Has Justin Bieber Beaten The Child Star Curse?

To the surprise of many, the pop star is still standing and riding a streak of three straight #1 hits

For the tens of millions of us who spent years equating the very name Justin Bieber with tweeny dreck and now find ourselves magnetically attracted to his newest music, I’d like to draw attention to his neck tattoo, which says “Patience.” It’s not that I’m big into body art. I just want to answer the question weighing on all of us — which is, of course, whether his new album and transformed persona are simply shrewd marketing or if, instead, Biebs has actually made some leaps in maturity that have taken him past the glittery squall of childhood fame — and I think this tattoo holds some answers.

A year ago, when Biebs surrendered himself to a Comedy Central roast, comic Chris D’Elia jabbed, “You literally are a guy who has it all — except respect, love, friends, good parents, and a Grammy.” You could say a couple things about this unkind joke. One of the things you could say is that it was so effective precisely because it seemed to ring true.

The public details of Biebs’s private life point to a pretty lonely existence. The place he calls home is a suite in a Beverly Hills hotel, outside of which a throng of paparazzi awaits him. On parents: He used to be close with mom, but during his phase of run-ins with the law, circa 2014, their relationship got chillier. He has a congenial relationship with dad, but they don’t see each other a ton. And on the question of getting into a serious romance, GQ quoted Bieber as saying, “I already have a lot that I have to commit to. A lot of responsibilities. I don’t want to feel like the girl I love is an added responsibility.”

When Biebs started making headlines for legal infractions instead of music, many of us concluded that he’d reached spinning-out time.

 It’s not hugely difficult to see why megastars struggle to maintain close relationships. But close relationships, for those who have them, tend to be a wellspring of strength and solace. So if your life is a bodyguard-protected parade of tour dates, one might wonder from where you’d draw the requisite strength—or, alternatively, just how long it will take for you to spin out. When Biebs started making headlines for legal infractions instead of music, many of us concluded that he’d reached spinning-out time.

We were really, really wrong. (Is it too late now to say sorry?) But that’s what makes you wonder: What’s driving this guy?

Biebs has revealed some of what went through his head during that low period, including a voice that was telling him, “You’re not good enough.” When I read that I was like, “Whoa, Biebs, we have the same voice in our head!” i.e., I could relate, and you probably can, too, because it’s a pretty human thing to experience. In what was most likely many, many dark hours, he faced a crossroads: succumb to that voice and go the way everyone expected — child star implodes under a pressure that’s unimaginable for the 99.9999 percent of us who have never been the most Googled person on earth — or, instead, go back to the music. (Maybe there’s some third possibility along the lines of attempting life as a regular Millennial. I could see how that wouldn’t really present as an option, though, if your name is Justin Bieber.) Right around this time he marched into a Florida tattoo parlor and got “Patience” inked in the creamy flesh of his neck.

When Ellen DeGeneres introduced him on the day he debuted his new album Purpose, in November, she said, “You’ve been working on this album for — a year?”

“Almost four years,” he replied.

He was, at that moment, 21 years old, meaning those almost-four years — which included the latter part of his tween success, his meltdown, and now Biebs 2.0 — represented about a fifth of his life. Ever spent a fifth of your life working on the same project? Me neither. That would take colossal patience. Biebs is wickedly talented, of course, but talent swirls down the toilet if it’s not practiced and honed.

He and his writing collaborator, Jason "Poo Bear" Boyd, reportedly recorded 103 songs in the process of making Purpose, which contains eighteen tracks and grapples with some grownup ideas. In particular Biebs admits that he doesn’t have the answers; that he was lost; that he was self-involved. The camera is perhaps closest to his squishy human-ness during “I’ll Show You,” in which he sings in a textured, breathy timbre, “It’s hard to do the right thing / When the pressure’s coming down like lightning / It’s like they want me to be perfect”; then there’s a yearning chorus — “I’ll show you / I’ll show you” — that gets overtaken by dreamy electronics. In “Life Is Worth Living,” Biebs is just “trying to figure out which way to go.” And in “Company,” he’s posing a tender interrogative that makes you ponder his lonesomeness: “Maybe we can be each other’s company.”

He still leaves plenty of room for kidding around, though. In “Love Yourself,” the album’s third song to hit the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 (with the first, “What Do You Mean?,” he became the youngest solo male artist to have even one top song — then he did it two more times), he croons, “ ’Cause if you like the way you look that much / Oh, baby, you should go and love yourself.” In this one his voice feels like an illicit fondle. There’s a moist velvety twang to the plosive B in “baby.” And when he says “go and love yourself,” it’s actually probably a different four-letter word that he’s suggesting, and all of us get to be in on the joke.

Yet when you glance casually at that song’s title in a playlist, you can’t help but appreciate its literal meaning: It’s a command to, well, love yourself.

The unflattering truth is that we, as a consuming public, are petty and spiteful to our celebrities.

 That’s pretty significant when you consider that Biebs, like most of us, seems to wrestle with some fearsome self-doubt. What’s also true is that he’s really into his Christian faith. I’m someone who shifts uncomfortably when a conversation turns to God-with-a-capital-G, but this is important. Biebs told Caity Weaver of GQ that his relationship with God “gives [him] some sort of hope and something to grasp onto. And a feeling of security, and a feeling of being wanted, and a feeling of being desired.” Whether or not you’re personally down with G-O-D, faith is probably one of the few real sanctums available to a superstar like Biebs.

Because the unflattering truth is that we, as a consuming public, are petty and spiteful to our celebrities. (Although the ones who are both white and male enjoy the greatest leniency, for sure.) We envy their wealth and fame and good looks and the fact that they get to have sex with other wildly good-looking people seemingly on the regular. We have an insatiable desire to know what that feels like. We are also unable to grasp that they have doubts and foibles and farts just like we do. And then, when they make big, public screw-ups, we pounce: “Aha! we say. “You suck!!!” We delight in their stumbles because it doesn’t seem fair that they should have it all; that is, our spite is an expression of our envy. At the end of the Comedy Central roast, SNL’s Pete Davidson said offhandedly, “I always wanted to make fun of [Bieber] because everyone my age likes him more than they like me, and that’s not cool.” Davidson isn’t the only one to have that thought.

The sturdiest insulation from self-doubt for any regular human is to muster some genuine affection for one’s own self. Such insulation has to be even more important for an international megastar who faces a scrutinizing public and whose daily existence includes screwy forces like an entourage of sycophants, screaming fans trying to give him their bodies, and access to what I’m sure are very high-grade pharmaceuticals. Learning to like yourself is hard, though, and loving yourself is way harder. You could say it’s a habit whose development requires a deep well of patience.

But if, even for a microsecond, Biebs has figured out how really to love himself — by which I do not mean being absorbed in himself, or loving his persona, but rather loving whatever is in his real actual head and heart space, whose content none of us onlookers will ever know — then he’s just leapt over and beyond the tinselly celebrity orbit and into another universe entirely.

I’m hypothesizing, of course. The only thing we know for sure is that he’s transformed his music into something that grownup people can’t get enough of. It’s entirely plausible that he’s still just a kid with a bunch of tattoos on a collision course with fame-induced implosion.

I hope not, though. Because what an improbable victory over the utter nonsense of child superstardom. Plus, selfishly, I really want him to keep making this fly-ass music.

Mattea Kramer will be on the ground with the Purpose tour in July at the XL Center in Hartford. Follow her on Twitter.

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