At 18 years of age, Justin Bieber is facing up to a major pop culture realization: make it work as a “real” artist or become a teen sensation permanently arrested in people’s minds as that dude who had a hit with “Baby” back in the day.
And allegations that he hit a photographer over the weekend got us thinking: What's the YouTube sensation turned seller of 15 million albums and Forbes' third most powerful celebrity have to do to get this transition right?
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Step #1: Start with the music.
So far, so good. Bieber seems to be taking cues from two other former child sensations that went on to become respected child-to-adult stars – Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson.
The first single from “Believe” (out June 19) was “Boyfriend,” a sexy, grown-up song reminiscent of what Timberlake delivered post ’N Sync on his first solo album “Justified.”
“If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go/ I can take you places you ain’t never been before/ Baby take a chance or you’ll never ever know/ I got money in my hands that I’d really like to blow,” sings and raps Bieber on “Boyfriend” over a club-ready beat.
Even Billboard could look past lyrics such as, “Chillin’ by the fire why we eatin’ fondue,” in the magazine's positive review of the song: “Despite the handful of lame couplets aside, "Boyfriend" is at least sonically polished enough to belong on a radio playlist with the Usher and Justin Timberlake songs that brought Bieber YouTube fame just three short years ago,” wrote Billboard’s Andrew Hampp.
“Die in Your Arms,” the second single from “Believe” (which is Bieber’s third studio album), borrows from the piano-based pop stylings of the Jackson Five. Think handclaps and finger-snaps. “If I could just die in your arms/ I wouldn’t mind,” Bieber sings. “Cause every time you touch me/ I just die in your arms/ It just feels so right.”
The singer who started out as the “Boyfriend” is now portrayed as the leading man of “Die In Your Arms.”
Step #2: Hang out with some grown-ups -- but don't forget the kids.
The notion of Bieber boxing with Mike Tyson may seem far-fetched, but over Memorial Day weekend the former heavyweight world champ tweeted a pic of himself and Bieber in the gym pre-training. The diminutive singer was also spotted alongside Floyd Mayweather at his victory in Las Vegas earlier in May, going so far as to hold the boxer's prize belts aloft as the ring announcer introduced the super welterweight champ pre-fight.
Tough company for a teenybopper. Only time will tell if the friendships linger but Bieber will be hitting notes rather than punching bags as he heads into his "Believe" concert tour during the summer.
Considering “Believe” features duets with Drake, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean and Ludacris, Bieber could do worse than take a leaf from Taylor Swift’s live playbook. Swift — herself currently trying to transition from ‘tween goddess to serious songstress — saw her credibility rise when John Mayer, Katy Perry, James Taylor, Nicki Minaj, Jason Mraz and Faith Hill all made guest appearances during her 2011 “Speak Now” tour.
(Bieber and his girlfriend Selena Gomez also performed alongside the blonde country-pop sensation during that tour.)
At the same time, Bieber recently tweeted that his protégé (yes, an 18-year-old can have a protégé!) “Call Me Maybe” singer Carly Rae Jepson will be joining him on his tour, which kicks off in Arizona Sept. 29. He added, “my other special guest is ….. you will have to wait and see :)”
Step #3: Act!
Ah, the potential salvation of every aging model; exhausted stand-up comedian; and many a teen singing sensation: the silver screen.
Bieber is all over that.
“Mark Wahlberg and I are working on a script right now,” Bieber said during a March radio interview for “On Air With Ryan Seacrest.” “It’s not fully done yet, but we are doing a movie together.”
Picking Wahlberg as a movie co-star makes sense. Wahlberg famously transitioned from his rapper alter ego Marky Mark into the respected actor he is today. Lest audiences forget, Wahlberg was ranked No. 1 on VH1’s 40 Hottest Hotties of the '90s and his band was named the Funky Bunch.
It was his roles in 1997’s “Boogie Nights,” “Three Kings” in 1999 and 2000’s “The Perfect Storm” that helped push Marky Mark and those revealing Calvin Klein underwear ads he posed for to the background.
Wahlberg told MTV News that choosing Bieber to act alongside in the as yet untitled basketball-based drama was a no brainer. "I see the guy and spent time with him and you see what he does and how he does it," said Wahlberg of Bieber, "and then you actually have a conversation with him and it's there."
Step #4: Show some depth.
No matter how powerfully those artistic punches hit, it’s the follow-through hook -- the one that portrays him as a human being -- that audiences really want to see. Love, loss and humility, hallmarks of any evolving person, are the traits Bieber has yet to reveal.
On the personal front, Bieber's relationship with Selena Gomez could be a plus or a minus in his quest to be branded a man.
On one hand, the couple seems steady and almost mature in their 2-year-old relationship. The Disney starlet straddles acting (“Wizards of Waverly Place” and the upcoming film “Spring Breakers” alongside James Franco) and music (Selena Gomez and The Scene have released three Gold-certified albums) and has yet to be the focus of tabloid scandal.
On the other hand, the pair seems a little too good to be true and saccharine-sweet, while his career may benefit from just a little sour. Keep in mind Timberlake, who famously dated fellow Mouseketeer Britney Spears for three years before the former ‘N Syncer abruptly broke off the relationship amid infidelity rumors in March 2002 – a mere eight months prior to the release of “Justified” and his u-turn in the public consciousness from boy-bander to adult artist.
It can be argued that the split helped portray Timberlake in a new light, that of the man who had won and lost in love at the same time he was staking his reputation on his first solo album. (It could also be argued that given Spears' well-documented breakdowns post-Timberlake, he just made a sensible move.)
Either way, Bieber needs to get past the school-boy flirting, such as brandishing a snake he called "Johnson" at a clearly weirded-out Gomez on the red carpet of September's Video Music Awards.
Step 5: Prove you are through with the kid stuff.
Ok, here's where it gets super tricky. How can you prove you are now a man, without also coming across like a jerk?
Beliebers – fans of the Bieb – were stunned at the news that the normally controlled pop star allegedly lashed out at a photographer as he and Gomez were leaving a shopping center in Calabasas, Calif., over the weekend. As authorities investigate the incident as a possible misdemeanor battery against the paparazzo and seek witnesses, Bieber flew to Norway to begin a series of European concert dates.
Skeptics may see the incident as perfectly timed to coincide with Bieber's very public friendship with boxer Tyson, and the release of his latest single “Die In Your Arms,” which dropped Tuesday morning. Beliebers see it as a non-choreographed moment that’s proof of a tougher, more grown up Bieber who is willing to take control of any situation.
After all, this is the guy who told Access Hollywood Live recently that when it comes to his future: “I want to shock people..Everything I do I want people to be shocked.”
Shocking? Probably not. But intriguing and a hint of some of the entertainment perhaps to come as Justin Bieber navigates adulthood in a very public eye.