IN THE BEGINNING, there was Justin. Before the promise of a 16-year-old’s presence onstage at Madison Square Garden sold 18,200 tickets in 8 minutes short of a half hour; before the smash single “Baby,” a song with a refrain that felt most like a description of its boy vocalist, became the most viewed and disliked video on YouTube — the 21st century’s pocket-sized champion over television. Before ‘swag’ and its Bieber-ushered derivative ‘swaggy’ became colloquial nightmares announced with pride by every preteen guy with the low hangin’ pants who think he got it. Before links to pap brawls lit up under our computer mouses, and we collectively fixed our eyes upon an adolescent lunging for the press like the teenage jungle animals in “Mean Girls,” held back by bodyguards twice his weight in a bleeped-out frenzy. Before, in proper domino form, the subsequent links we clicked down upon opened to the anti-trumpet sound of Bieber’s arrest: for driving under the influence of pot and Xanax with an expired license, and resisting arrest w/o violence. The TMZ team, in all their deplorable star-takedown glory, leaked the infamous deposition video that reduced the Bieber we thought we knew to what may be the Bieber that is: a lonely kid, bearing the triple threat of wealth, entitlement, and ego just a pinch more than brains. The version of the superstar’s weakest moment with the highest view count online is 6 minutes long and tailored to make him appear an idiot: he can’t remember if he’s ever been to Australia, freaks out a bit about Selena G.F. Gomez, and mistakenly claims he was detrimental to his own career. It is not dangerous to say that, for much of recent memory, Bieber has been the most-watched soul on our planet. And thus our surveillance turned a good boy bad. We all felt it when we saw it. That Mona Lisa smile in the mugshot can’t be… Justin? The tear of young hearts splitting sounds across the globe, scandal spreads fast as H1N1, and our model celebs play on their game, amp it up, from inside the fishbowl. We continue to watch. And so then rewinding to the beginning of it all, do we have any semblance of what we started with left? That is — the chanteur strumming an acoustic guitar on the steps of a theatre in smalltown Ontario? Do we have him? Or more essentially, does Justin have Justin?
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Patricia “Pattie” Mallette gave birth to baby boy Justin Drew Bieber on March 1st, ’94 at St. Joe’s Hospital in London, Ontario. Then as the title of that zombie movie goes, 28 days later I came into existence — same hospital, same month. It’s crossed my mind, foolishly, that if I hadn’t been late and popped out in Pisces period as planned, perhaps we could’ve been crying alongside one another in our little shared nativity scene. Alas, the only paths that crossed were likely his mother’s and mine exchanging warm glances from across the waiting room.
My cousins beat me to it. They attended public school with the pre-Biebs in Stratford, Ontario. At a family gathering one autumn afternoon, where interaction between these 6 teenage girls and awkward adolescent I was obligatory, one of them procured a clip from his kidrauhl YouTube channel to break the silence. “He’s this kid who goes to my school and, like, sings all the time and stuff.” I remember vividly the very moment when Justin’s mouth opened and my cousin’s hand shot straight for the volume dial to lower it — “he has a squeaky voice” — as to not attract the nearby adults’ attention. At the same time, whether at his expense or as gleeful result of his castrato ringing through the speakers, her face lit up.
There he was. The -teen suffix had yet to find a place in his age, the acoustic guitar on his lap was surely as large as he was, and as Justin sang Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be,” one could almost sense a tinge of lil MJ belting out “I Want You Back” in ’69. There’s something about these kids singing of love and heartbreak beyond their years that makes them seem so goddamned precocious, even if they’re more ventriloquy dummies serving as our inner child to express these complex emotions, make our hearts swell, whatever. Justin, doing his last impassioned strums, finishes the song: “I’ll be your crying soldier. I’ll be the greatest fan of your life.”
