The canny charms of Canada's pop prince.
Justin Bieber is one cute little brat. Say you were casting a Sunny Delight commercial, and you needed some cherub-faced pubescent terror to skateboard through his family's kitchen, snag a bottle of D off the counter, shrug-smirk at mom as she shakes her dishwater-soaked fist in anger then sail lovably out the door on his way to homeroom. Bieber—a 16-year-old, Toronto-born star who mixes smug self-confidence with the shampooed good looks and pug nose of a purse dog—would be your dream audition.
At the start of the video for his breakout 2009 single, "One Time," Bieber slouches on an expensive-looking couch playing an Xbox game, besting some gangly, braces-wearing pal of his, exulting uncharitably in his own magnificent Bieberness. "That was not luck, that was skill!" Bieber crows. "Yo, I'm killin' you!" Bieber's team of handlers includes a "swagger coach," but you get the sense his swagger would manage just fine on its own. No one who throws an upside-down peace sign as assuredly as this kid suffers from a shortage of self-esteem.
From its title on, Bieber's 2009 debut EP My World courses with this healthy self-regard. On three of the four songs that were released as singles, he anoints a lucky lady his "No. 1," puts her "first," and/or deems her his "favorite"—a fitting romantic vocabulary for the age of Top Friends and reality-show eliminations. "Many have called, but the chosen is you," he sings on "One Time." In these songs, Bieber swoops down from above, plucks an otherwise neglected girl from the hopeful masses, and swaddles her in his generosity, in his affection, in his bangs. "I'm coming for you," he sings on " One Less Lonely Girl," not on the prowl so much as on a humanitarian mission. "I'm gonna show you what you're worth." Many teen idols deal in fairy tales, and the one Bieber likes best is Cinderella.
It's fun to attempt some reverse engineering here. Imagine Bieber's manager and his mentor, the R&B titan Usher, conducting a strategy-mulling conference call early on. The million-dollar question before them is: What does the typical girl in a shrieking teen-pop fan base really want? She wants, they decide, to stare at a poster of her crush with such loving intensity that he comes to life, steps down off her bedroom wall, fits her with a glass Supra, and whisks her away. What follows are three singles that speak directly to this fantasy, with Bieber as the Canadian Prince Charming.
Not all the fantasies on My World are so chaste. The decades-old line on well-scrubbed pop tykes like Bieber is that they create a non-threatening, non-scandalizing outlet for nascent hormones: Their music is full of sex, but sex transfigured so that it becomes a shared secret between winking, yearning conspirators. The biggest wink on My World is "First Dance," a barely masked plea to deflower someone. We begin the song "at the prom," where there are, curiously, "no chaperones." "This could be the night of your dreams," Bieber coos. We are already in thick double entendre territory, and it only gets thicker when the chorus hits: "If you give, give the first dance to me/ Girl, I promise I'll be gentle, I know we gotta do it slowly." In five years, when Bieber releases BieberSex/LoveSounds and tells Howard Stern about all the wild Ramada orgies he's enjoyed on the road, don't say you weren't warned.
Structurally, "First Dance" is similar to Bieber's Cinderella tales: They are all songs where Bieber is the one pulling the strings, platforms for him to bask in the smooth-talking hucksterism that seems to come so naturally to him.
So it's interesting that Bieber's debut album, My World 2.0, which came out last week, dispenses almost entirely with that dynamic, and turns the tables. In song after song—including the standout "Runaway Love," a throbbing fusion of New Jack Swing and New Wave—Bieber plays a victim of rejection, searching for true love, pining for lost love, begging for a second chance. "I'm in pieces, baby fix me," he sings on "Baby." What happened to smug Bieber?
For one thing, we can detect in these newly humble themes the unfolding of a long-term career plan: In order for our pop artists to be more than one-offs, we expect them to "evolve," to "mature," to "show different sides of themselves," and that is the logic My World 2.0 follows. Bieber is not just a poster come to life, in other words, but a fleshed-out person whose ups and downs we can relate to and ride along with. (His ballad "Where Are You Now" touches on the pains of growing up fatherless, as Bieber did, although the song doesn't appear on the regular version of the album—it was released as a Wal-Mart exclusive, which may suggest some uncertainty on Bieber's part about his fans' patience for material that strays too far too soon from matters of food-court courtship.)
For another, smug Bieber's still here, he's just been handed a different script. He sounds as cocksure as ever on "Baby," giving lines about adolescent despair and desolation an unruffled, what-me-worry? reading. He seems uninterested in—and maybe incapable of—the shadow-flecked drama of the '50s and '60s teen pop that "Baby" faintly evokes. This may change with time. For now, though, when Bieber goes walkin' in the sand, it's just another day at the beach.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photograph of Justin Bieber by Jason Merritt/Getty Images.