would all struggle. But in
the time machine, Bieber could hold his own -- briefly. He'd be another Leif Garrett or Macaulay Culkin. His
advantage -- and his Achilles' heel -- is that in these modern times he's being
packaged, measured out and presented so that he won't melt down in two
years and become a casualty. Madonna set the standard to be an
ongoing cash cow, and Bieber's people clearly see that potential in him. The
industry has also learned the lessons of Amy Winehouse, and that situation
will not repeat here.
Martha Brockenbrough: I see Bieber more as a Donny Osmond, which I mean in a good
way. They have the same extreme cuteness, and Donny Osmond's claims to be a
"little bit rock 'n' roll" were about as plausible as Justin Bieber as a genuine
The problem that you're touching on here and mentioned earlier is how the
music industry transforms people into products. That can lead to an overly
processed sound and a certain generic-ness to the music. But there's a worse
aspect in human terms. These people, as products, are worth so much money that
they are surrounded by manipulators who don't have their best interests and
health at heart. I'd like to think the industry has learned some sort of lesson
there, but I doubt it.
The real question is whether Justin Bieber will be allowed to grow into his
potential as a singer, songwriter and performer. Think about what it was like
being a teenager. It involves a lot of identity experimentation. Few kids truly
know who they are. Fewer still have the guts to express it. In the relentlessly
commercial pop arena, originality isn't a great asset. It's the only thing that
will keep a career going in the long haul, though.
So can the creative spark that launched Justin Bieber's career on YouTube
survive as he transitions to adulthood? And can he take control over it?
Mark Brown: Two things: Donny Osmond is still "Donny Osmond"
30-plus years down the line. Not a good thing. If that's Team Bieber's plan,
they need to do some serious rethinking. Whether Bieber will be "allowed to
grow" is the decision of no one but Bieber. He's an adult now. It's not "Can he
take control over it?" but "Will he take control over it?" Granted, at 18 he has
the drive of Paul McCartney, Prince, Stevie Wonder or Madonna, aided by
much more powerful music-career machinery. Those artists went on to transform
themselves into some of the most acclaimed artists in music. Has he shown the
talent to make even an MC Hammer career happen?
Martha Brockenbrough: Let's see: MC Hammer has given pop
culture history "hammer time," the "Too Legit to Quit" hand gesture and hammer
pants. Bieber has inspired a half-generation of boys to get a haircut they will
regret when they look back at their middle school yearbooks. So, that's probably
I think there's no question that he has the talent to remain relevant. The
question is more one of taste. When performers pander to the expectations of
their listeners instead of evolving, they turn themselves into a joke. Will he
evolve and grow? Or will he turn into Wayne Newton?
I couldn't stand Madonna in the mid '80s when girls all around me were
decking themselves out in oversize rosaries and flashing their bra straps. In
retrospect, though, I like the vintage music and am interested in her new music
because she keeps trying new things. Because she has taste (maybe not in men or
movies), she has a good sense of what is worth pursuing.
So, how would you evaluate Bieber's taste (and please no "like chicken"
Mark Brown: I guess that's the problem: I don't know what
his tastes are. Saying yes to Usher and Ludacris is a no-brainer. Saying yes
to every opportunity that comes his way (the "We are the World" remake? Really?)
is a recipe for disaster, as Lady Gaga found out now that the
world no longer hangs on her every outfit change. He has put his career in the
hands of the pros (the song "Die in Your Arms" has 13 co-writers and the
"Believe" album has 18 producers for 13 tracks. People complain about
"corporate rock." This is multinational conglomerate rock. Where, exactly, is
Justin Bieber in all this?
Martha Brockenbrough: This is where music stops being music
and becomes a musical product. I'm not against having many people working on
something. There's a lot to be said for creative input of like-minded people.
But there is a limit to it. It's sort of like those suburban houses that have
more bathrooms than people living in them. It becomes less about what makes
sense and more about making a statement. In the world according to me, when you
try to make a statement with your toilet, you are not trying to say the right
I'm with you on the futility of remaking "We Are the World," where the
original came from such a genuine place. More, I am appalled by the crass
decision to launch a second fragrance. That's the thing when you come up
with a signature scent. Unless you're Elizabeth Taylor, you have just the one.
(Confession: I tested Bieber's Someday and did not
More to the point, it's cliché at this point to be a celebrity with a
perfume. Even Snooki has one. Clichés are evidence of an absent or low level of
taste. Yes, the world consumer market has a certain appetite for the familiar.
But once you do what everyone else is doing and has done, then you have nothing
new to offer and are vulnerable. People will want something new.
So maybe this is the point where Beliebers make their plea. Do something
different. Do it better. And make it something only you can do, Justin Bieber.
Otherwise, we'll be left with nothing of the memory of the time we were on that
field trip bus and you had a pack of Skittles to share and ended up with nothing
but cavities to remind you of the sweet but empty time.
Martha Brockenbrough is the author of several books, most recently "Devine
Intervention," a novel about the world's most inept guardian angel, the girl he
accidentally kills and the 24 hours they have to sneak her soul into heaven
before she disappears forever. It has been optioned for film by the director of
"Ghost." the screenwriter of "Mrs. Doubtfire" will adapt the script.
Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky
Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to MSN Music's Reverb
and Scene & Heard blogs.