For me, there was no love at first sight. As Justin Bieber moved on up into the forefront of all things juvenile and bubblegum, he merely lived in my background as a minor nuisance. This is how I first came to start really noticing the dude: in summer 2011 some sneaky photographers took about 50 snapshots of him on a balcony in Miami, having just emerged from a pool, in his boxers. Now this was love, and I was 17 with not much more than the tips of my eyelashes peeking out at what wildlife may roam on the other side of the closet door. If it was underwear-clad teenage guys, if it was that brat who partied with Usher suddenly appearing to me like an angel from on high, then this OUT OF ORDER sticker on my spirit I’d been pondering for ages was more-or-less verified. Justin Bieber made me gay.
Cruel time passed on and puberty continued to tidal wave us both. For my 18th birthday party, my father so graciously turned a blind eye to a house filled with bottles of booze surpassing the headcount. Friends of mine, as it were, arrived with a package of Justin Bieber-themed decorations: plates, cups, placemats — the whole 11-year-old slumber party shebang. This was an inside joke between myself and the select few I’d been courageous (or in most cases, drunk) enough to come out to — they were well aware by this point that I had the hots for Bieber. Then there were a number of others at the soirée who I hadn’t explicitly spelled it out for, including my father who would awake to a home replete with the icon’s face on crumpled napkins and half-full Solo Cup stand-ins. But the fact that some of us were celebrating my desire to bang Him felt liberating and comforting in a way I never in my hide-and-seek years would have imagined possible.
These bad habits — falling in l.o.v.e. with unattainable superstars — bled on into my university life, as in somewhere between a schoolyard nosebleed and The Shining’s elevator spillage. My school dormitory was inevitably laden with a poster of Justin, and an X-Mas gift from a friend’s mother, the heartthrobs nouveau: not 1 not 2 but all 5 members of One Direction. Fellow pupils who entered my room must have assumed I bore the posters ironically… I mean, I had socially acceptable taste up most other cultural avenues. If I wasn’t clinically overcompensating for a sexual orientation that my subconscious was still in the boxing ring with, then I think waving these boy band flags sort of made me feel like I was making a statement. I was rebelling in a language only I understood. Against a past self who only I’d had to put up with, live as, desperately build my way out of.
And but like speaking of rebellious.
My friends and I have put to use fake identification and minor espionage tactics in attempt after attempt to meet the 1D quintuplets. Our impressionable, puerile candy brains had wished upon one too many stars, danced around on chemicals one too many times, and now these wonder children were forming the soundtrack to our unrequited loves and we had to repay them for it. A movie moment so preposterous that I’m unsure of whether I want to give words to the memory: 3 of us, on the day of One Direction’s concert in Montréal, snuck into the stadium where they were set to perform by way of underground parking. We eventually hid inside the storage room of a restaurant that was in the process of closing, stuffing uniforms into our backpacks with the plan to disguise ourselves as chefs and waiters, like they might do in an episode of “Scooby-Doo,” and make our way down to the backstage oubliette where we were positive the boys were being held pre-show. What next we weren’t so sure. The adrenaline, as always, made it seem feasible.What readers may not understand or be so quick to turn on to is that this was our Beatles. Picture this: a few friends having spent a teenagehood actively disdaining the jejune mainstream, the radio hits, the pretty boys. Our admittance to seeing something we hadn’t before in the likes of J.B. and 1.D. was as much about coming into our own as embracing the conceivably lowest form of pop culture, giving into animal desire, hitting those pleasure points. I liked guys for God’s sake: I could say it aloud, let alone think it, without the urge to vomit for once. There were no prospective Prince Charmings in the confines of my desolate high school walls, soooo pourquoi pas? Why not go big? Go big or go home right? Home wasn’t where the heart was so I betrothed.
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For show and tell this afternoon, class, I’d like to present the professional catalog of our dear Justin Drew, and by what slips and misguidances beyond his ravishing good looks, He accidentally BeCame, for myself and many others, 4 Better or 4 Worse, a gay icon.
