It’s around 7 o’clock at night, and I am serving as a human shield for Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s manager. It may be true that journalists shouldn’t be part of the story, but right now Braun is getting cornered by dozens of camera phone-wielding, occasionally shrieking, sometimes shaking, mostly tween girls. He’s come up here to the nosebleed sections of Atlanta’s Philips Arena to hand out tickets, a frequent show ritual in which he upgrades about 20 lucky random fans to floor seats. But everywhere he goes–walking along the side aisles by the floor seats, heading through the food courts, riding the escalators–he is recognized by girls and moms who react much the way you might expect them to react if it was Bieber himself.
He’s mastered the art of never stopping: When fans call his name, he’ll smile or point a quick finger, but never, ever, stop. But finally, somewhere in the 300 sections, practically touching the arena ceiling behind the stage, he succumbs to one fan’s picture request, which quickly turns into a swarming mass of screams and flashes. And as it closes in, I instinctively turn my back to the crowd and start edging toward the door, Braun in close tow.
When we make it to the polished cement walkway of the arena we walk about 10 steps ahead of the mob, which stalks behind, uncertain for a moment of what to do. Braun seizes the opportunity. “Are you ready?” he asks. I have no idea what he means. And then: “Run!”
We do as he says, and don’t look back.
Justin Bieber is so famous he makes other people famous by association. Go ahead and name the other artist whose manager (Braun), road manager (Kenny Hamilton), videographer (Alfredo Flores) and musical director (Dan Kanter) each have more Twitter followers than all but elite celebrities.
Indeed, just last week Billboard reported that Bieber had surpassed Lady Gaga to become the No. 1 most-followed Twitter account in the world, now with 33.4 million followers. This is just one part of the career roll that he’s been on. Bieber promoter AEG has reported the sales of 40 shows since his Believe tour kicked off Sept. 29 and all 40 are sellouts. He has been named to host and perform on “Saturday Night Live” on Feb. 9. Barring unforeseen circumstances, his Jan. 29 Believe Acoustic album–containing eight reworked tracks from his platinum-selling 2012 album Believe, plus three new songs, all written or co-written by Bieber–will debut on the Billboard 200 at No. 1. This will mean that he’s charted a new No. 1 album for four years in a row, and that he’ll have his fifth No. 1 album overall. That’s more than any other artist has achieved before turning 19.
Bieber’s team, led by Braun, 31 (who also manages the Wanted and Asher Roth, and has signed PSY and Carly Rae Jepsen to label deals), is young and familial. As a unit they are fiercely protective of Bieber, but also keep him grounded with a lot of laughter, some practical jokes and frequent games of ping-pong–Bieber keeps a table in his dressing room. Steve Bartels, president/COO of Bieber’s label, Island Def Jam Music Group, recalls his first conversation with Bieber about Believe Acoustic being over a ping-pong table backstage at Madison Square Garden. “He beat me 21-11,” Bartels says.
The Believe Acoustic album is a coming-home of sorts, says Braun, who notes that they recorded the album in part because “this is how fans first knew Justin,” he says. “Even with ‘Baby,’ we put an acoustic version online weeks before the studio version.” Such Believe hits as “Boyfriend” and “As Long As You Love Me” are entirely reworked, stripped down with new phrasing. Bieber’s voice is strong throughout. And perhaps of greatest note are the three new songs he wrote, including one called “Nothing Like Us,” which he says is about his breakup with Selena Gomez. The song is at times sweet (“There’s nothing like us/There’s nothing like you and me/Together through the storm”) and at times remorseful (“I wish that I could give you what you deserve/’Cause nothing could ever, ever replace you”). Bieber has smartly been promoting the release on Twitter, posting things like, “Six days until I answer all the questions,” which has helped drive tens of thousands of online pre-orders. The song may not appease those seeking scurrilous details. But it’s a credibly beautiful bit of honest songwriting and the vocals are delivered with visceral emotion.
