"You're thinking about a mallard duck," he says, and suddenly I am thinking about a mallard duck.
I'm sitting onstage with Justin at a sound check in Waukegan, Ill. His right hand makes the "wax on, wax off" gesture. Although the weather is basically hot he is sporting a black leather jacket with large silver buckles and studs. His hair is the modern-day Roy Orbison. His shoelaces are purple. I don't really understand what is going on with the eerie airbrush smoothness of his pearl cliff cheeks but now his eyes have locked with mine and i have never been so seized by a person.
"I am howling," he says. "Listen."
I am not going to pretend to understand Justin Bieber's songs or Justin Bieber's music or Justin Bieber's fans or Justin Bieber's incongruous flat bill caps. But I know that so far tonight usher has handed him at least thirteen Shirley Temples in fraternity-red plastic cups and he has gulped them down like emergencies. I know that when he doesn't think people are looking he fidgets with the hood on his hoodie. Earlier I asked him about this and he said, "you saw?" and smiled. It was the smile of a puppy. It was the smile of a baby. It was the smile of a porcelain doll.
* * *
Justin Bieber can use the force. That is why I am here.
Last month I published an essay called “Justin Bieber is Luke Skywalker.” The point of it involved the archetypal myth, the western classical hero. The point involved rhetorical analysis and a bunch of shit having to do with Joseph Campbell. The point involved Bieber as a tabula rasa to project upon, a vacant face with some latent talent who made it big on YouTube and thereby empowered consumers of American pop culture to validate their own exceptionalism by aligning their narratives with his, or whatever. Aside from the haircut the Luke Skywalker comparison was in no way specific to Luke Skywalker. It could have been to harry potter or to Gilgamesh or to baseball, the American pastime. But Bieber must have read it and thought it was, because shortly thereafter he started talking to me inside my mind.
"Yo," he said one day. "Let's kick it."
This is not a metaphor for something. I mean that he literally started talking to me via like brain-waves and literally said, “let's kick it.” We chatted for fifteen or twenty minutes and then he booked me a flight out to Chicago, where I was picked up at the airport and chauffeured north inside a massive Bieber van with a massive Bieber face spray painted on the side. In Waukegan usher greeted me at the stadium and presented me with a freshly minted 2011 g-shock g-lide glx-5600-7 chronograph.
“From the man himself,” he said, and slinked off down a hallway.
If this entire buildup seems surreal, that's because it was. But what I'm coming to realize now as I write these words is that I think that surreality was deliberate. In fact I think all the surreality about Bieber, from the purple shoelaces to the flat bill caps to the stunning manner in which he always seems to be shorter than everyone around him, is deliberate. And that makes sense because, as I learned quickly over those few short days in southern Illinois, Teen Sensation Justin Bieber is omnipotent.
But he really hopes he isn't.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
* * *
Justin Bieber is seventeen years old and is worth just shy of $100,000,000.
“Does that blow your mind?” I ask him.
“Have you ever had sex?” I ask him.
“But seriously,” I ask him.
“I first learned I could do this when I was about three years old,” he says. He motions me over to a corner. He takes a quarter out of his pocket and flips it into the air and asks me to call it.
“Tails,” I tell him.
The coin lands tails.
He flips it again.
“Heads,” I tell him.
The coin lands heads.
We repeat this process ninety eight times.
“So are you changing my mind or are you fucking with the coin?” I ask him.
“I have no idea,” he says.
I realize now that this is why Justin Bieber is terrified of everything all of the time.
* * *
“Anybody have some dental floss? Hook me up with a thing of dental floss. And some tape. That roll of tape over there.”
We are in the process of duct taping every one of Usher's belongings to the ceiling of his dressing room. Three vials of "only the Brave" fragrance in limited-edition exclamation-point-shaped containers. A pair of Dwight Howard Superbeast All-Star kicks. A hat rack. The Sealy Posturepedic mattress was the most difficult part but we jury-rigged a kind of pulley-thing with the help of a support beam, some towing cables, and four or five empty film canisters courtesy of the Never Say Never documentary crew.