The fourth track on Bieber’s first-ever turn-of-the-decade EP, “My World,” was entitled “Bigger.” All 3 minutes 17 seconds were co-written by the little man himself alongside then up-n’-coming R&B visionary Frank Ocean. Ocean would later come out of the closet with the release of “Channel Orange” in 2012, but back at that point in time his bottled emotions may have been transported to and realized through the tender mouth of Bieber. The song’s lyrics repeatedly declare victory over haters who’d tried to extinguish the flame between Justin and his Jane (or John, if you will) Doe; “Now the bullies in the schoolyard / Can’t take our hugs and our kisses from us.”
In Bieber’s early work especially, the struggle which forms the basis for a major chunk of his poesy is this Montague/Capulet-like forbidden love. Truth: We live in a world where “but you’re too young to know what love is” is the nasty phrase on the tip of every naysayer’s tongue; and without a doubt, Justin’s oversized Grinch heart can flex a few sizes too big for our material-oriented world. But still, why why why are his schoolboy crushes on hypothetical lucky gals so vehemently endangered by their surroundings? In “Never Let You Go,” track 6 on “My World 2.0,” I present the evidence: “Before they outlaw the kiss / Baby, give me one last hug.” In 2010, when LGBT rights were on everyone’s radar in some way or another [hello Prop 8, It Gets Better Project, and a rainbow of other things], this seemingly gay subtext resonated with the inherent rule-breaking of same-sex romance more than the authors may have intended.
The sum of these queer undertones reach the mountain’s peak in the purest, crystalline example of J.B.’s lovey-dovey longing for another time-space, where under less extraneous circumstances, him and his object of desire can, plain and simply and painlessly, be.
Excerpts from “Stuck in the Moment”:
Now Romeo and Juliet,
Bet they never felt the way we felt.
Bonnie and Clyde
Never had to hide like we do, we do.
See like Adam and Eve,
Tragedy was our destiny.
See like just because this cold, cruel world
Saying we can’t be,
Baby we both have the right to disagree,
And I ain’t with it.
I don’t wanna be so old and grey,
Reminiscing bout these better days,
But convention’s telling us to let go
So we’ll never know.
If that isn’t enough to cement him as an unintentional homo statue of our epoch, there is also the fashion-forward element of some outfits, including a Keith Haring-inspired jacket he’s donned in concert; the half-million $$$ he donated to HIV research at this past Cannes Film Festival; and like, a gay kiss scandal or 2 that have surely bestowed some wear and tear on the Twitterverse. If a photoshopped picture of you wrapped in an unseemly lip-lock makes headlines, then well, you’ve made it. Pics, they say, or it didn’t happen.
And pics did happen. Keep on happening. They happen in the blink of an eye like miracles. Whatever planets or pocketbooks aligned to birth Bieber’s stardom, these same ones met back up for the advent of the accented adolescents who would form One Direction. As the closest thing to being in the same league as Justin Bieber — too distant to be peers, too unthreatening to be competition — the Fantastic Five’s overwhelming celebrity is perhaps the product of a globe-spanning horde of consumers, congregators, or followers, on the lookout for the next Bieber. Bieber with a twist. Before Irish QTpie Niall Horan rather bashfully appeared onstage for the X-Factor audition that changed his life, he told the camera that he’d been compared to Justin and dreamed to follow in his footsteps. After singing the same damn tune that won Bieber his first homegrown talent competition, what’s that overpowering Simon Cowell’s not-so-positive appraisal: is it a bird, a plane, or a lightbulb coming to life above his devious head? The world was hungry for a Justin Bieber from the UK… let’s say times 5. So that’s what was served. But is that the whole Bible-sworn nothing but the truth? I’ll use a lifeline and Skype a friend. God, you there? Was there an empty spot on the market simply awaiting the 1D fellowship, or was this a world’s craving for boy boy boy?
But that’s seriously another story.
