Justin Bieber Turns 18 This March. As Pop Music's Little Prince Takes His First Steps Into Adulthood, Will He Prove He's Ready To Be King?
Justin Bieber Turns 18 This March. As Pop Music's Little Prince Takes His First Steps Into Adulthood, Will He Prove He's Ready To Be King?
I was going to write this all out. Spit articulate on the birth and the beast of Justin Bieber’s celebrity, his place in the annals of youthfame, how he stacks up against its storied casualties and its few but phenomenal survivors. As Justin (b. 3/1/94) approaches 18—exiting the protective bubble of adolescence and entering the first chapter of adulthood—can he transition into an artist for everyone rather than a teen phenom? What are the dangers of being Bieber? Decisions are now more his own than they’ve ever been, and as a target his attacks broaden from G-rated darts (agro tween tweets; wardrobe judgments; girlfriend problems) to all-bets-are-off bullets. The recent press explosion surrounding the baseless accusations of illicit babymaking weren’t so much about did-he-or-didn’t-he? but rather a global excitement that Bieber can now be subjected to such tabloid see-what-sticks shit-tossing.
I was going to write it all out, because I assumed I’d have to— that none of it would come from the teenager himself. We first met several months back at the photo shoot, where I held strong to my preconceived (and incorrect) notion that he’s probably a brat, a punk kid overfed on the perception of a world obsessed with him. Like many, I didn’t give him a chance, and I didn’t like him before I knew him at all. I’m his perfect demographic of disapproval: an adult man, the exact audience that Bieber will have to win over as he becomes a man himself.
The second time I met Justin Bieber, I watched him get punched in the face. We sat on a couch in his hotel room days before his second studio album, the Christmas themed Under the Mistletoe, debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200, right in the middle of the highly publicized paternity scandal, the day before he went on an extensive press tour abroad. Justin walked in the room wearing a trapper hat that swallowed his head, looking genuinely exhausted with a pimple on the side of his mouth but every bit the handsome kid who defines for girls around the world their notion of love. This Bieber was insightful, self-aware, and prescient. He was totally unguarded, earnest, and real. I quickly stopped interviewing him and we just talked. I felt like I was hearing out the issues of a little brother, a descriptor I’d heard countless people close to him use in the 2011 concert film Never Say Never, a documentary-shaped strike against haters who write him off as another talentless pop-machine-robot, showing the journey of a hardworking, near-prodigy precocious kid, a born star.
I’m not writing this all out because I don’t have to. Apparently the first sign of Justin Bieber being an adult is that no one has to speak for him. He knows exactly who he is, where he’s at, and what he wants. You don’t need to hear it from me because you can just hear it from him. After our talk, Bieber showed me a video on his phone of him and his friends boxing. More precisely, of him beating the shit out of one of his bigger friends. Justin Bieber’s a fighting man—fearless, graceful, ferocious—and that’s a pretty good place to start. I left our talk with plans to hang out when he returns to the city, without a doubt in my mind that he’s going to be just fine.
ELLIOT DAVID How you doing?
JUSTIN BIEBER Doing tired, man.
ED You’ve only been in town for a couple of days?
JB Just yesterday. I got in the night before.
ED That’s rough.
JB It’s rough, but that’s what we do.
ED How often do you go back to Canada?
JB Hardly ever. I’m going to go back and see my family during Thanksgiving. But other than that, I don’t really go back.
ED I read once that you try to take off one to two days a week. Does that still happen?
JB I try to take one now. When I’m releasing an album, I don’t really get time off because I’ve got to work to promote the album. But other than that, I try to take one to two days off a week, yeah.
ED And then what do you do?
JB I just hang out with my friends, go to the movies. In L.A., I go to Jaden [Smith]’s all the time.
ED Taylor Lautner once told me he doesn’t really go out much due to the rabid fandom, how it snowballs from one person recognizing him and quickly escalates to a really bad situation. You say you’re going out, but are you ever concerned you’re going to get bombarded or, basically, attacked?
