Justin Bieber is 16, looks and sounds much younger, and is now getting more attention than almost anyone else in the pop music world. As of April 14, Billboard has announced he holds both the No. 1 and No. 8 spots on the Billboard 200 albums chart, with his “My World 2.0” album and “My World” EP, respectively. Both releases have also spawned multiple hit singles.
He also just came off a much-publicized debut appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” made the cover of People magazine and reportedly will have to perform behind glass “for his own safety” in Australia. The Canadian teen’s sudden rise to superstardom might be puzzling to those who don’t follow tween culture, but anyone who has heard Bieber on one of his many YouTube videos knows he can sing.
That might explain his success, but it doesn’t explain the mania, which is being called “Bieber Fever.” Acts that get as big as Bieber succeed for more than one reason. And in Bieber’s case, the main other reason for his fame seems to be the safe sex appeal he projects to the tween girls that make up the majority of his audience. If ever there was an official Boy Next Door of pop, it's Justin Bieber.
What makes Bieber’s stardom so surprising, though, is that he shot to the top in a pop scene filled with outrageous artists like Lady Gaga and Ke$ha.
“I think it all has to do with timing,” said Matthew Rettenmund, editor-in-chief of the magazine Popstar! “At the time he was coming out, he was providing a counterpoint to anything that is too risqué.”
“I think that girls see him as being very, very genuine and someone that they would possibly grow up with or sit next to in seventh grade English,” said Jacqueline Fulton, senior editor at the teen entertainment magazine Twist. “He just seems like he’s coming from a very real place.”
Bieber took his first steps towards fame in 2007, when he and his mother posted videos of him singing versions of songs by Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake and others on YouTube.
Fulton said this “organic” route to success showed fans he was “not someone who is produced or someone who just came out of nowhere and had a shiny CD and posters.” This, in turn, made him more “approachable” than the Disney-certified stars tweens are used to — and has made “Bieber Fever” a 2.0 version of the usual teen idol mania.
Times change, idols don’t
According to Cooper Lawrence, the author of “The Cult of Celebrity,” Bieber is unique because unlike most young male stars today, he’s embraced his boyish image: “Most young boys want to be rockers. They want to look like rockers and skate punks. (But) those aren’t the kind of boys that a young girl feels safe to fantasize about.”
“He’s squeaky clean in many respects,” said Rettenmund. “He’s safe, as opposed to being one of the bad boys.”
No matter how raunchy the pop scene gets, there will always be a place for teen idols, because they serve as “fantasy” boyfriends to young girls, said Lawrence. “These guys are great examples of the young pop star that’s OK to be in love with. This is about (the girls’) first experience in a romantic relationship. So they can fantasize having a crush on Justin Bieber, and his music, his image and all of that encourages it.”
Throughout pop’s history, stars like Bieber have given young girls “practice with a safe object” for romantic relationships, said Tim Kasser, Knox College’s psychology department chair and co-author of the study “Why do Adolescent Girls Idolize Male Celebrities?”
“The fact is Justin Timberlake is never really gonna break her heart — or whoever the new person is,” he said. “When you think of these (types of) male celebrities, they’re idealized — they’re who every girl would love, and they seem like they would be very caring and warm, and that’s just what these girls are looking for.”
‘He dresses like the kids dress’
Bieber’s sense of style also plays to his fan base, said Marissa Negrete, 15, a fan from California. Instead of donning standard rock or rap outfits, “he dresses like the kids dress nowadays,” she said.
“Kids our age nowadays don’t have a singer that’s our age we can relate to,” she said. “I feel like he’s something kids relate to.”
Bieber also has a sense of humor, which makes him seem more down to earth than a lot of pop artists. On April Fools Day, he “took over” the comedy video site FunnyOrDie.com, which got revamped as “Bieber or Die.” In one of his videos, he claimed he’d purchased the site and said from that moment on, “anything that’s not Bieber dies.”
“He had these very silly videos, very funny, and I think that that’s also something that appeals to (his fans),” said Fulton. “He strikes a really weird balance of being very cute but very, very cool. And I think that’s what is really reaching the girls.”
There’s also the music, of course. His style has a retro appeal that’s non-threatening, said USA Today’s Brian Mansfield. Reviewing “My World 2.0,” Mansfield noted the lead single, “Baby,” boasted a “sweet pop melody (that) would’ve worked for any teen act since Frankie Lymon.”
“That’s what I thought was kind of neat about the new album — you’ve got this ’50s sounding song, and you’ve got a couple of songs that have very ’70s and very ’80s sounds to them,” Mansfield said. “It was almost like somebody in the Justin Bieber camp was going, ‘We’re going to show the moms and dads that we know what we’re doing here.’”
Tony Sclafani is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com