Presumably Bieber wants some dental floss to bundle together the wad of toothbrushes he's holding in his right hand. This is odd for a couple of reasons. First off, I know for a fact that Usher isn't sharing this room with anyone, meaning he packed like five different toothbrushes for a three-day trip. Second is of course the obvious fact that Justin Bieber is perched atop the shoulders of his bodyguard Barry Dickens demanding dental floss in order to duct-tape Usher's personal shit to the ceiling.
“Over there by Daryl. See it? It's laying by the sandal.”
Lighting designer Ku'uipo Curry interrupts her relocation of a signed poster for the Michael Jackson's Moonwalker video game ('signed' not by Michael but rather by Michael's pet chimp Bubbles, who appeared in the game as a power-up) to toss Bieber the floss and a fresh roll of tape. I hear the tape screech. Barry adjusts his weight. Ku'uipo straightens out the poster's dog-ear and surveys the result.
Bieber, of course, doesn't need the help. He could reach out his hand and close his eyes and summon the floss and the tape to him in an instant. But he doesn't.
“I don't want people to know,” he told me the day before. Rehearsal had just ended and I had just arrived and we were eating Chinese takeout from those white Chinese takeout boxes with the red line-drawings on the side. In the sea of lighting designers and backup dancers and pyrotechnicians I was concerned that I'd be lost in the fray. But Bieber came straight to me and said “Hey” and showed me the coin trick and so there we were sitting in the back of the Bieber bus.
“Then why are you talking about it with me?” I asked.
“Because I can trust you.”
“I'm a reporter.”
“Because you understand.”
“There's nothing to understand.”
“But you understand,” he had said.
Having successfully bound the toothbrushes Bieber dismounts Barry and surveys the result. Everything in the room is in fact duct-taped to the ceiling.
We wait for a second.
Usher walks into the dressing room.
“Why the fuck are all y'all in my dressing room?” He asks.
“Where is all my shit?” He asks.
He looks up.
“All of my shit is taped to the ceiling,” he says.
“Including my toothbrushes,” he says.
“That is hilarious.”
It really is very funny.
“That is fucking hilarious.”
Barry is laughing at Usher. He points and then continues to laugh at Usher.
“That is fucking hilarious.”
Bieber gets a running start and jumps on Usher's back. He scampers up Usher's shoulders and springboards off and grabs the Dwight Howards and the tape rips and sticks to the Dwight Howards on the way down. Bieber lands and rolls and bolts out the door. Usher tears after him.
“Is this type of thing, like, common?” I ask Barry.
“There's always something,” he says.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later Bieber is curled up in the fetal position in the hallway outside my room sobbing furiously. I'm walking back in from the restroom when I see him.
“That prank was funny,” I tell him.
“Yeah,” he says.
“You are sobbing furiously,” I tell him.
“Yeah,” he says.
Then I am transported through the air inside a bubble, hovering. I am in Tokyo floating above a stage. Justin Bieber is performing on that stage. The crowd undulates like strands of seaweed caught in a current. The crowd does not appear to be composed of individuals. Everyone is screaming. Everyone cheers. My bubble floats to Sydney, Australia. A crowd is there, too. One girl in particular is screaming. She is not however screaming because she is elated that Justin Bieber is performing. In fact Justin Bieber is not performing. He is not on stage. No one is on stage. No one is on stage because it is three in the morning. Yet still the girl is screaming because even though it is three in the morning she is being crushed, trampled, sacked against the fence by the surge of the crowd. Because even though Justin Bieber is not performing now, Justin Bieber will be performing later, and so the crowd wants to be close, to revel in that closeness by the act of watching, and therefore they advance, and therefore the girl is crushed.
“Her name was I don't know what the fuck her name was,” he says.
I am back in Waukegan, Illinois.
“Her name was Julie,” he says.
“This happens a lot,” he says.
“Because of me,” he says.
He looks sad, like an old hotel.
“I could stop this,” he says.
Absentmindedly he flicks the hallway lights off from across the room with a gesture of his thumb and index finger. Then he turns them on again.
“But I don't want to,” he says.
