Justin Bieber Booed at Billboard Music Awards: Understanding The Backlash

Justin Bieber Accpts the Milestone Award at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards
photo: Getty Images

Justin Bieber

Taylor Swift fans, crazy tour stories, and why the pop superstar is not (yet) like Kanye West.

Fifty-seven seconds. That's how much time elapsed between CeeLo Green announcing that Justin Bieber had captured the first-ever Milestone Award, presented by Chevrolet at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards, and Bieber actually saying something into the microphone onstage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. In between were some perplexingly uncomfortable seconds. After taking hold of the trophy, Bieber swayed toward and away from the mic, unsure whether or not to cut through the strangely divergent chorus of yelps that had greeted his latest stage appearance. The pop superstar had commanded the spotlight thrice before the Milestone Award was presented -- once to play his "Believe" track "Take You," then to take home the Top Male Artist award, and again to assist Will.i.am in his "#thatPOWER" performance -- without a whiff of negativity in the air. But when Bieber topped Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars toward the end of the ceremony, he quickly hugged manager Scooter Braun, casually strolled onstage from the front row, and fidgeted awkwardly as very loud cheers and very loud boos rained down upon him.

"I'm 19 years old… I'm 19 years old," Bieber declared, right hand on his heart, when those 57 seconds finally came to a close. "I think I'm doing a pretty good job."

The next movement of Bieber's impromptu acceptance speech was defensive without being seething, hurried but not without talking points: "And basically, from my heart I really just want to say, it should really be about the music. It should be about the craft that I'm making, and… this is not a gimmick, this is not a gimmick. I'm an artist, and I should be taken seriously. All this other bull should not be spoken of." He then rattled off a laundry list of thank yous, and scurried offstage.

Why did the person being presented the Milestone Award -- a fan-driven honor earned through millions upon millions of votes -- feel the need to reassure his onlookers that he was, indeed, not a gimmick? And who, exactly, does Bieber want to take him seriously, if not the thousands of screaming fans at his arena shows, the same throngs of pop enthusiasts who helped him score a record five No. 1 albums before his 19th birthday and turn him into one of the biggest teenage stars of all time? For years, the anti-Bieber cries have been drowned out by the deafening worldwide support for his music and brand; the minor cracks, such as when he was criticized after being photographed allegedly smoking marijuana last January, were always given a thick coat of PR spackle (such as a winking "Saturday Night Live" skit), so that things could be smoothed over and left in the past.

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And although Bieber's music has never been heralded by the blogosphere, his offerings have generally been well-received (on critical aggregating site Metacritic, his "My World," "My World 2.0" and "Believe" albums have earned combined scores of 65, 68 and 68, respectively), while being treated as agreeably harmless pop. At the 2011 Billboard Music Awards, Bieber caused a riot when he kissed then-girlfriend Selena Gomez and won Best New Artist; at the 2012 ceremony, the Biebs performed "Boyfriend" and garnered applause when he scored the Top Social Artist trophy. What flipped the switch in 2013 and helped the previously inaudible backlash ruffle Bieber's feathers when he won the Milestone Award? What is this "bull" that killed Bieber's vibe?

Let's look at the three possible explanations as to why Bieber was booed at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards:

1. Biebs Fatigue: Simply put, the 2013 Billboard Music Awards included a sizable helping of Bieber, with two performances in three hours and a Top Male Artist win before the Milestone Award was presented. Three months after another Justin -- Mr. Timberlake -- kept popping up at the 2013 Grammys and threatened overexposure, perhaps the audience at the Billboard Music Awards simply tired of seeing Bieber show up on stage and snag more of the spotlight.

2. Angry Taylor/Bruno Fans: Bieber shouted out his "Belieber fan group" while accepting his Top Male Artist award, but he really should have showed them some love for the Milestone Award, in which fan votes pushed Bieber onstage instead of Swift or Mars. To be sure, those two artists also have millions of dedicated fans, all of whom wanted to see their idol come out on top. At that point in the Billboard Music Awards telecast, Mars had just lost to Bieber in the Top Male Artist category, and Swift had yet to claim the Top Artist prize over the Biebs. Were those boos the expressions of frustration from the seemingly scorned diehards in attendance?

3. Wacky World Tour Backlash: From mid-February to mid-May, the international leg of Bieber's Believe tour was a high-profile comedy of errors: there were cancelled dates, "worst birthday" tweets, backstage collapses, bungled comments about Anne Frank, song theft accusations, missed monkeys, fan tackles and raided tour buses, all in an incredibly short timespan. For the most part, Bieber and his team quickly and correctly resolved these problems and moved on, offering apologies when there needed to be. Plus, in the middle of the perceived mayhem was a monster-selling tour, with tons of Beliebers blissfully taking in the spectacle. But a dark cloud seemed embedded within the scraps of news coming from Bieber's tour over the past few months, and the Billboard Music Award boos could have been festering ill will toward one, some or all of them. Bieber has faced controversy before -- remember when someone claimed that he was the father of their child? -- but never in such a concentrated serving size. Call it the "Lemony Snicket Effect": in a few months, the public perception of Bieber had changed due to a series of unfortunate events.

Presumably, Bieber seemed to think that option No. 3 was the cause of the aggregated vitriol on Sunday night, which is why he fired back with proclamations that "it should really be about the music," and that the photos of him wearing a gas mask or inexplicably taking off his shirt in airport security lines was "bull that should not be spoken of." In short, Bieber's Milestone Award was like the PG-rated version of Kanye West's anti-paparazzi rant during his surprise show at New York's Roseland Ballroom last week, in which the rapper told the crowd, "I ain't hear to apologize to no muthafuckas, man… I'm trying to make some music that inspires people to be the best that they can be. And I don't want nobody else to ask anything of me! Don't ask nothing else of me." Bieber and West are massive celebrities under constant scrutiny, and both artists have the squeaks of outnumbered cynics ringing in their ears. 

The subtle difference between the two is that West is secure enough with his own artistry to take brash, ebullient risks with his music, as he did one night before the Billboard Music Awards on "Saturday Night Live." Whether you think "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" are brilliant or boneheaded, West's ability to push his sound into daring new corners is highly impressive; Bieber may very well reach a similar frontier as a recording artist someday -- just look at what Timberlake is doing a decade removed from his *NSYNC days --  but at this point in his career, he's still playing by the rules, appealing to a younger fan base and literally trying to convince his adult peers to see him as legitimate. West has figured out a way to curtail his controversial personal exploits by always shifting the focus on his dazzling music, and this is exactly the balance that Bieber was pleading for on Sunday night, but has yet to properly achieve.

The crowd members at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards that booed Bieber may have done so due to fatigue, T-Swift devotion, tour horror stories, or a combination of all three. Whatever the explanation, it was a particularly mean action to take against a kid who, aside from a few missteps, has performed a lot of positive work within and outside of his music. Bieber will always have his detractors, and now that he's stared them down for 57 seconds, it will be interesting to see how he handles the boos whenever they come his way again. The best-case scenario? He absorbs that criticism, uses it to fuel an artistic leap, and releases new music that forces people to see him as a serious artist. In these instances, showing is better than telling.


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