Justin Bieber didn’t make any major headlines on Tuesday. No stage barf. No stolen laptops. There wasn’t a lot to talk about. Yet the talk was nonstop.
That’s because the 18-year-old pop singer stands as the social media age’s preeminent black hole. More than 47 million fans have given him a thumbs-up on Facebook. His YouTube views are in the billions. On Twitter, where his name is tweeted roughly every second of the day, he’s amassed more than 29 million followers. And when he performs at a sold-out Verizon Center on Monday night, he’ll heap untold thousands onto the $14 million pile his “Believe” tour has grossed since launching Sept. 29.
The word “fan” doesn’t adequately describe the feverish faith and tireless attention of Bieber’s legions. Instead, they call themselves “beliebers,” banding together online, devouring Bieber news, Bieber rumors, Bieber anything, Bieber everything. Their hunger is insatiable. Their metabolism is astounding. For 12 hours Tuesday, I tried to become one of them.
I wanted to belieb.
As humanity continues its migration onto the digital plane, we’re still learning how to process instant access to breaking world news, the entirety of recorded human history and 24-hour surveillance of our favorite pop singers. In order to become a belieber, I would need to adapt. So at the stroke of noon, I closed all of the usual windows on my computer screen and began waterboarding myself with Bieber-related content. And nothing else.
As Bieber prepared for Tuesday’s gig in Houston, I happened upon some unlucky Texas teens who were tweeting jealous darts at their ticket-holding classmates. (Behold the power of Twitter — it facilitates revolution in developing nations and allows music journos to eavesdrop on high school cafeteria chatter from 1,220 miles away.)
Elsewhere on Twitter, fans wondered whether or not our hero had split with his 20-year-old girlfriend, singer Selena Gomez. Over the weekend, Bieber posted — then deleted — a frowny self-portrait on Instagram captioned “Lingse,” which cryptography experts quickly decoded as an anagram for “single.”
There were also photos of a fresh tattoo (a cartoon owl on Bieber’s left forearm) and a new pet (a hamster named “Pac”). Fans parsed these snapshots the way their grandparents once inspected the LP sleeve of “Sgt. Pepper’s.”
Others just jockeyed for the singer’s attention. Whataburger, the Texas-born grease chain, invited Bieber to drop by for lunch. An animal rights activist asked Bieber to stand up against the captivity of marine mammals. But most fans were simply begging Bieber to acknowledge their earthly being. “Dear Justin Drew Bieber . . . ” one tweeted, “can you notice me and follow me? I EXIST.”
It all felt very techno-spiritual. Tweeting at Justin Bieber is like sending a prayer to God. You hope you’ll be answered, but the real comfort comes from believing he can hear you.
Slow news day for the Biebs. I signed up for a Google news alert, which filled my new inbox — firstname.lastname@example.org — with a few dozen iterations of the same five stories.
1. Owl tattoo! Owl tattoo!
2. Bieber will appear at the TeenNick HALO Awards, a November awards show honoring exceptional teen volunteers.
3. He fears dying in an airplane. “I have no control,” he told a British magazine. “If this plane crashes I’m dead.”
4. Last week, his tour grossed more than Bruce Springsteen’s.
5. Oprah Winfrey says her recent sit-down with Bieber was her “biggest” interview since Michael Jackson circa 1993.
What this taught me about my 12-hour idol: He may or may not be a (1) rebel with a (2) heart of gold and (3) control issues, but he’s certainly a (4) ridiculously wealthy superstar capable of drawing (5) ridiculously wealthier superstars into his immediate orbit.
These stories weren’t as juicy as Bieber vomiting onstage the first day of his tour, or recent news that a laptop containing nude photos of the singer had been stolen (a tale later debunked as a publicity stunt). Still, fans bounced Tuesday’s headlines around on Twitter with chirpy enthusiasm.
Their ability to keep these micro-narratives alive felt as impressive as their ability to let embarrassments die quickly. I was surprised by the lack of discussion around #baldforbieber, an Internet prank not even a week old. A fake tweet spread across the bandwidth claiming Bieber had been diagnosed with cancer, and fans were shaving their heads in a show of support, though most were too savvy to fire up their clippers.
For true beliebers, hair grows back anyway. Social media allows them to pledge their devotion publicly, fervently, constantly. Either you’re with us or against us. Solidarity trumps everything. Bieber is watching. Look busy.
Shortly after 2 p.m., a tweet came from the singer himself thanking followers for their worldwide “Bieber buyouts.” I looked it up: Fans coordinate to swarm a store, purchase every Bieber CD on the rack, and then donate the discs to children’s hospitals. In essence, these are commerce-driven flash mobs cravenly foisted upon young fans as acts of charity. They were popularized by Bieber’s leading fan site, Bieber Army, who allegedly got the idea from Bieber’s management.
I clicked my way to the Bieber Army Facebook page, where instead of plotting buyouts, organizers were rallying fans to get out the vote . . . for the American Music Awards, airing Nov. 18 on ABC.
My stomach still somersaulting over the Bieber buyouts, I took a deep breath, clicked the link and dutifully voted our guy for best artist. I was only allowed one vote, so I created a second account and voted again.
It was over a dinner plate of spaghetti bolognese — Justin’s favorite food according to the fan forums on justinbieberzone.com — that I entered my eighth consecutive hour of listening to him sing, hoping that a day of head-numbing hyperconnectivity had brought my heart closer to the music landing on my ears.
I chewed to the beat of 2010’s “Runaway Love,” easily my favorite Justin Bieber song. It’s a gummy, mid-tempo tune where Bieber’s voice exudes equal parts invincibility and uncertainty, the two poles of adolescence.
Nothing on his recent album “Believe” comes close. Now across the threshold of adulthood, he sounds a little too smug, a little too sure of himself — an impression that felt amplified after a day spent swimming through the dizzying adulation of his fans. My baptism in the babble was begining to feel like a failure.
Before midnight, I checked Twitter for fresh news. Nothing worth staying awake to investigate, but a few of the Bieber fan accounts I had followed earlier in the day had followed me back.
Joining the flock had never felt quicker or easier. But true faith still takes time.