* * *
Either the most-or-least-surprising thing about becoming personally acquainted with Justin Bieber is that you realize he is actually a phenomenal singer. Everything is musical with him. It's like a fucking Disney princess. A drop of dew on a blade of grass, a chill from a passing car―all of it evokes a song. Cool Ranch Doritos have evoked a song. Cherry Jolly Ranchers have evoked a song. Aluminum siding. The Baltimore Orioles. Cuticle discoloration. And it's not like I'm going to call the Library of Congress and ask them to preserve these little ditties for posterity, or anything, but I am just saying that his tunes are actually pretty damn catchy.
“You and I should write a song!” He says to me.
Justin and I are sitting inside an Arby's restaurant. He is wearing a balaclava. We are here because Justin is contractually obligated, due to a long and complicated agreement, to consume one hundred (100) Arby's Beef'n'Cheddar sandwiches and an equivalent number of Arby's Jamocha milkshakes per calendar year. Earlier he told me he'd been lagging but thought he could make up ground during his tour of the Midwest. Today he's on sandwich number six and milkshake number two, earning him no small amount of grief from his show manager Hilda, who has warned him three times now about the negative effects of dairy products on his “alluringly fragile timbre.” Sound check is scheduled for 6PM tomorrow.
“For serious. I'll perform it and everything.”
“What's our song about?”
“I'll sing it a capella,” he says.
I tell him I think anything overtly about Arby's sandwiches/shakes is probably too transparently corporate, but we might be onto something vis-a-vis consumption, flavor, short-term-desire-satiation-versus-long-term-viability, etc.
“It'll be a love song,” he says.
“You can't perform a song you write today tomorrow.”
“But again, what's the song about?”
“The Arby's, like you said,” he says.
“Maybe that people look at you weird when you wear a balaclava inside a restaurant.”
“I should write about that girl,” he says.
I feel the grease of a fry between my fingers even though I must have eaten the fry like fifteen minutes earlier.
“You and me. We'll write a love song. About Julie. About that girl,” he says.
He nods vigorously at himself.
* * *
Then later that night as I am about to hit the hay he corners me.
“Are we going to write that song?” He asks. His hands are stuffed in the warmers of his hoodie.
“Justin, I have never written a song in my entire life. I don't know a thing about songwriting. I don't know a thing about music. I don't know a thing about what your people will and will not let you say. Oh also and seriously why in the hell are we writing a song?”
His eyes close and then open and when they open they are like glass.
“Sure. Fuck. Okay. Let's write a song.”
“I need to show you something,” he says.
* * *
Justin Bieber's official YouTube username, kidrauhl, is a reference to the Terry Goodkind novel “Wizard's First Rule,” which he tells me used to be one of his dad's favorite books back in 2007 when the account was started. For the last hour we've been watching some of the original videos Bieber uploaded―an acoustic cover of Edwin McCain's “I'll Be,” a three minute nineteen second improv drum solo on a local TV show called “Amazing Kids, a not-nearly-awkward-as-one-would-think workout-room mirror-dance to T-Pain's “Freeze,”―and munching on some Orville Redenbacher's.
“You point at your crotch a lot when you dance.”
“I am just saying,” I say.
“You say 'I am just saying' a lot,” he says.
What Bieber wants me to do is comment upon the utterly unbelievable rate at which his "views" count is skyrocketing. The video right now, for example: we're at four million seven hundred sixteen thousand nine hundred thirty one hits for a high school talent show, which (like being worth $100,000,000) is such a vast number that it's literally impossible to comprehend. And I know he wants me to comment upon it because he keeps compulsively refreshing his browser window, which lets us see how fast the numbers are ticking up. I am not going to comment upon it, though, because despite the fact that I know exactly what he is thinking and exactly why he's thinking it I don't have anything resembling a good answer to give.
What he is thinking is, “All these people―I want them to like me. Do they like me?”
This is what everyone is always thinking.
This is what no one ever knows.
“Do you like me?”
His right leg is twitching at about a million miles an hour.
“Do you like me?”
“How do I know that?”
My mind flashes to the thing with the coin.
He does not and cannot know whether I actually like him.
I do not and cannot know what he is and is not controlling.
It dawns on me that maybe that's okay.
“Well,” I say.
“You're not forcing me to.”
“I might be.”
“But I might be.”
