In Teddy Wayne’s 2013 book The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, the protagonist is an 11-year-old pop star with a great range, a love of Michael Jackson, a manager named Jane, and an entourage. He’s the head of a multimillion-dollar corporation that involves singing songs about true love to tween girls every night — and he’s also the loneliest boy in the world, playing video games and searching for anyone who could be his absent father. It is a quick, sharp, sad-as-hell read, the story of a boy stuck in a glimmering prison; it is also a book that completely presages Justin Bieber’s recent publicity troubles as his star is on the wane. As a reader, you spend the book feeling bad for poor, lonely Jonny, ready and waiting for the moment that he snaps and breaks out of his life.
In a newly online piece from New York magazine, writer Vanessa Grigoriadis goes deep into what Bieber’s life is like in 2014. She wrote an excellent profile of him for Rolling Stone in 2011, when the name “Justin Bieber” was synonymous with tween swooning, and “Bieber fever” was a thing. She got lots of unfettered access to the star, where the then-16-year-old talked frankly about his evangelical and religious beliefs with the briefly notorious quote: “I really don’t believe in abortion… I think [an embryo] is a human. It’s like killing a baby.”
In 2014, though, the story is very different. Bieber’s team doesn’t allow access to the star anymore — he hasn’t given a real interview for two years, he hasn’t released an album in a year — and yet plenty of people were willing to talk to the writer about how Bieber’s life is developing. His distrust for the media doubled when he had to deal with a false paternity suit. He’s developed anxiety problems over the gulf between being a “superstar” and his “real personality.” He has bacchanalias that invite comparison to Caligula. He’s an addict working through problems with drugs, alcohol, and social media. He is constantly asking for forgiveness.
The downfall of a child star is not a new spectacle by any means. It has been happening since the first pushy parent suggested that their child perform for the braying audiences, since The Kid‘s Jackie Coogan sued his parents for his earnings. With Bieber, the talent is there for him to be, as Grigoriadis writes, “a pale version of Justin Timberlake, a peach-fuzzed post-R&B white boy who set out upon the world to de-nastify Bobby Brown for the Ohio crowd at a time when major male pop stars could be counted on one hand. There was a future in that.”
But the twin devils on Bieber’s shoulder these days seem to be a combination of a difficult family life — his parents had him young and his father wasn’t in the picture — and the power of being able to explode in slow motion, on phone screens, iPad screens, and computer screens. Another young celebrity who’s feeling like a casualty of late, former Transformers star Shia LaBeouf, who made news recently when he was thrown out of a performance of Cabaret and is currently being treated for alcohol addiction, was open in the past about his hardscrabble background, and how his parents used to dress up as clowns in Echo Park and sell hot dogs. Taylor Swift, on the other hand, a girl whose future as the biggest star in the world feels assured, has a parent in finance (although Page Six reports that her parents are “difficult”) and spends her spare time writing really lovely comments on her fans’ Instagram feeds.
Grigoriadis’ piece posits that Bieber may be down but not out, and that he could save his reputation yet, with one hit song and one sobbing interview. The ancient TMZ video of 15-year-old Bieber singing racist jokes hasn’t seemed to stick, with public names like Whoopi Goldberg and 50 Cent offering forgiveness. The public spectacle of it all may be part of a comeback, with the narrative stress built in: can the teen idol charm the girls once again? Or will he remain creepy, gross, a monster of our own creation? Either way, it will play out in the public realm, over and over and over again, with more and more screens by the minute.