After weeks of blog speculation about the meaning of both Bieber and Gomez separately and publicly performing “Cry Me a River”–Justin Timberlake’s famous kiss-off song for Britney Spears–“Nothing Like Us” is far more salve than salvo. It sounds like the heart-broken teenager that Bieber in all probability is.
Braun acknowledges another reason for making the acoustic album now. “This is my reason, not his,” Braun says. “But I want him to win a Grammy some day.” It’s a sensitive topic. Despite his success in 2012, Bieber wasn’t nominated for a Grammy when nominations were announced Dec. 5. That night, Braun took to Twitter and was vocal in his belief that Bieber was snubbed. “I just plain DISAGREE,” he posted. “The kid deserved it. Grammy board u blew it on this one.”
Braun says: “I feel like for his peers to know he’s a true artist, he needs to do things like this. Take away all the production. When a song is still great when it’s just you and a guitar? It means it’s a great record. If you can really deliver it in that style, you’re a great artist.”
Through it all, Bieber has been all but silent with the press. At the American Music Awards in November, he did no red carpet interviews. In fact, this session with Billboard marks the only major interview Bieber has done for the release of Believe Acoustic. It’s hard to blame the guy for not wanting another interview that ignores his massive music success and instead only wants to ask about why he broke up with Gomez and if he inhaled. (A Jan. 4 leaked photo on TMZ.com appeared to show Bieber with what may or may not have been a joint in his hand. Given the volume of actual music and music-business-related topics to discuss, Billboard felt that “18-Year-Old Smokes Pot” read more like an Onion headline than a meaningful part of this report.)
I sat down with Bieber in his dressing room. He’d spent the day in Atlanta, the town Braun brought Bieber and his mother to in 2008 when he first found Bieber singing–yes, acoustic songs-on YouTube. Today has been grueling. Through a program associated with Ryan Seacrest’s Ryan Foundation, Bieber visited a children’s hospital–something he does frequently when on tour–but rather than quiet one-on-one visits as he prefers, this morning turned into a bit of a disorganized scrum of well-intentioned kids and parents with cameras. Bieber did not complain about this. In fact, he tweeted his gratitude to Seacrest later in the night. Then it was on to a lengthy meet-and-greet for fans at the arena. Because Bieber lived in Atlanta and Braun and some of his management team started their careers there, there is an inordinate amount of cousins and daughters and neighbors and dentists who all need their moment with Bieber. When I’m ushered into Bieber’s dressing room minutes later, he has just taken his place at the ping-pong table and asks for some time before we begin.
It’s a dangerous business, defending the hard work of celebrity. But let’s acknowledge: Not a lot of 18-year-olds spend hours a day in service to the needs and demands of others. Fewer have done it for the last four years. Fewer still have every word they tweet, car they drive, person they are seen with scrutinized and judged for appropriateness. And almost none are at the center of a multimillion-dollar business that currently employs 160-plus people on the road.
Bieber agrees to a half-hour interview that ends up lasting well more than an hour, until he needed to start his pre-show ritual. He seems to carefully consider most of his answers, is unfailingly polite, though occasionally he flattens himself down into a black leather couch, hands jammed into his pockets, and seems bored. He is most animated when playing some new music he’s working on or discussing his status as the top-ranked ping-pong player on the Believe tour. At times, he paddles a ping-pong ball off the wall while he speaks. When we part ways, he laughs when someone tells him the masseuse he is about to see is “a looker.” “Whooo,” he jokes, and slaps my ass as he squeezes past me and disappears down the corridor. He seems every bit a normal 18-year-old kid.
About an hour later, his hot pink jeans, black hoodie and camo cap have been traded for a resplendent white suit and hair perfectly coiffed to defy gravity. Now he seems every bit the international superstar. Or does he? He leads a prayer circle of some 40 or more dancers, stagehands, techs and musicians. It is so large that those across from him can barely hear his soft-spoken words of gratitude as he cast his eyes mostly downward. When heads bow, I sneak a peek around, and look at him, just barely filling out his jacket. No one will lift their head until he does. He is at once a man, a leader and a still-somewhat awkward boy. He is Justin Bieber, and he is about to take the stage again.