June 14, 2012 at 12:31 PM ET
It looks like there’s no escaping it. The Beebs is back.
Granted, 18-year-old singing sensation Justin Bieber didn’t exactly go away after he made his initial splash in 2009. But with his third album, “Believe,” set for release on June 19, the YouTube-born sensation seems omnipresent, whether he’s riling up international fans with free concerts, giving interviews in odd accents, or performing on TODAY (as he will on Friday).
The idea of the pint-sized pop star launching yet another media blitz is unlikely to excite many people who don’t describe themselves as “teenage” and “girl.” To adult eyes and ears, he comes off as lightweight, maybe even silly. But when you take a step back and look at Bieber within the context of the history of pop music, he doesn’t seem so silly. Bieber is the embodiment of a classic pop archetype – the cute, non-threatening teen idol. It’s an archetype that appeared dead until he revived it. And it’s one that the pop world arguably needs today more than ever.
Pop music always had its teen idols, starting with Frank Sinatra in the 1940s and continuing with Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Davy Jones, David Cassidy, Leif Garrett and New Kids on the Block, among others. Even the young Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson fit this archetype before they outgrew it.
But something happened after the New Kids decided in 1990 that they valued street cred above teen appeal: the teen idol as pop sensation disappeared. Sure, we got 98 Degrees and ’N Sync, but they were too sophisticated, too sexual, and too adult to really qualify. Would-be idols like Joey Lawrence never quite broke big, and the female teenage singers that began to grace the covers of magazines such as Tiger Beat in the late 1990s were so highly sexualized they may as well have been adults. And no one from “American Idol” ever quite captured the fancy of the tween market.
This turn of events created a cynical pop landscape where everyone, it seemed, tried to be more outrageous than the other. But if everyone’s a badass, then no one is. When everyone pushes the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope, it all begins to seem more ridiculous than risqué. In other words, if people consciously know you’re trying to be wild, you’re not wild -- you’re someone trying to be wild.
All of this is the reason that Bieber comes off like a breath of fresh air to a lot of people. It’s also the main reason he was welcomed by the younger set when his homegrown videos started popping up on YouTube. Here was a mainstream-leaning performer who didn’t rely on shock appeal -- or any sort of coolness factor at all. Plus, those early videos with just him and his guitar proved that he really could sing. That alone was a revelation in a Top 40 era in which Auto-Tune has allowed a lot of less-than-stellar singers to have entire careers.
It’s easy to poke fun at teen idols. Their lyrics are vapid, their sense of style too obviously trendy, and their fan base isn’t very sophisticated. But more often than not, they bring a healthy dose of refreshing innocence to the pop scene, whether they’re singing “I Think I Love You,”“Please Don’t Go, Girl,” or “Die in Your Arms,” the last of which is Bieber’s latest hit single.
If the huge outpouring of grief that followed Davy Jones’ recent death is any indication, people value the role of the teen idol more than they let on. If Bieber’s recent altercation with a photographer is any indication, he’s starting to outgrow his sweet and innocent phase (to paraphrase an old Donny Osmond song). Appreciate him now before becomes like everybody else.
Tony Sclafani is an arts and culture writer whose first book is due out next year. His work can be seen at www.tonysclafani.com.
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