During this weekend’s Super Bowl, Justin Bieber starred in a Best Buy commercial opposite Ozzy Osbourne that imagines the Prince of Darkness as clueless Luddite. But at the end of the spot, the bubblegum phenom pokes fun at himself, too: Dressed up like a schlumpy, middle-age roadie—thinning hair unkempt, beard creepily groomed, a plaid shirt with sleeves unfashionably cut-off—he mutters that Bieber “kinda looks like a girl.”
This spoof caps off an intense week of press for Bieber, who had been feverishly promoting his 3-D movie, Never Say Never. With deadpanned turns in skits on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live as well, the subtext of his appearances seemed to be that the Canadian confection wants the upper-hand on the running joke that is his squeaky-clean, soulless veneer. At this point, we have become frenemies with the Beebs, oscillating between deriding what he represents and obsessing over each of his craftily plotted moves. Inexplicably, we have been doing this for roughly one-and-a-half years now. When exactly will our Bieber fever break already?
The Usher protégé hit pop-culture consciousness in 2009 with “One Time,” an Auto-Tuned faux-rap with cutie-pie swagger that proclaims his fuzzy feelings for a girl. While artists like Miley Cyrus had begun to grow disdainful of their bopper fanbases and corporate backers, Bieber was refreshingly simple. He’s Canadian, sings angst-free tracks, smiles a lot, goofily affects swagger, and breaks out into happy jigs. Heck, even his hair is benign. He’s the perfect fantasy boyfriend for any tween: cute without being dorky, confident without being brash, and non-threateningly asexual in a junior Ken doll sort of way.
Now 16, his robust market share has proven as much an attraction as speculation about his next haircut. Intrigued by the success that wafts off Bieber, rappers like Kanye West and Lil Wayne are avowed fans, while the burgeoning pre-pubescent talents of the Pinkett-Smith clan—Willow and brother Jaden—manage to turn any hang time with their new friend into a photo opp.
If you look back at the life expectancy of kindred spirits such as Leif Garrett, New Kids on the Block, or the Backstreet Boys—whose pre-nostalgia fame tends to run about three to four years—Bieber’s teen appeal has in fact reached middle age. The evil geniuses behind Mexico’s Menudo were downright pioneering in understanding this appeal of suspended adolescence. (If you recall, hitting age 16 got you kicked out of the group in an attempt to perpetually reset the band to new micro-generations of followers.) Bieber, too, will have to grapple with the fact that his helium voice will deepen, his innocent boyish looks will fade—yes, even his haircut will grow old.
Generally the artists with the most longevity matured with their initial following, worked their sex appeal, and broadened their demographic. Justin Timberlake, for example, aligned himself with Timbaland, got a makeover, launched a legitimate acting career (albeit as a reaction to Nipplegate), and posed topless on Rolling Stone to the delight of both moms and daughters.
Bieber's challenge will be to cross over from a fake Kardashian crush into a pop star whose draw isn’t ironic—by continuing this self-awareness while working that Rolodex full of rappers to lend him cred. But Justin Bieber as a sex symbol? Here’s hoping he keeps his shirt on.