through,” he shrugs. “And now, being able to go to a restaurant and not have to look at a menu and be like, ‘I can afford this, I can afford this…’ I can just get what I wanna eat. And it just feels so good because I didn’t have that privilege before.”
Black Eyed Peas singer and The Voice judge Will.i.am is – like gazillions of young girls around the world – a Belieber. He recorded with the youngster during sessions for his new, second album Believe, as did Kanye West and Taylor Swift. (Yes, all bases are covered, via multiple songs and multiple collaborators – so much so that a repackaged “deluxe” version of the 16-track album seems already to be in the pipeline.) When I ask him if he thinks the kid is more than just a pop poppet puppet, Will.i.am replies with customary gusto.
“Justin is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. And I’ve worked with every singer,” shoots back the man who has collaborated with Mick Jagger, Whitney Houston, Bono and Michael Jackson.
What’s his greatest talent? “His ability to play probably every instrument. And he’s, what, 16, 17? [He's 18.] And he has room to grow. Unfortunately he came as a teenybopper. But let’s name all the ones that came as a teenybopper who are now legendary: Michael Jackson. And I’m not comparing Justin to Michael Jackson,” he adds hastily. “No way am I committing blasphemy!”
Bieber returns the compliment. He likes the fact that Will.i.am is so focused on his music, and far from profligate: “Will has a lot of money, but he is just so super, just does what he needs to do. It’s really nice.”
But Will.i.am has splurged in one way: he’s bought property for all his family, moved them out of the east Los Angeles projects one by one. Has Bieber done anything like that? “Yeah – I’ve bought my grandparents a house and a car. And my mom’s gonna be getting a house. I’m getting a house. So I’m gonna be able to be spending some of my money – but on things that do matter.”
He is, at the time of our interview, still looking for a place in Los Angeles, where he is now based. “I’m looking for something comfortable, modern, bachelor pad. There has to be a pool – I love being around a pool, especially in LA. Gotta have a studio, movie-theatre room…” A few weeks later, Justin Bieber finds his bachelor pad. It’s in the tiny LA ‘hood of Calabasas, and costs him $6m.
In a rain-lashed recording studio in west London, obsessive memory-man teen muso millionaire Justin Bieber is being interviewed by Radio 1 DJ host Reggie Yates. The Canadian pop star is talking about the hologram of late rapper Tupac Shakur that “performed” on stage at spring’s Coachella festival in California. Committed hip-hop/R&B fan that he is – you can tell, because Believe is stuffed with guest slots from a roll-call of hot talents from those worlds, including Ludacris and Drake – Bieber thought the idea “was cool, but everyone was freaking out in the States”.
He talks, too, about his fleeting downtime on this trip to London promoting Believe. “Last night I went out to this club. It was full of, like, older people,” he frowns, “posh, in suits…”
And – with a let’s-go-to-work snap of his fingers – Bieber starts answering questions sent in by Radio 1 listeners. Yates reads them out as they were written: “Amelia, 15, from Scunthorpe, says, ‘Ohmygod, I’m a huge fan, aaaah!, I love you – when will you be doing a Believe world tour?’”
“Soon,” comes the teasing answer.
Hattie, 13, from Hitcham, asks whether he gets nervous at gigs. “I did doing the talent show on YouTube,” Bieber says, referring to one of his earliest online appearances. “But not any more.”
Laurie from Paignton wonders what inspired his new single. As all-important singles by global mega-brands stars go, “Boyfriend” is pretty daring: minimal, falsetto-then-whispered vocal, clattering with percussive rhythms. It sounds like a good Justin Timberlake single.
Already this week in London, Bieber has wriggled away from that comparison. Perhaps he’s keen to be seen to be forging his own, singular musical path; maybe he doesn’t want to be bracketed alongside another one-time teen sensation. Or alongside someone else called Justin.
Anyway, back to the answer to Laurie-from-Paignton’s question. The ideal of Bieber when he was creating “Boyfriend” – with artist/writer Mike Posner – was to make something “new, different, get people’s attention. It was inspired [sic] for all the girls in the world to get their boyfriends to treat them right.” Boyfriends, suggests the paramour of ex-Disney actress/pop star Selena Gomez, should “notice the little things, like [them] getting their hair cut”.
Ann-Marie, 15, from the West Midlands, wonders whether Bieber plans on writing a new book. He’s already published one: First Step 2 Forever, My Story. And he’s released a film, Never Say Never, which became the highest-grossing concert movie ever. Then there’s the perfumes: 2011′s record-breaking Someday is to be followed this month by a second scent, Girlfriend. And there’s the label, School Boy Records, run by Bieber and Braun, to which they have signed Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen (she recently hit number one in the UK with her debut, “Call Me Maybe”).
The Beliebers, the crushing mass of hardcore fans who amount to 23, 297,893 Twitter followers at time of writing (only Lady Gaga has more Tweet teamsters), love, love, love all this stuff. And his appeal is so widespread and virulent that it’s not even confined to the singer himself. They also love his mum (1,115,529 followers), his dad (837,064 followers), his 30-year-old manager Braun (1,636,791 followers), his road manager Kenny Hamilton (887,635 followers), his guitarist-cum-musical-director Dan Kanter (576,150 followers), and even his amiable-but-seriously-serious bodyguard, ex-Israeli soldier and [ martial art] Krav Maga and weapons specialist Moshe Benabou (840 followers).