JB Not really. I don’t really feel that. I just kind of do whatever.
ED That sounds healthy, albeit dangerous. Let’s rewind to how you got to this place. You went from obscurity to selling out Madison Square Garden in, what, two years?
JB Yeah. I went to watch Taylor Swift perform at the Garden with [longtime manager] Scooter [Braun], and everyone was waving their arms back and forth—she was getting everyone to do it. I said, I want to be here and make everyone wave their arms back and forth. And Scooter was like, someday. And two years later I sold it out in twenty-two minutes [making him the youngest performer ever to sell out the venue].
ED So you set that goal and then you hit it, and now you can’t really get any more successful. Under the Mistletoe is about to come out, and let’s say it becomes number one [which it debuted as on the Billboard 200, days after this interview; it’s Bieber’s third number-one record after My World 2.0 and Never Say Never: The Remixes]. And your next record will be coming out soon, and let’s say that’s number one. Is this the new goal? What happens in the next three years?
JB There are different goals. Like overseas, in London, I played at the O2 arena. I hope to set the record for the most sold-out performances in a single tour.
ED But what does that mean to you? Just a goal to have?
JB My goal at the end of the day—right now—I want to be successful and be great at what I do. But eventually, I want to become the best at what I do. I want to be the best. In the world. I want to be better than anybody that’s ever done it. And in order to do that, I need to strive to be the best, be good to people and treat people with respect, and work as hard as I can. Because for me, I work so hard and this consumes my life, and it’s not worth it if I’m not the best.
ED So who’s the best now?
JB Right now? I mean, I consider Michael Jackson the best. If I could be at his level... But I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m not saying it’s going to happen within the next three years. But hopefully by the time I’m 30, people will remember me. I think people will remember me at this point, but I don’t want people to just think of me as a teen sensation. Because I could probably just sell out, and then in two years not put out another album, and just become Justin Bieber the teen superstar. But I don’t want to be that. I want to transition, and become the greatest.
ED That’s something I want to ask you about: transitions. You’re going to be 18 in March. It’s a big benchmark from childhood to adulthood. Do you feel like you have to play the role of a kid still?
JB Here’s the thing: I think that I don’t need to try to do anything. There are people who try to grow up too fast—they’re 18, so they’re like, I’m not a kid anymore. People need to know I’m not a kid anymore. But at the end of the day, I’m not completely grown-up. I’m still learning. I’m going to grow up how I grow up. I’m not going to try to conform to what people want me to be or go out there and start partying, have people see me with alcohol. I want to do it at my own pace. But I’m never going to make myself so the kids and the parents don’t respect me. There’re some artists that [parents won’t] let their kids go and see because they think they’re a bad influence. I want to be able to do what Michael did—he always sang clean lyrics—and it was always that little kids loved Michael and grandparents loved Michael. I don’t want to start singing about things like sex, drugs, and swearing. I’m into love, and maybe I’ll get more into making love when I’m older. But I want to be someone who is respected by everybody. Because right now, the young people are who make society. Young people determine what’s cool. Young people determine what’s going to be in style. So I always stick with the young people, that’s what I say.
ED You know, Michael kind of went crazy. A lot of people go crazy. Is that something you think or worry about?
JB Michael had a really bad childhood. I was blessed with a great childhood. My mom loved me. My dad loved me. I’m now a teenager and I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything in my life. I’ve gotten to experience everything I possibly could. I don’t look back and think, Ugh, I wish I would have been able to do that. Maybe [Michael] missed out on a lot, so he tried to [re-live] his childhood when he was older. But I’ve got such good people around me, I’m not worried.
ED You’re talking about keeping clean and making music for everybody, but a lot of the artists you look up to, like Lil Wayne, Kanye—a lot of what those guys rap about is drugs, sex, and money. So what is it that you like so much about them? Is it the music? The rhymes?
JB I can’t say I look up to them, but I definitely like what they do. I think that they’re amazing. But are they on Michael’s level? I don’t think they’re on Michael’s level.
ED Tell that to Kanye.