“But you're not,” I tell him, and at this point I reach over and grab the bag of Redenbacher's and I dump it over his head. He executes a sort of spin-move away from the bag and grabs a popcorn-nugget off the ground and chucks it at my face. I deflect it with my right arm like a ninja. Then he waves his hand in the air and the nugget and the bag and a couple napkins and a discarded chopstick and all those little unpopped kernels start to whirl around my head and pour like confetti into my lap.
“That was like totally totally mega ultra unfair,” I tell him.
“Gotta use what you got, y'know?”
“Durr I have super powers hurr durr.”
“You know, I really do sound exactly like that,” he says.
“Care to allow me to exact payback via rocket launcher in a game of Halo: Reach?” I ask him.
“Mmhmm,” he says. And he walks over to the Xbox, and he starts up the Xbox, and we begin to play a game, and we laugh, and it is at least kind of fun. And that's my answer to his question, and that's my best answer to his question, and I pray to God and everything else that my answer is good.
* * *
“I wrote the song.”
We are onstage at the sound check. A sound check is a rehearsal, which is a performance without an audience. I am unsure if Justin Bieber really knows how to perform without an audience. Nothing makes noise. No one is here except for Usher, who is sitting in the third row wearing sunglasses sipping Courvoisier from a red plastic cup. The black hood of his sweater crests past his hairline and he looks uncannily like the fucking Emperor from fucking Star Wars. The layers of empty seats stagger like the scales of frozen fish.
I am writing down notes about Justin's leather jacket and purple shoelaces and Orbison haircut when he walks over and tells me about the song. He has just finished practicing different ways of holding and/or brandishing his microphone to ensure it remains close to his mouth as he dances. For reasons that are unclear to me but probably involve the structural integrity of his hair, he has chosen to eschew the standard dancer-pop-star headset. I tell him it's a bold choice.
“Thanks. But yeah the song. I wrote it.”
“Good. Proud of you.”
“Um,” he says.
“So you want me to ask you if I can hear you sing it?”
“But you won't make me ask you.”
“You could, though.”
“You are thinking of a mallard duck,” he says, and suddenly I am thinking of a mallard duck.
“You are thinking of a white elephant wearing Bermuda shorts in the middle of Times Square,” I tell him, and suddenly he is thinking of a white elephant wearing Bermuda shorts in the middle of Times Square.
“You made me do that?” He asks.
“Not at all.”
“But it just like appeared.”
“That's also true,” I tell him.
In a marked departure from the usual procedure, Justin requested earlier that instead of lining up outside the arena in the hours before the concert, each ticketholder ought to be emailed or texted a special code that directed them to one of forty-two designated GPS coordinates inside the Waukegan city limits. They were to arrive there at a specified time and would, when a sufficient mass of people had accumulated, be whisked away on a Bieber bus to a 'behind-the-scenes' member party with real Bieber VIPs. Waukegan was deemed 'rural' (i.e. Low-population-density) enough that such a stunt would be feasible. “A brilliant nod towards intimacy,” one PR exec would be quoted later as saying.
That meant, though, that right now the arena belonged to Justin.
“So can I hear the song, mate?” I ask him.
Justin nods his head like thirteen times in two seconds and dismounts the stage and actually trots to the sound and lighting booth. He brushes aside a technical-looking person and fiddles with some knobs and when he is done fiddling with the knobs the lights have been eradicated except for a low slim spotlight at the center of the stage. Justin exits the lighting booth and comes back around to the stage and jumps directly onto it from the floor. Then he heads backstage and rustles around with some props and comes back holding a microphone stand which he places deliberately inside the low slim halo of spotlight.
“Usher,” he says.
“I need you to leave.”
“I really really really really really really really need you to leave. Please.”
Usher stands up and takes off his sunglasses and looks around and squints and puts his sunglasses back on and sits back down. Then he stands up again and takes a sip of Courvoisier and mumbles, “Whatever,” and plods down the aisle toward the exit.
Usher exits the arena.
Justin says, “Check,” into the mic.
“Check,” he says again, and seems satisfied. He turns to look at me. Against the contrast of the spotlight I am bathed in layers of dark.
“I am howling,” he says. “Listen.”
He begins to sing.