He was 14. His blond hair fell around his face like an ecru cashmere shawl over a bare alabaster shoulder. He was an internet singing sensation, a YouTube star, and he was on Ellen. I watched with curiosity.
He was cute in a playful puppy sort of way. But I wasn’t impressed. He looked younger than I did at my grade school graduation. In fact, he looked younger than I did when I entered grade school. His voice was whiny, adenoidal, and undeveloped, and his lyrics were insipid. I didn’t dislike him, though; I just didn’t get it. I had seen variations of this many times before: Ricky Nelson, Fabian, Bobby Sherman, Davy Jones, Michael Jackson, Leif Garrett, David Cassidy, Andy Gibb, and on and on.
Justin Bieber was another in the long line of cute teenage pop stars, teen idols, who were adored by impressionable young girls around the world because they simply had a catchy sound, an innocent look, and a gender-neutral quality that was neither hyper-masculine nor particularly feminine. They could have been either the boy-next-door or one of the girls’ best female friends. They were wholesome and non-threatening to their fans’ young-girl innocence and that was a key to their appeal.
Of course, some boys were also attracted to these young entertainers. I, however, was not one of themI and if I had been, I certainly wouldn’t discuss that in a public forum. Sharing same-sex adolescent crushes simply isn’t very manly.…OMG, remember Ricky Nelson? With those green eyes? Did you see his green eyes and how they looked right at me through the TV?… OK. OK. Let me catch my breath.
Justin Bieber, in 2008, was the heir apparent to the title of young teen heartthrob. He was everywhere. Not just the internet. Magazines, talk shows, concerts, interviews, and the news. I followed his career from afar, aloofly. He was cute, but merely a kid…Oh, Shaun Cassidy. Did I mention him? I never really understood his brother David’s popularity. But Shaun Cassidy. OMG, to die for. Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve gone off on a tangent again.
So back to Bieber. His talent, to me, was marginal. He would become, I thought, nothing more than a footnote in pop music history, his name would become a trivia answer. I wasn’t about to invest enough time, energy, and emotion to like or dislike him.
Then in 2012, Bieber appeared on David Letterman and all that changed. First, after Letterman noticed Justin’s abundance of tattoos, he reached out and touched one, not realizing it was fresh and tender. Bieber reacted by hastily pulling away, shrieking in pain, and calling his older host “Grampa.” How disrespectful, I thought. Bobby Sherman or Andy Gibb would never have been so rude. They were gentlemen. And so adorable…Oh, I’m sorry. We’re talking about Justin Bieber now.
Then Letterman suggested the Biebs be careful about overdoing the tattoos, saying something like, “I hope you are not gonna paint your body like the Sistine Chapel.” Bieber responded with ignorant defiance saying, and I am paraphrasing, “I don’t know nothing about your 16th chapel.” The audience howled. Letterman looked bemused. But I reacted more severely; I thought, “What an idiot!” I formed an immediate dislike for Justin Bieber.
In doing so, however, I forget a lesson I had learned as a high school employee: Don’t judge young people too soon. Learn about their history, their baggage. Acknowledge their individuality, their strengths, and their talents. Give each one a chance to learn, mature, and develop.
But in Bieber’s case, I didn’t. I continued to consider the young Canadian a punk. He became the butt of many jokes and comments I made, either aloud or written, and I relished the numerous news reports of his conflicts with neighbors, police, paparazzi, and the public and his frequent bouts with bad behavior. “What an idiot!” I repeatedly thought to myself.
On the other hand, I was aware that Bieber was known to drop in on children’s hospitals unannounced. I knew he treated his fans with love and respect, even visiting individuals without warning. He even had a prankish sense of humor which was used frequently and effectively when he appeared on Ellen. So, on some level, I knew he wasn’t all bad. But I could not forget his 2012 Letterman appearance and I minimized his positive qualities…I wonder whatever happened to Fabian. He was my favorite. I thought he was really cute. And, at 18, he probably knew about the Sistine Chapel…Oh, no. Am I discussing Fabian with you? In public? Damn. This is so embarrassing. Forget what I just said and let’s get back to the task at hand.
My opinion of Justin Bieber, however, changed this past year when I heard a cut, Sorry, from his most recent album and realized as a musician he had matured enormously. I also saw videos of an emotional Justin discussing his pains, struggles, thoughts, and feelings, and even crying. I realized he was the sort of person who is guided by his emotions and heart, not his intellect and brain. I had been holding Bieber to an unfair standard and foisting an unachievable expectation on his young shoulders.
So, why am I writing this now? Well, last week, Justin Bieber was nominated for three of the more prestigious Grammy Awards, Best Album (Purpose) and Best Song and Best Vocal (“Love Yourself”) With a little research, I discovered to my surprise, that Bieber had won a Grammy last year for Best Dance Recording. And I realized, perhaps, I had been too judgmental, too harsh on the young man.
Maybe it is time for me to say “Sorry” to Justin Bieber…I wonder if he knows who Fabian is.