By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; C01
If we truly want the best for America's children, let us pause and give thanks for Justin Bieber.
After years of humdrum bubblegum from Miley Cyrus and the brothers Jonas, the 16-year-old has thrown a candy-coated wrench into Disney's heartthrob assembly line by giving young fans something worth screaming their lungs out for: lovable pop songs.
Bieber's poise is reminiscent of Justin Timberlake before he went solo or Hanson before they all hit puberty. At its best, his voice is both powerful and adorable -- like tweenage pathos transposed into sound.
Fans first heard it when the Canadian wunderkind began posting home videos on YouTube a few years back, his elfin features practically buried beneath a shag of sandy-blond hair. (Since then, Bieber appears to have hit a recent growth spurt but still sports the voluminous coif.)
His singing eventually earned him a shrieking fan base, a major label record contract and continued Internet omnipresence. His physical presence has sparked near-riots in U.S. shopping malls.
And behind all this hullabaloo, there's actually some great music. Last November, Bieber released a marvelous debut EP called "My World" -- seven clever, R&B-tinted tunes that were met with adulation across numerous platforms.
Now comes Bieber's full length debut, "My World 2.0," in what feels like a calculated move toward American pop music's gooey center. And that's a shame. The songwriting is noticeably duller, with fizzy Euro-pop synthesizers neutralizing the mild, hip-hoppish quirks that made Bieber's debut EP such a joy. Now surrounded by mushy electronic timbres, even the kid's sweetest hooks start to curdle.
But not on "Runaway Love." The song's stop-and-go keyboards blurt away at a breezy tempo, giving the singer space to play. Lyrically, this album is full of sore-hearted laments, but here it's all puppy-love sweet talk: "I'm just trying to be cool, cool, cool . . . I'm just trying to find, find, find . . . this sweet love of mine."
Otherwise, Bieber struggles to shine through the electronic goop. And to make matters worse, three of the 10 songs on "2.0" feature cameos that range from unnecessary to irritating. Newcomer Jessica Jarrell duets with Bieber on the treacly "Overboard," but considering the androgynous qualities of Bieber's young voice, a female counterpoint feels redundant. Meantime, Sean Kingston hogs the mike on the otherwise catchy "Eenie Meenie," while Ludacris throws his booming pipes behind some insipid rhymes on "Baby" as if on a quest to find his true personal nadir.
Why all the guests? Bieber has said that he aspires to mimic the trajectory of Michael Jackson (make music that kids and adults can love, grow up to become an era-defining superstar, etc.), but the young Jackson had to share the spotlight with his older brothers. What's Bieber's excuse?
Let him go it alone, and he can be quite the tear-jerker, as evidenced on "That Should Be Me," the album's closing track.
"Everybody's laughing in my mind," he sings as the song unfolds, offering a tiny glimpse into the paranoia that must come with being a human trending topic on Twitter. By the time Bieber hits the chorus, he sounds bereft -- in a weird, teenage kind of way, of course. "That should be me holding your hand," he pines. "That should be me making you laugh/That should be me. This is so sad."
Like a 16-year-old Lesley Gore in 1963, he sounds precocious, dejected and in complete control of the young hearts he must be breaking. It's Bieber's party, and they'll cry if he wants them to.
Hopefully by the time "3.0" arrives, he'll be able to keep the party going for more than a song or two.
"Runaway Love," "That Should Be Me"