feeling THE fever

Teen star: Pop singing sensation’s upcoming visit to Tacoma stirs up both fans, detractors

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.comOctober 5, 2012 

If he were your boyfriend, you’d never let him go. Or maybe you can’t think of anything worse than having him call you “baby.”

Wherever you stand on Justin Bieber though, you have to admit one thing – this guy gets reactions. And for his “Believe” concert stopping next Tuesday at the Tacoma Dome, those reactions run into the thousands: the 23,000 folks buying up every ticket in the house, and the many others who prefer to post snarky jabs on Facebook, Tumblr and every other corner of the Internet.

“I love Justin Bieber because he’s a great artist,” said Tacoma 13-year-old Marcia Shepard via email.

“He’s annoying, and the girls who love him are annoying,” posted Tacoma 8-year-old Nathalie Linden on Facebook with help from a parent.

Love him or hate him, you’d have to have lived under a rock for the past five years not to have heard of Bieber. The 18-year-old Canadian superstar singer’s rise to teen idol is one of the most familiar Internet success stories of the decade: Boy wins local singing competition, boy’s struggling single mom posts bragging YouTube video, boy gets noticed by talent agent (Scooter Braun), boy gets record deal and goes platinum. Since the self-taught singer from Stratford, Ontario, was first seen on YouTube in 2007, he’s made more fans (and more money) than seems possible, even for a teenybopper in today’s click-and-like world. He won five 2012 Teen Choice Awards, has sold more than 15 million albums, has more than 28.5 million Twitter followers, was named the third most powerful celebrity in the world by Forbes magazine, and is worth more than $100 million, all thanks to a pretty face, some creative hairstyles and ber-popular songs such as “Baby,” “Boyfriend” and “As Long As You Love Me.”

What’s not to like?

Plenty, according to anti-fans. Among the negative comments posted on The News Tribune’s Facebook page were criticisms of Bieber’s hair, looks, alto-range singing voice and the amount of time he spends on his phone. Melissa Cotter commented that her 10-year-old daughter, Amelia, is irritated at his intense marketing campaign, and the expectation that someone her age would automatically be a fan: “She is over all of the T-shirts marketed to her everywhere,” posted Cotter.

Others, such as Linden, are annoyed by the effusion of the Beliebers, Bieber’s world-wide, millions-strong fan base. Some just don’t think much of his ability: “ I think he’s cute but he needs to practice music,” Michelle Marie Denison wrote.

Even the LeMay-America’s Car Museum thinks there are plenty of folks who haven’t succumbed to Bieber Fever: The museum is offering a “parental daycare” event during Bieber’s concert for parents who have some hours to kill before picking up their besotted offspring from the neighboring Dome.

Some of the negativity does have a basis in fact. Bieber’s smooth baby face, thick short eyebrows, plump lips and soft nose do make him look girlish. The succession of haircuts — from the brushed-forward skater hair to the gelled-up James Dean pouf — have earned him Internet satire, from photos of his face superimposed on a furry beaver to self-explanatory sites such as lesbianswholooklikejustinbieber.tumblr.com. He’s had lesbian singer k.d.lang say he looks like a “hot lesbian,” app developer RC3 basing a “Joustin’ Beaver” game on him (it features an animal protagonist complete with hoodie, lashes and combed-forward hair) and Cuddle Barn manufacturing a plush, animated beaver singing “Baby” in a fetching Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks soprano.

It’s also true that Bieber taught himself to play four musical instruments and won his first competition without singing lessons – but he also has the vocal range of a teenage girl and relies on co-writers and session musicians to come up with most of his songs. Bieber Fever has even been analyzed as “the most infectious disease of our time” by Canadian mathematicians Valerie Tweedle and Robert J. Smith.

But you can’t argue with the 23,000 fans who will descend on the Tacoma Dome on Tuesday for the Bieber concert that sold out soon after tickets were released June 2. (Early this week, resale tickets were starting at $100.)

Krischel Sollars, who’s going to the concert with her two daughters and many friends, bought presale tickets and said she knew folks who waited by their computers for the ticket release and still couldn’t get a seat.

“I’ve never known it like that,” she said. “Madison (16) and all her friends are counting down, they’re calling it ‘the best night of their lives.’ They’re beyond excited.”

Sollars wasn’t always a fan, but gained respect for the singer after she watched his 2011 concert film “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.”

“He works hard, can play any instrument he picks up,” Sollars said. “He’s a good kid, he loves his grandparents and doesn’t do drugs at all.”

Shepard, who has more than 50 Bieber posters up in her Tacoma room, agrees: “He has a good story I can look up to.”

The modern world has always had teen idols. Why does this one generate such polarity?

Analyzing Bieber in terms of his Internet success route is how Ingrid Walker, associate professor of contemporary culture at the University of Washington-Tacoma, looks at it.

“Clearly, the effect of social media is a game-changing factor in popular culture production,” Walker said. “There are interesting experiments happening in which television and recording companies are trying to harness the energy and raw talent to be found on YouTube or elsewhere. Justin Bieber is one of those experiments.”

If Bieber is an experiment, though, he’s a highly successful one.

“His Klout score is a perfect 100,” Walker points out, talking about the Internet site that measures global influence through social media.

But, Walker goes on, that’s “a measure of popularity and being known, being influential, and that has nothing to do with the quality of his music (or) art.”

So is the Bieber love/hate reaction a function of a discrepancy between his fan-generated fame and his actual talent?

“It may be that he’s more polarizing because of the level of media saturation achieved in his stardom, due to the dual forces of industry- and fan-based media production,” Walker said.

Yet while it’s undoubtedly easier than it’s ever been for fans to generate success for their idols, Walker points out that they’ve been doing it for a while.

“While it may be easy to write off socially-constructed or industry-constructed pop artists as the kind of ‘popular’ that is motivated more by image than substance,” she said, “it’s good to remember that this is not new. It’s simply got a more accessible platform.”

Justin Bieber

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Tacoma Dome, 2727 E. D St., Tacoma

Tickets: Sold out; tickets on the resale market start around $100.

Also: For parent chauffeurs not going to the show, the LeMay-America’s Car Museum is offering a ‘Parental Daycare’ event from 5-10 p.m. Tuesday, where $10 gets you admission to the museum and cafe. Ages 17 and younger with Bieber tickets also get in free with a paying adult.

Information: 253-272-3663, tacomadome.org

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com 253-597-8568

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