Bieber is eight years the junior of Jepsen (1,115,483 followers), but in his unique, social-media-spun world, pop years are like dog years, whirling at a faster calendrical rate than normal humans’. Boasting an intense, hectic logjam of a professional life in the four years since he relocated to Atlanta from Stratford, Ontario, the workaholic, ultra-competitive kid is in a position to offer advice to those older. After all, he’s doing something no else has done before: colonising the social-media world with super-celebrity.
Of course, with great power come great amounts of crap. Last year, Bieber was accused of fathering a child with a fan. Mariah Yeater claimed that the then-16-year-old had got jiggy with her in a bathroom backstage after one of his concerts in LA. Having spent some time with him – and, more importantly, with the intense, protective crush of people around him – I must say it’s hard to fathom anything even close to this happening. Bieber is as vanilla as they come: polite, well-meaning, God-fearing, beer-phobic (OK, he’s had a couple of drinks, “but it’s not something that I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m excited to do that,’ or anything like that. [Drinking] just doesn’t really appeal to me”).
The baseless case went away. But Bieber wouldn’t let it lie. He wrote a song for Believe about the affair. Just in case we missed the point, it’s called Maria (he removed the “h” for a smidgen of disguise).
I ask: is it a revenge song in the tradition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” or Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” (allegedly his riposte to rumours of ex-girlfriend Britney Spears’ infidelity)? “Yeah, it’s really got a lot of vibes from ‘Billie Jean’. ‘Billie Jean’ was the record I was kind of chasing with this song. The opening [line] is, ‘She said she met me on the tour, she keeps knocking on my door, she won’t leave me. Leave me alone…’ So it’s pretty good. The words are really powerful in the song.”
Why didn’t he sue her for defamation?
“Um… because of… I don’t know all the legal work that goes on, but I think she has her own stuff she’s going through.” One of Yeater’s ex-boyfriends surfaced with his own claims of dubiety on her part. “So I don’t know – I just kind of… I just wanted the world to know that it wasn’t true, that was all I was really focused on. And you know, I feel sorry for her in a way. Whatever she’s doing, she’s obviously not in the right state of mind, to be doing all that, be saying such mean things.”
But why give her the “fame” of naming her in the song title? We never knew who Billie Jean was.
“Um, I think it’s so different. With the ‘Billie Jean’ story it was so mysterious. With this, it’s so powerful because it actually happened, and people know the story and what actually happened. So the fact that it’s gonna be in the song and people can hear it, I think that’s gonna put two and two together and that’ll make them like it more.” k
‘Twas ever thus with Bieber, the world’s first open-source pop star. He’s a Twitter obsessive who messages fans directly, compulsively and religiously, and retweets a select hundred thousand or so. He even asked them for lyric ideas for Believe. But Usher, his mentor and co-manager, concedes that he was initially surprised when he heard of the song “Maria”. “I didn’t think it was foolish, but I didn’t understand why he was giving her that much accolade,” the 33-year-old admits. “But I though it would be genius. This is what people would want to hear – here is a crazy occurrence that did happen, and you never really chose to speak about it in the press, and here you have an opportunity to be inspired by it… Can’t be a bad thing,” he smiles. “Us artists are always searching for inspirations.”
With ‘Believe’, Justin Bieber has a lot to prove. That he’s no flash in the pan, no passing teen fad. That he has musical chops, can actually write. That he can make grown-up music for grown-ups. I’ve only heard half of it, and that was at an album playback event in London bedevilled by terrible sound. But it sounds as though he has made a decent fist of it.
But for probably the most adored pop star in the world, it’s the naysayers who rankle. He’s tweeted more than once about wanting to prove the haterz and the doubterz wrong. “I wanted to make music that I felt like everybody could listen to, and wasn’t only geared to younger people,” he says. “I wanted to make music that was just good, and people couldn’t help but, like, bob their head to it, or stomp their feet to it. It’s just music that people can feel.”
What do the haterz hate?
“I think they hate the idea of me. They hate the fact that I am successful at a young age and that I am doing what a lot of people wish they could be doing. There’s people that just hate for those reasons. And they might not even have heard any of my music.”
And what do the doubterz doubt?
“The doubters…” he muses. “I think they just doubt that there’s any sort of talent that comes with me. Because they feel like I was a product and put together and then [presented], like, ‘Here you go’. But it’s not – I’ve been making music ever since I can remember. This isn’t just a marketing scheme. I’m the real deal and I hope to just show that in what I do.”
What do people get wrong about him?
“What do you mean?”
What misconceptions do they have?
“Um, people…” Justin Bieber sighs. “I don’t know… Everything that I do, I always am me and I always let people know what I’m gonna do, what I wanna do. And I’m not gonna conform to anything. I just want to be different and be known as someone who’s, like, a nice guy. But I won’t take anybody’s, like, shit.”
So what does Justin Bieber’s future hold? Does he even have a future beyond his teen years? Judging by the fact that the first, North American, leg of the Believe world tour sold out in 60 minutes, he might. Will.i.am has been pondering this, too. “He’s 18 now – so in 10 years he’s 28. You know, what could happen in 10 years? In 10 years he could be forgotten. Or in 10 years Justin could be, like, legendary.”
‘Believe’ is out now on Mercury. The single ‘Boyfriend’ is available both on CD and for download
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