It must be something to walk around all day, believing that not only you have a fantastic body, but also—when the world is against you—that this same body has some innate power to ward off the forces of darkness conspiring to bring you down. You believe that your body can make everything good; just one glimpse of your sculpted, toned beauty and—poof!—everything’s all right again.
Justin Bieber clearly believes his six pack can save him from the global perception that he is a straight-up, annoying pest and idiot. The evidence increases relentlessly: riding a strange, motorized contraption in between traffic and on sidewalks in Los Angeles, fighting with Orlando Bloom, partying loudly, and generally being obnoxious.
Yet Bieber discovered the limited power of a taut torso and perfect pecs last night at the 2014 Fashion Rocks event, held at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The singer, appearing on stage with supermodel Lara Stone to introduce British singer Rita Ora, loped out on stage in that innately annoying, look-at-me gait of the truly unimpressive. He was booed loudly. Ignoring the hostile reaction, he said to Stone: “I actually don’t feel comfortable, unless I’m in my Calvins. So, what’s up? Is that cool?”
Poor Stone, like most of us, forced to share a stage with this unpredictable, spoiled brat, looked uncomfortable.
“Go on then,” she said, as if humoring a grating younger sibling.
The booing continued. Bieber took off his pants. There was some cheering, but he wasn’t winning the crowd over. There were scattered screams, but not many. I like to think they were ones of mortification. Anyway, the disrobing continued.
“Is that better?” he asked Stone, who must have been wishing she had been pulling teeth out of a live tiger—anything but this.
“So much,” she said to Bieber smiling, while thinking, “I am so firing my entire management team.”
Then Bieber took his vest off. He stood there in his underwear, and waited for the crowd to melt, scream, implode, to behold his truly hot abs, tits, and arms. I thought: gosh, he really has grown, although he still seems young. And: ugh, Calvin Klein underwear looks rubbish now. It's journeyed too far away from the much sexier tighty-whitey—we need to revive interest in those.
As fully displayed as primetime would allow, Bieber was expecting audible adoration. The crowd did not respond like that. Their screaming was half-hearted, the booing didn’t stop. And so it was that Justin Bieber discovered that his abs could not save him. He knew his charm had failed, he could hear the audience—his core audience, not even oldies and cynics in the media—shouting their judgment that, fabulous body or not, he still seemed a jerk.
So, miserably, he resorted to the autocue, and even this he turned into a disaster. “If you’re going to do a show called Fashion Rocks, you’ve got to hear ‘Fashion’ by David Bowie,” he said. “And to see great fashion,” he added half-heartedly, in monotone and with no punctuation. It made no sense, except maybe as something he could customize as The Bieber Haiku.
“Now for one of England’s newest sensations,” he added brightly, before Stone got to actually say Rita Ora’s name.
Then the lights went down on Bieber and his puddle of clothes. It was a sad, telling display. What has he got left to seduce his audience with? You can’t fault his impulse. It works for others. Post Magic Mike, the big-stage, primetime male strip is popular right now: Zac Efron removed his clothes at the MTV Video Awards in April, but he did so with a knowing wink and charm alien to the braggart-ish Bieber.
Just as Bieber was pathetically divesting himself of his flimsy outer-garments, the much more stylish and impressive Tyson Beckford was doing the same at Andy Cohen’s behest on Bravo’s excellent late night show Watch What Happens Live. Beckford, like Efron, did so with faux-protest, and with a big smile on his face. These stars know the male body is as ogled and objectified as the female, though Bieber’s trip failed because—great arms, pecs and pretty face or not—when you’re a man and you display your body on television, you should do so with some self-deprecation, an eye-roll—even if it’s insincere. You cannot perform or externalize your vanity as overtly as Bieber did without again emphasizing to the world you are a jerk.
Last night’s debacle is refreshing. Bieber now knows his perfect body is no longer the weaponry with which to repel his bad press. But also the male body, so long now fetishized with its six packs, perky pecs and thick biceps, is just a body. Sure, it’s nice to look at—well done Mr. Bieber for those hours in the gym, they have paid off—but all that sweating and grunting is for nothing if the owner of these impressive attributes is, or is perceived to be, a brat: rude, entitled, and arrogant.
The male body, presented at its masculine, muscled best, is supposed to wow, to silence, to seduce on impact—it didn’t matter what the Diet Coke guy said, right? But maybe wordless lust isn't a given any more. Justin Bieber learned last night he is going to have to be more than a pretty face and impressive body to succeed in courting the public. He cannot just let his tits do the talking. It’s a rough lesson for him, and a worthy, refreshing one for the rest of us.