The merry band of bros rarely foray into the realm of the ambiguously gay, not the same way our aforementioned soloist has. Save for power ballads like “They Don’t Know About Us” wherein there’s suggestion of emotions that the world could not possibly be ready to handle, 1D’s lyrics make clear that they’re a gang of Brits thoroughly committed to rousing the heartbeats of female tweens everywhere via serenade. Harry, Louis, Zayn, Niall and Liam have, though, thrown in the occasional drag styling and gotten cozy with one another from time to time. This is where things get interesting, and that isn’t meant as some perverted peepshow rubbing-my-hands-together while zeroing-in on the crotch grabs sort of thing, I promise — remember I’m the same age if not very slightly younger than the 1D guys, my name is Oliver, nice to meet you — no, it’s more than that, it’s one of those things, it’s more systematic… hydromatic… ultramatic… It’s from where stems that simultaneously insignificant and essential question, one that friends and I have mused over to ad nauseam in earlier years: If __% of the population is homosexual, and there are five members to the boy band — what is the likelihood that one of the One Direction boys is gay?
All’s bizarre in love, war, and fandom. Directioners, as the diehards have labelled themselves, did perhaps not originate or form from stardust this trend, but have certainly given shape and traction to the phenomenon known as “shipping.” As in relationship. Devotees of 1D (it’s fair if you automatically conjure the mental image of a girl with braces sporting a custom-made t-shirt, her scream so shrill she might be competing with other pixies as to who can smash the most nearby glass, giving a grand finale to her 4th of July oh-my-G-i-love-the-boys-soooOOOOooOo-much by fainting and being wheeled away on a stretcher to wherever people like that end up), some of them write fanfiction tales of 2 or more of the boys falling madly in love with one another. The stories range from the sweet and innocent to the elaborate, multi-chaptered erotic, with readerships significantly larger than the number of eyes that will scan this piece. Message boards and personal blogs are run amok with the progression of these gay fantasies; communities and friendships are built around the comp screen novella where Zayn is the new boy at school and Niall is merely an unpopular brass player with a shit chance of being noticed, say. They revel in their own lexicon, almost: the young adults’ surnames are fused to make a portmanteau that is the term by which to categorize all things in favour of their hypothetical budding romance. For example: Louis + Harry = Larry. I, for one, would squeeze myself in with the Ziall crowd.
So this is new. Veering from the karaoke choruses, most of One Direction’s appeal exists in the fact that they’re all physically attractive and easy to fantasize about falling in warm, campfire love with. Their fans are undoubtedly in sedated infatuation with them, willing to tie the knot any given moment the question should pop. But said fans are also into them being in love with one another. It kind of resembles a reverse ‘straight-men-go-hard-for-lesbians’ mentality, and do correct me if I’m wrong, but an entire fringe culture based on this feels nearly unheard of. The band has lightly acknowledged it as an example of the outlandish rubbish they’ll find written about them online, but deliberately or not, they play along. Ruffling each other’s hair, poking each other’s stomachs, squeezing each other’s crotches; it’s cutesy, and it teases us the perfect amount. I’m incapable of predicting whether any homo-wary flags would be shot skyward should anything get the eensiest more touchy, should that line be crossed. Lance Bass of ’N Sync made a career of screaming females and it took him ’til long after his music days had come and gone to publicly talk bedroom — but is the climate still so seismic? If the opposite sex can no longer ravenously adore the face on the heart-shaped pillow, does the ground begin to crumble and these performers’ jobs fall from beneath their feet?
The stars have it so easy, we think, gazing at them. Up above the world so high. The haters are gonna hate hate hate, just don’t fall into the wrong crowd and out onto the sidewalk beside The Viper Room, don’t be an asshole, eat your greens, be yourself, and it will all be OK. Grow into a Drew Barrymore, kid. Not a Michael. You can’t sit too long with what will happen once the baby has gone but the dream remains real. You’ll flutter above, light as air, wispy as swished bangs. You’re pre-cocoon, you little prince, you’re fucking killing it. All the bad guys, I swear, they look so small from up here. Close your eyes and float upon the face of the waters. Spread your butterfly wings. Do not imagine a world where you aren’t everywhere, for that would be too hard to bear. Into the deep sea, honey. We’ll be the greatest fans of your life.