Justin Bieber’s Risky Attempt to ‘Timberlake’ Himself Into Adulthood

Once there was a Canadian teen idol whose domination of the charts and lower hearts of American girls was suddenly threatened by the burgeoning success of packs of cute British lads with shaggy haircuts, tight harmonies, and homoerotic male friendships. That teen idol’s name was Paul Anka, a child star with hits like “Lonely Boy,” “Diana,” and “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” in the late ’50s and early ’60s who looked and sounded hopelessly square when placed against the likes of The Beatles and Stones. But it’s also the situation that Justin Bieber, 18, has found himself in as he attempts to transition into an adult career while a new wave of U.K. boy bands makes a power play for the purses (and crotches) of his fan base.

Justin Bieber has proven himself to be a superstar with tween girls, but girls tend to grow up and eventually want someone with a little more chest hair to fantasize about. Fans are fickle, and naturally abandon some idols when they outgrow them. The cultural wastebasket is full with Jonas Brothers and N’Syncs, so Bieber has everything to prove with the release of his new album, Believe. Especially since during the brief downtime since his Christmas album Under the Mistletoe, British boy bands One Direction and The Wanted have blown up overseas. Those groups offer sexual variety for young females just developing their preferences. Liking the Irish guy in One Direction (Niall) is a declaration of personality akin to picking Ringo.

Floridian ginger teen-rap sensation Kitty Pryde released a song about Justin Bieber called “Justin Bieber” that perfectly captures the obsessive projection on a blank beautiful image that teen idols like Bieber and boy bands inspire (see also: Jordan Catalano). Bieber actively encourages every girl to fantasize about him being their “boyfriend,” and how exactly is that different from Drake and Wayne wanting to fuck every girl in the world?

So the 18-year-old Bieber is attempting what we can call The Justin Timberlake: winning the respect of both men and women for his musical talent, while proving that he is not just a little boy anymore. Unfortunately, he still looks like a little boy, and sounds like one, too. He performed his new single “Boyfriend” on The Voice with shaky execution and clumsy choreography. His voice broke at all the key parts, and what was meant to come off as a breezy display of “swag” became the secondhand embarrassment of watching Bieber try and fail to hit the high notes.

Lest we cut Bieber too much slack, remember that he is a seasoned performer at this point with an excellent concert movie. Timberlake, around the same age, was doing a similarly silly b-boy stance but pulling it off somehow, effortlessly commanding a huge crowd while beatboxing and dancing. The comparisons are inevitable, and while Timberlake probably can’t dance the way he could when he was 18, he is and has always been able to hit the falsetto. Timberlake always sings like he means it. While Bieber affects a similar cockiness and air of infallibility, he is capable of major stumbling, and he has to be aware that his future success is far from a foregone conclusion, no matter how talented he may be.

Bieber shot a sexier video for “Boyfriend” with Director X that he then scrapped in favor of a rooftop party with cars. Put too many hot video girls around Bieber and you risk alienating his core female fans in favor of trying to attract a cosign that will never come. The reshoots ended up pushing the release date of the video so far that the payoff for such a long tease felt somewhat disappointing. Rather than stoking the buzz among Beliebers to a fever pitch, they lost focus, and when “Boyfriend” premiered it initially got destroyed in view counts by Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been,” the lackluster fifth single from Talk That Talk. Bieber is working with Diplo, Drake, and Taylor Swift on his new album. He will probably be just fine. But the jittery start to what was meant to be a world-dominating publicity campaign for Believe proves that Justin Bieber shouldn’t rest on his gold sneakers quite just yet. And that Justin Timberlake still really needs to cool it with the acting and make a new album.

Filed Under: Bieber, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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