JB Well, Kanye is on a different level. I mean, Kanye is probably my favorite producer. He’s a musical genius. But, he’s not on Michael’s level. I think that in order to be on Michael’s level you have to reach as many people as Michael reached, and Kanye doesn’t reach as many people. No one really does.
ED So right now predominantly girls listen to your music. How are you going to reach out to a wider audience?
JB It’s all about making good music, and people hate me before they even listen to my music. I know a lot of people say they hate Justin Bieber who haven’t even listened to any of my music. They just hate me because they hate the idea of me. I’m young, I’m handsome—I don’t mean to sound conceited—but they think that I just got here because [of that], because I’m good-looking and girls like me, but the music isn’t there. Here’s the thing: my first album, I was 13 turning 14 when I recorded it, and I put it out when I was 14 or 15. It was my first time recording, and it turned out really well. We put it out, my fans loved it, but I was still really young. Then the second album came out, and I’d geared it mostly toward the fans. And I feel like the more I put out, people will realize it’s really good music, and they’re going to come. I’m not worried about the guy fans because they’re going to come. If they listen to the music and they like it, it doesn’t matter if they go and act like they don’t like me. They’re going to go home and listen to it.
ED Do you want to start rapping? Is that something you want to experiment with in music seriously?
JB No, I mean, I do it for fun, man. I do it just because I think it’s fun.
ED But why not?
JB I don’t think people take me seriously doing it. I’ll just put it out so people will be like “that’s pretty tight.” Like, just something I can do, but I don’t want to make a rap album. But I also want people to know that I write my stuff. No one writes my stuff for me. I write everything on my iPhone. And when people say, “Oh, Justin Bieber, he can spit but he didn’t write his stuff,” they’re wrong. I do.
ED You write your own tweets, too.
JB That’s about keeping my fans in the loop of what I’m doing all the time. I want them to see that I’m not too good for them, and that I can still tell them what I’m doing all the time and be able to keep them informed of when stuff is coming out. When you follow me on Twitter, you are literally following my life. I think that’s really cool.
ED You’re working so hard. As you said, this consumes your life. So what do you look to for strength? I know you are religious, right?
JB I don’t think I’m religious. I am spiritual. I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I believe that he put me in this position, and that I have to always give him the glory he deserves for putting me here. But I don’t consider myself religious. A lot of people who are religious, I feel like they get lost. They go to church just to go to church. I am not trying to disrespect them at all, you know, whatever works for you; but for me, I focus more on praying and talking to Him. I don’t have to go to church. I haven’t been to church in a long time, but I know I have a relationship with Him. People can be like, “If you don’t go to church, what do you mean, how are you a Christian?” But I am. I talk to Him, and that’s all.
ED I read that your mom said she had a personal encounter with God, and she believes you are here to inspire and brighten the world. When you talk to Him, do you feel like you have a personal encounter, or are you just expressing how you feel?
JB You know, my ma has always had God around me, has always made it really apparent. She never pushed it on me, but she always brought me to church and she put me in Sunday school. When I was little, I did these things: “prophetic words,” which is sort of like fortune-telling, but from God. They said in one of those tapes—when I was really young—that I was going to be the voice of the new generation. So, I don’t know what that means. It could just mean that I’m here to make music and inspire people. That’s all I know. I just want to be able to be a good influence on people. I know I’m going to make mistakes, because I’m young and I still love to have fun. I’m not perfect. I think everyone makes mistakes, and that’s what life’s about, you know?
ED Why do you think you’re such an easy target? Is it your age? Your demographic? Your level of success?
JB Yeah, I mean, when I was coming up, trying to get to where I am now, people were so happy [for me]. They were rooting for me. Now that I’m on top, everyone wants to bring me down. Everyone’s trying to tug at me and take my spot. And that’s how it always is, everyone wants you to be on top, and as soon as you’re there—like Floyd Mayweather, he’s the best boxer in the world. Now he is a champion. Every time he goes to a fight now, people are like, “He’s going to lose this time,” and then he wins. And the next time they say, “He’s going to lose,” again; “he’s undefeated, he’s getting old, he’s going to fight Ortiz, who’s younger, and he’s going to lose.” Every time he wins. And people aren’t ever going to know that he’s a champ.
