Whether you're fourteen or forty, you've probably heard of Justin Bieber. The sweet 16 singer has been living a modern day fairy tale ever since being discovered on YouTube. Usher, who signed him to his first contract, recently bought him a Range Rover. The press has given him the kind of attention usually reserved for post-rehab pop stars. (Just last week, Bieber owned the cover of People magazine.) And the under twelve set has stormed every mall where he's appeared! (Want to see for yourself? Get a glimpse at the kind of reaction that Bieber gets from his fans in this footage from his recent tour:
What's made this bang-laden lyricist so contagious? And what can Bieber teach us about tweens, and importantly, what it takes to connect with them?
First, Bieber is 16 - and he knows what that's really like. He hasn't grown up in the limelight, unlike other tween/teen pop sensations, so his "normal" upbringing makes it believable when he sings about being 13 and in love for the first time: "She make my heart pound and skip a beat when I see her in the street and, at school, on the playground. But I really wanna see her on a weekend" (from Bieber's single, "Baby"). As a pre-teen fan recently wrote on Twitter, "Taylor Swift sings about what girls want to say. Justin Bieber sings about what girls want to hear. :)"
Does this stuff fly with teens? Not a chance. In fact, Miley Cyrus recently made it clear that she prefers Kurt Cobain to Bieber. Bieber's brand of simple romance lacks the angst that teens experience and want reflected in their music. But Bieber seems comfortable trading off teens for tweens. In fact, after spending time with Miley Cyrus and little sis Noah, Bieber Tweeted to the smaller Cyrus. Of course, Miley sent him a big-sisterly thanks in response.
With his loyal tween audience in mind, it makes sense that Bieber (and team) opt for access over elusiveness. While over-exposure can be the kiss of death for teens, ubiquity makes tweens - who value being one of the crowd versus standing out from it - comfortable. In line with the connected generation's expectations, Bieber doesn't just tweet, but actively responds to fans - even encouraging them to send him their own YouTube auditions. In this way, the Bieber epidemic feels more like an intimate affliction than an impersonal plague.
Perhaps Bieber's wisest move has been getting in good with the parents who are funding Bieber Fever! He's flirted with Chelsea Handler, Barbara Walters, and most recently, Tina Fey. He talks about wanting to make his mom proud - and somehow makes it sound more conscientious than cliché. And he speaks to that side of tweens who may not want to be seen being dropped off at school by their parents, but who might not mind curling up to watch American Idol with them.
Or maybe Bieber just happened to come of age at the exact moment when we want our pop stars a bit sweeter and our Romeos a bit more sincere? Could Bieber be bringing back the notion that nice boys finish first? We hope so.