Child stars, the objects of our culture’s raging youth fetish, are not supposed to grow up. When they do, we regard them with fascination, concern, and embarrassment, like younger cousins who show up drunk to a family barbecue. The best option for the ageing child star may be to reinvent themselves so completely that they sever their current image entirely from the former one lingering in the public imagination. After all, people are far more forgiving of drug use, sexual promiscuity, and criminal activity when they are not being committed by someone who is widely known to have once been a child.
At 24, Justin Bieber has belatedly grown into the teenage awkwardness he dodged as an actual teen. His once baby-smooth skin is now dotted with acne and a faint, greasy-looking goatee. His hair, dyed blond, has been subjected to a dizzying array of recent styles, including variations on a quiff, cornrows, and dreads. (“I changed my hair again,” a 2016 Instagram post reads. “Get the Justmoji app to see it.”) Like the Kardashians, he harbours a palpable obsession with Black culture that at times borders on minstrelsy. Yet there is something extremely, ineffaceably white about his yellow-blond, heavily tattooed, wife-beater-adorned self. He still, at least half of the time, resembles a 38-year-old butch lesbian. Debate rages over whether adulthood has degraded his looks to the point that he may no longer be handsome at all.
Like any young person, Bieber is figuring himself out. His Instagram, the tenth-most popular account on the site, has none of the aesthetic or conceptual coherence of those other mega-influencers. He reposts dozens of pictures of his fans alongside photos of himself with other famous people––as if he is not himself one of the most famous people in the world. He posts memes, inspirational platitudes, FaceTime screenshots, joke images, home video-style clips, paparazzi shots of other celebrities, and also of himself. He once posted the same selfie seven times in a row, and another image, the cover art for his single “Friends,” a bewildering fourteen times. He shares his opinions with an almost enviable freedom, posting that “God’s Plan” is “the best video I’ve ever seen,” that Jayden Smith is “cool” and “adorable,” that Post Malone’s new single will go “straight to the top,” that “the devil has no power when you know the LIVING God!”
Born to an Evangelical teenage mother in Canada, Bieber is very Christian. This is true of most North American child stars of his generation, including his ex-girlfriend, Selena Gomez (who is the most-followed individual on Instagram). Even so, Bieber is unusually vocal about his faith, thereby subjecting it to disproportionate scrutiny. His recent bad behaviour––punching a fan who tried to touch him in Barcelona, direct messaging a young woman’s place of work in hopes of seducing her––is not only scrutinised against the memory of Bieber as a doe-eyed 15-year-old, but also the example of humanity’s Lord and Saviour. Bieber is clearly self-conscious about this. At the start of the year, he shared a photo of a whiteboard on his Instagram, on which he had written “Do you feel you have exausted [sic] all options? Do you feel helpless? Do you feel like you’re never good enough? What if I told you that theres a god that’s willing to meet you WHEREVER you’re at! What if I told you he could take away your pain, shame, guit, [sic] and fears #Jesus.” Adopting a pastor’s rhetorical style, Bieber appears intent on teaching himself a lesson––whiteboard and all. Yet an undercurrent of doubt lingers in this message, echoing in those repeated “what ifs.” “Jesus is changing me from the inside out everyday,” Bieber declares in the caption. “AND I MISPELLED GUILT and exhausted.”
Though inconsistent and somewhat confused, evidence suggests that Bieber’s Christianity is also deeply sincere. In 2016, he refused to play a GOP-sponsored concert, instead posting an image in support of “Black Lives Matter” on his Instagram and adding: “We are all Gods children and we are ALL EQUAL.” He eagerly takes up the duties of celebrity philanthropy, performing at Ariana Grande’s One Love concert in Manchester last year, donating toys to low-income children at Christmas, and meeting fans afflicted with illness. “These are the moments I live for,” he writes. Recently, he was photographed emerging from a SoulCycle workout in Los Angeles and engaging in conversation with a small group of homeless people on the street. He listened, gave them food, and––most strikingly––lay alongside them on the pavement, his post-spin locks sticking sweatily to his forehead.
Cynics will read this moment, like any act of celebrity goodwill, as a publicity stunt. (SoulCycle adherents may read it as proof of the exercise regime’s enlightening effect.) One of the strangest things about Bieber’s popularity has always been the zest of his detractors. Even as a teen popstar, he attracted an unlikely number of adult haters; in 2014, a White House petition calling for him to be deported swelled to a quarter of a million signatures. This anti-Bieber zeal is, of course, only matched by the passion of his fans, the (now multi-generational) Beliebers. To these fans, Justin is the most beautiful boy in the world: the most talented, the funniest, and the kindest. In Zadie Smith’s recent essay, “Meet Justin Bieber!”, she describes the Belieber’s devotion to their “love object,” a devotion so intense that it traverses the bounds of time and space: “The love object is already known and loved everywhere. He meets only those who feel they have already met him, and already love him. Everyone Bieber meets is a Belieber.” The Beliebers’ steadfast love endures forever, and they forgive Bieber his trespasses with the same unbounded love and forgiveness that he, through Instagram, preaches right back at them.
The Beliebers’ will to find meaning in all Bieber’s actions at times feels unjust to everyone involved. In July of 2017, Bieber posted a spray painting he’d made of the word “Always” set against three colours. This immediately prompted a flurry of speculation over whether the painting represented his feelings for Selena, while another camp of commenters debated whether it depicted the Ukrainian flag. “So heart-touching, love from Ukraine,” one fan wrote, as another chimed in: “Fuck Ukraine.” “This is Armenia flag ????” a confused voice interrupted. “Y’ALL THIS IS THE PANSEXUAL FLAG,” someone else declared.
After Bieber appeared in an erotically-charged ad for Calvin Klein jeans, Saturday Night Live produced a parody of the ad, casting the show’s first out lesbian cast member, Kate McKinnon, in the role of Justin. “I’m a big boy now,” McKinnon crooned, having perfected Bieber’s pleading gaze, a dialectic of innocence and sin. On the surface, the skit lampoons Bieber for the usual reasons, satirising his youth, his femininity, the effect he has on women.
Yet McKinnon’s performance adds another edge to the satire, one aimed not at Bieber himself but rather the expectations and desires that have been projected onto him. Like other femme-faced young men such as Harry Styles and Cole Sprouse, Bieber is an icon within the lesbian community. Queer women claim him for precisely the same reason that he is shunned by many straight people (and particularly straight men): because he proves that women and girls desire femininity. The superficial “joke” of the skit––that Bieber is short and baby-faced and physically weak and pretty––works because McKinnon is also all of these things, and the joke is therefore undermined for the exact same reason.
Treasured by Evangelicals and lesbians alike, Bieber is an overdetermined signifier. He is also––as his Instagram reveals––just a messy 24-year-old forced to spend the last decade living in the shadow of himself. “Allowing another person to truly exist as a person—independent of your own fantasies, desires, and feelings about them, proves to be, I have found, one of the most difficult things in the world to do,” Smith writes. “Surely especially difficult for Justin Bieber, who finds himself trapped by the fantasies of millions.” With so many around the world overinvesting their deepest beliefs and desires into him, it is little surprise that Bieber is so intent on redirecting this emotion toward #Jesus. Sidestepping the direct glare of the spotlight, he can focus on his own journey to be a better Christian and more “sustainable” man. “THIS MESSAGE IS VERY GRAMMATICALLY INCORRECT,” he writes in his Instagram post about his own journey to sustainability. “BUT I THINK THERE’S SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT IMPERFECTIONS!!”