ED So, how are you going to let people know that you’re the champ? People can dismiss you selling out the Garden as riding that big wave of initial fame. And let’s say you set the O2 arena record... I mean, who are you really setting these goals for?
JB I am setting them not only for me but for other people too. I want people to know that this is not just a fluke. It’s not a fluke that I’m here. I’m here for a reason, and I’m here for a lifetime. And no one is going to get rid of me.
ED They didn’t call Michael the King of Pop until he was around 30.
JB That’s right. It took him a long time. I’m here now, and I’m going to keep proving to people that I’m here for good.
ED Isn’t that a lot of pressure to put on yourself?
JB No. I’m a competitive person. If I lose at Ping-pong or something, I’m like, “Ahh!” It’s exciting.
ED Sure. Except when you’re a competitive person and you’re playing basketball or Ping-pong, or whatever, you have somebody to beat. But what it seems like we’re talking about is you against yourself.
JB Now that I’m where I am, I work even harder because there are always people who will try to be where I am. There are people in this world who are really talented—super talented— who want their shot to be where I am, and they’re going to work as hard as they can to be where I am, like how I worked. So, in order for me to stay where I am I need to work just as hard as those people, if not harder. Like I said before, Floyd Mayweather trains every day, even when it’s off-season. When everyone else just chills and doesn’t work out because they are not fighting. He’s in there punching the bags because he wants to be the best. He wants to be better than Muhammad Ali, and that’s what he’s striving to be. He’s going to go and fight even when he doesn’t have to. When I have time off I need to, at this point—I’m going to be honest: I’m young and I’m not as disciplined as I need to be in order to be the best. If I have a day off, I need to be at the dance studio, [but instead] I’m hanging out with my friends because I’m young. But when I’m in my 20s and I’m starting to really want to be the best, I need to buckle down and work as hard as these other people. Like Kobe Bryant: he shows up two hours before the game, or two hours before practice, and leaves two hours later because he just wants it way more than everyone else. And that’s what I want.
ED But, you can’t expect to do that now. You can’t spend all of your teen years just working and working and working.
JB And that’s what I mean, I can only do so much and pick what’s most important, because I need to make sure I have fun doing this but I also need to work really hard.
ED And you perform, what, 120 shows in a tour sometimes? Toward the end, how do you keep going?
JB You’ve got to. By the end of the tour you’re so tired of doing the same show every night, but you’re getting better every night and you’re realizing what the fans love when you do it. So if I do one move and I hear that same reaction every night I am going to keep doing it and trying to do it better. So by the end of the tour, everything is so tight. I feel like my fans are what get me through. Just seeing the smiles and people crying in the audience—it’s crazy.
ED So, let’s say that Mayweather wants to be better than Ali, right?
ED You can’t ever really compare someone to Ali, because he’s an icon. Michael’s an icon. So no matter what Mayweather does, no matter how many people he beats, or how long he stays a champ, or if he retires or is defeated, do you think that people can ever really compare or ever say Mayweather was better than Ali?
JB It’s different. First of all, Ali was in a different weight class, so it’s completely different. But I think it’s about making himself just as big. I mean, Michael Jackson looked up to James Brown. James Brown was an icon. And I would consider Michael Jackson bigger than James Brown. If Mayweather goes another three, four fights, and wins? Muhammad Ali lost. Mayweather has never lost in his whole career. He is like 35 years old. He hasn’t lost and people don’t give him that respect.
ED Do you box?
JB Yeah, I box. Me and my friends box all the time. My dad is a fighter so he taught me some stuff growing up, and he’s a great fighter, so I’m a pretty good boxer. Here, I want to show you something.
Justin pulls up the video on his phone. He and his friend circle each other in the ring, while “Eye of the Tiger” plays in the background, Jaden Smith playing referee. The bell goes off. And Bieber starts swinging.