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Confessions of a middle-aged Belieber

By Martin Young

Like it or not, Justin Bieber has got under my skin. For an adult in his fifties, that is a startling admission, but I think I have good reason. I like the guy, I really do.

Bieber as a child dreamt of a big future, of fame and fortune, took the initiative on social media and those dreams have come true in spectacular fashion, propelling him at an early age to the absolute pinnacle of success. He is influential to his generation beyond words. With fame, wealth and influence come responsibilities. Millions of young kids, most of them adolescent girls venerate the ground he walks on. The warning of WB Yeats springs to mind:

“I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

I couldn’t have cared less until my family brought home the Never say Never DVD that documents his early life and rise to stardom. What drew me to his story, and was clearly apparent on the film, was a sense of a normal kid with good values, a dedicated mother and family unit, making the very best of an opportunity earned by hard work and effort, and in the spotlight of international fame and adoration managing to hold it all together. And I became a fan of sorts, never buying his music for myself, but repeating myself to the naysayers and negative critics, “Just watch the DVD — you’ll be surprised”.

But recently the cracks in Bieber’s happy facade have started to appear. Run-ins with paparazzi, neighbours, traffic police, as well as the on-off nature of his long-standing relationship with Selena Gomez have all tarnished his image. Photographs appear in the media of Bieber looking anguished, enraged, surprised, or walking in a hunched, semi-crouch, on one occasion naked from the waist up. This has been fuel to the fire for Bieber-haters and naysayers — all basking in schadenfreude.

Of course my family booked tickets to his Cape Town concert the moment they were released, and I made sure I was with them in the massive crowd who greeted him the moment he appeared on stage.

The production was clever. A countdown clock ticked away ten minutes, each new minute being welcomed with progressive shrieks of anticipation 65 000 strong.

And Bieber delivered exactly what his fans had come to see. Swagger, skin, bravado, dance, vocal magic, charisma — all came together in the package, setting the stadium and the swathes of tightly packed Beliebers alight. As expected, the stage production had all the elements — light, dance, pyrotechnics. “Best concert I’ve ever seen,” said an adult friend who has been to many.

I enjoyed the experience, revelling in the crown response as much as in the artist himself. But too far away from the stage for an intimate look at his facial expression I wondered how Bieber himself was enjoying it. I had a sense for a moment of someone going through the motions, someone who had done the song and dance so many times it was second nature. And so, long after the concert was finished I looked where his fame began and where it continues to grow for another insight — YouTube.

One bit of footage drew my attention — filmed very recently in Stockholm, and posted on YouTube. In the clip, Bieber has just finished a number, and is standing on the stage extension amid the crowd, soaking in the adulation. But there is a blankness to his face, a vacant stare that I think I have seen before on the faces of trauma victims in emergency units, combat soldiers and the very ill. He stares for long minutes, and then mouths the words “I love you” to someone — who knows, the fans, his ex-girlfriend, someone else perhaps? The image is disconcerting, and raises more questions than it does answers.

I remember being a teenager. It was traumatic. I was rebellious, restless, unsure of myself. Bieber has to go through the same phase of life under an immense spotlight of intense observation. His success is obvious and no longer newsworthy. What does sell magazines are the negative reports, the paparazzi photographic intrusions, the angry reactions to intense scrutiny and the loss of privacy. These are newsworthy. I behaved as badly as Bieber is accused of doing as a teenager. It’s just that no one other than my parents were interested or affected, and there were no consequences.

There is only one song of Bieber’s that I would consider buying for myself — Be Alright — although I don’t have to. Self-penned, the song highlights his obvious vocal talent, and the lyrical hook is “Everything’s gonna be alright”. Here Bieber abandons the swagger and sings seated beside his guitarist playing a pure acoustic accompaniment that highlights his vocal control and the unique nature of his voice. On occasion, captured again on YouTube, Bieber’s emotion breaks through, skipping lines as he chokes up. The song speaks of a rocky relationship, and appears highly personal. In it Bieber shows his vulnerability. If any song speaks to him, I think this is the one.

And in this song, I believe Bieber finds the self-encouragement that he needs. He is surrounded by mature and sensible adults that will see him through this phase. He is a kid under enormous pressure, trying to become an adult and to satisfy everyone in the process. We should all cut him a bit of slack, lest we see the same become of him as Michael Jackson, forced to sing his own protest Leave me Alone.

I think for Justin Bieber, everything will be alright. I really do.

Martin Young is a part-time writer who also dabbles as an ENT surgeon — @MartinYoung


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