04.01.10

The Making of a Teen Idol

How Justin Bieber tweeted his way to the top of the charts. Maura Johnston on the carefully cultivated rise of a pop phenomenon.

This week's No. 1 album is by the pop singer Justin Bieber, who is probably better known to most Internet-savvy people over the age of 16 as a persistent trending topic on Twitter than as a pop singer. The mop-topped, baby-voiced singer's second album, My World 2.0, is at the summit of this week's Billboard 200 after selling 283,000 copies in its first week on shelves.

In pop music, one of the most obvious ways to determine which artists were teen idols and which were merely filler for the pages of Bop has been record sales. Ten years ago this week, 'N Sync—the boy band that spawned Justin Timberlake—set a single-week SoundScan record when it sold 2.1 million copies of its second album, No Strings Attached, in a seven-day span.

Bieber has a definite star quality that makes him simultaneously approachable to teens and annoying to adults.

That sales total—which hasn't been matched by any other music artist since the turn of the century's teen-pop glory days—dwarfs the mark set by Bieber this week. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Bieber holds an inferior place in the pop-idol pantheon. Thanks to a dearth of places to buy music and a slew of ways in which people can hear the songs they want to hear without plunking down cash, most albums these days can barely make their way past the six-figure sales mark.

The newer venues for music-consumption are key to Bieber's success, more so than they are for the Disney- assisted Jonas Brothers or the Nashville-groomed Taylor Swift. Bieber's rise to stardom started off on YouTube, where the Canadian teen would post his covers of R&B hits by the likes of Ne-Yo and Aretha Franklin. (Sample comment on his performance of "Respect," posted when he was 13: "people make fun of his voice but guess who else had a high pitched voice like that....michael jackson (no im not comparing them cause there is no comparison).")

The Atlanta-based music manager Scooter Braun saw the clips and came calling, and that led to a deal with Island Def Jam and to Bieber being taken under the wing of the R&B singer Usher. Bieber's subsequent rise to the top of the teen-idol heap was as methodical as it was well-timed. He dribbled out singles from his records on a regular basis and Tweeted constantly, thus satisfying the always-on demands of the wired teen-girl faithful. Eventually that diligence paid off: he stepped into the space vacated by the Jonas Brothers when one of them decided to focus on a band featuring members of the New Power Generation.

Bieber has a definite star quality that makes him simultaneously approachable to teens and annoying to adults. His preternatural swagger has resulted in him doing things like Twitter-taunting John Mayer and matter-of-factly telling reporters that he never gets nervous.

But it's that swagger, combined with his accessibility, that might actually be what sets Bieber apart from his similarly windblown compatriots. In the 'N Sync era, the way that teen idols were made was much more top-down: appearances on TRL would be the crowning achievement, the massed crowds of young women screaming in Times Square serving as a demonstration of fandom. (Think of it as a sunnier heir to the Beatles' reception on The Ed Sullivan Show). But TRL went MIA in late 2008, and most of the teen-idol-cultivating action has moved into the Mouse House; the Jonas Brothers landed at Disney after a semi-disastrous stint at Sony's Columbia Records, and the company's nationally syndicated teen-pop network Radio Disney has conveniently incorporated homegrown stars like Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus into its playlist.

Bieber, with his YouTube roots and obsessive Tweeting, could be a sign of what's to come in teen idoldom. As with most Internet-based phenomena, his rise wasn't wholly organic—Braun, Bieber's manager, is quite savvy at seeding online outlets with his clients, having also done so with the slackerish rapper Asher Roth in early 2009. But his following is very real, and the self-reinforcing nature of the bubble Bieber has created through the size and fervency of his Twitter following (around 1.67 million at last count) has heightened his profile among both fans and people who might otherwise have no idea who he is.

His seeming proximity online simultaneously makes him seem smaller in comparison to his predecessors (particularly by people who lived through those idols' heydays) and larger than life to his fanbase. After all, the possibility of running into, say, Justin Timberlake at a mall in 2001 was much more remote than the potential of being @-replied by Bieber while he's sitting in hair and makeup. And the idea that one of those fantasies is only a mouse-click away heightens the intensity with which starry-eyed young women will hope to make it come true.

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Maura Johnston is the American Idol columnist for Fancast.com and the pop critic for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. She has written for the Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Paste, and Gawker. Follow her on Twitter.