Teen singer Justin Bieber uses YouTube to make it big on the pop music scene

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009; E01

Justin Bieber is belting out Stevie Wonder's anti-war carol "Someday at Christmas" at the National Building Museum with a nonchalance that offers no hint of the esteemed audience for which he's preparing to sing.

It's the first rehearsal for the taping of "Christmas in Washington," the annual concert special that airs Sunday on TNT. Just as Bieber is about to launch into the song's big finish, he digs into the pockets of his jeans, pulls out his cellphone and starts clicking away.

Is he really checking his texts right now? Nerves of steel, this kid. In a few hours, he'll be singing for President Obama and the first lady. Click-click-click.

At 15, Bieber seems poised to reach the same pop stratospheres where Timberlakes fly. Last week, his delightful debut disc "My World" rose to No. 8 on Billboard's albums chart and the newcomer recently upstaged Taylor Swift and a couple of "American Idols" at New York radio station Z-100's annual "Jingle Ball" at Madison Square Garden. After a solid year of tween acclaim on YouTube, the singer's success is just now transitioning into real-life album and ticket sales.

And small-scale riots. Pandemonium broke out at a Long Island mall last month as a crowd of 3,000 grew antsy waiting for their heartthrob. In August, false rumors of Bieber's death sparked a full-scale Twitter-panic. Now, with a legion of fans and a second album due in March, a shaggy-coifed kid from Stratford, Ontario, appears ready to make an unprecedented leap from YouTube to ubiquity.

At the rehearsal, he hobbles across the stage, wearing a clunky plastic boot on his right foot that dwarfs the high-top sneaker on his left. Bieber broke his ankle onstage in London last month, but he hasn't let it slow him down. His "Christmas in Washington" performance will be the singer's fifth gig in 72 hours -- two Friday shows in New York, a Saturday television taping in Las Vegas, a Saturday night concert in Chicago and Sunday on F Street NW, performing alongside Mary J. Blige, Neil Diamond, Sugarland, Rob Thomas and his "big brother," Usher.

After the sound check, Bieber retreats to his dressing room for some increasingly rare alone time, but eventually emerges, fidgeting again with his cellphone. Turns out he wasn't texting during rehearsal. "I was reading the lyrics," he says -- something he won't be able to do during the program's singalong finale of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

"You know that one, right?" asks manager Scott "Scooter" Braun.

Bieber shakes his honey-brown shag.

"Just put the mike up to your mouth real close," Braun suggests. "Nobody will be able to see."

Bieber suggests another idea. "I know 'Deck the Halls,' " he says, then sings, "Deck the halls with poison ivy, fa-la-la-la-la. . . ."

'Just for fun'

Bieber could easily pass for 12 -- the age when he first started posting home videos of himself singing on YouTube. Before that, he would croon around the house while learning to play the guitar and drum kit his family had stashed in the basement. His favorite songs are still up-tempo anthems by Michael Jackson and down-tempo slow jams by Boyz II Men.

Three years ago he entered a singing competition at his school "just for fun." He ended up taking second place, but uploaded a video of the performance on YouTube so his family could check it out. Other viewers started flocking.

"I was like, 'Well, I don't have a hundred people in my family,' " Bieber says of the rising number of views. "And then I was like, 'I don't have 500 people in my family.' And it just kept getting bigger and bigger."

He continued to post videos, tackling tunes by Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Kanye West and Usher. His mother, Pattie Mallette, wasn't surprised by the attention. "He's always been very gifted at pretty much everything he does," she says.

Since then, Mallette has gone from a single mom working two jobs to traveling with her superstar child, full time. "I think this is what God created [him] to do," she says. "It's more important for his character growth at this point than any success. But all the success is fun."

And the definition of success continues to grow, with Bieber now garnering screams that usually come with being a Jonas Brother. But ask Bieber how he feels being compared to the fresh-faced Disney set, and it'll be the only time this incredibly polite teenager cuts you off: "Yeah man, I feel like I'm just doing my own thing."

'I gotta find this kid'

That "thing" is a concerted effort to appeal an audience on both sides of 18.

"I don't like comparing Justin to Michael Jackson, but I wanted someone who was like Michael," Braun says. "Someone who captivated not only kids, but adults, too."

Braun, 28, left Atlanta's So So Def Recordings a few years back to start his own company and, like most of Bieber's fan base, discovered his wunderkind on YouTube.

"My gut went crazy and I thought, 'I gotta find this kid,' " Braun says. He spent the next 48 hours feverishly trying to track him down and eventually reached Mallette on the phone. Braun persuaded her to fly to Georgia to discuss the possibilities. It was the first time either Mallette or her son had stepped on an airplane.

Braun -- who also manages ascendant rapper Asher Roth -- says he hit it off with Bieber immediately and eventually used his YouTube clips to spark a bidding war between Justin Timberlake and Usher. Usher won the right to sign him, and Bieber's debut, "My World," was released on Island via Braun and Usher's new partnership, Raymond Braun Media Group. Until recently, Braun says many in the industry watched Bieber's rise with raised eyebrows.

"People are like, 'He's just a YouTube sensation,' " Braun says. "What the hell does that mean? If people spend more time online than they do watching television or listening to the radio, how is he a sensation? The fan base that people are seeing was there a year ago. They just didn't believe us because they weren't on YouTube like the kids. "

Braun says he understands how Bieber's young fans are consuming music. He says his protege's no-budget YouTube videos allowed fans to feel like they discovered Bieber on their own. He wasn't being sold to them. Until now.

"What I'm doing isn't rocket science," Braun says. "I just think we have our finger on the pulse and we understand that kids like self-discovery on the Internet the same way we used to like cassette tapes, or vinyl with our parents."

And while Bieber found a manager in Braun, he gained a mentor in Usher.

"A very realistic mentor," says Usher, a former teen heartthrob who transitioned into one of the most successful grown-man careers in contemporary R&B. "One that knows the ins and outs and the mayhem of what this industry is. It ain't all good."

So how will Bieber transcend the mayhem?

"I realized there was something very genuine in his talent," Usher says. "Very organic, something that was happening before we even touched it."

'I'm a little nervous'

It's showtime and everything is transformed. The Building Museum looks like a fairy-tale cathedral, lit in a warm, pastel glow. Bieber has decided to ditch his ankle brace and is sporting a tie -- the first time he's worn one onstage since a signing contest captured in one of his first YouTube videos. He says it's the first time he's felt butterflies. Ever.

"I'm a little nervous," he admits.

The show finally begins, and while there are some powerful pipes onstage, almost everyone reins theirs in. Not Bieber. He dives into the song, eager to please -- and aside from a few scratchy syllables, does exactly that. The song ends. The kid waves. The crowd dotes. Bieber-mania is officially upon us.

President Obama climbs onstage for a few remarks. "Thank you to all the incredible performers . . . Rob Thomas, Usher and Justin Bye-ber . . . BEE-ber!" Laughter rolls across the audience, but the president recovers with a quip: "He was just discovered."

And with that, the first couple, the performers, host George Lopez and Bieber, throw their arms around one another for "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Bieber clutches the mike close to his face and mouths along.

This might be the only time we won't hear his voice for many months to come.

Christmas in Washington airs Sunday on TNT at 8 p.m.

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