Tween Dreams and Marketing Machines: Justin Bieber Hits Times Square

108763024 Tween Dreams and Marketing Machines: Justin Bieber Hits Times SquareThe signs that this was not a typical press screening came early—a group of teens, screaming in the direction of cops guarding their barricade, held a sign reading that they’d been there since six. It was 6:02 when the Observer arrived at the Regal Cinemas in Times Square, and 6:03 when the Observer realized they meant a.m. All this for a movie?

Inside, the Observer waited to collect a press ticket for Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, sure to be a movie worth waiting for. Not before, though, getting cut in line by Spike Lee, in a Knicks cap. Lee brushed off both our own stunned attempts to start a conversation and a theater employee’s greeting, “Hey, man, I’ll try to do the right thing.”

“This is for Scooter,” Lee said, pressing a package into a publicist’s hands. “Make sure he gets this. And tell him it’s from Spike!” He floated out of the theater, unmolested by the teens who’d already gotten in with their well-coiffed parents. (On Tuesday, Bieber Tweeted about his premiere, noting the location and saying “….maybe Spike Lee will come. Spike Lee is the man.” Bieber was born the year Crooklyn was released.)

Scooter is Scooter Braun, the record executive and manager responsible for Bieber’s career, a onetime so-called “party promoter” whose duties on this evening included introducing the party to a group of tweens (and nonplussed critics) impatient for the film to begin on schedule. Braun seemed familiar with the crowd, telling jokes about the Toronto premiere the night before and introducing Island Def Jam executives as they entered, late. “We love you, Scooter!” scattered girls yelled, and they weren’t joking. They did!

Bieber himself entered, at long last, once the Island executives were seated. He handed off a cup of soda to an assistant and said “Wassup.” The crowd was, based on the Observer‘s expectations, well-behaved, probably because they’d been told they’d be removed if they came close to him, or used cameras at all. Or maybe their energy had been sapped during Braun’s presentation. To buy into Bieber fandom, one must know his entourage. Bieber’s “swagger coach” did the Dougie, to the delectation of the non-critic half of the audience. Scooter allowed the film’s director, Jon Chu, to say one word before laughing and pulling the mic away. Though he was, in time, allowed to finish his introduction of his own film, this wasn’t the director’s show.

In one of Braun’s innumerable talking-head interviews in the film, he raises a compelling argument against the probability of Bieber’s success: the absence of a giant media apparatus behind him—he did not have a Nickelodeon, like Selena Gomez, or a Disney, like Miley Cyrus or the Jonas Brothers. (Miley does a duet in the movie, looking like she could eat Bieber alive; a critic seated next to the Observer mentioned that the Jonases’ 2009 concert film hadn’t had nearly the pomp of this screening. No indoor red carpet, for one thing.) But he has been able to promote Bieberworld by his use of social networking (documented throughout the film, in 3D). During the film, each new member of the entourage’s first appearance merited a cheer, particularly Braun, who acts as a de facto narrator. Concertgoers cheer an act—concert-film-goers cheer an apparatus.

And yet rarely does it all seem so naked! Certainly, without getting too specific about the details of Bieber’s not-yet-released film, Madonna’s Truth or Dare (for instance) was more ambivalent on the subject of its subject’s ambition, or at least made a bigger show of thinking about it. Bieber, we learn, wants to sing professionally; there is nothing more to see here, except a number of gratuitous, uncomfortable shirtless sequences. Braun talks to the camera perhaps three times as much as does Bieber: about his act’s “underdog” nature, and the role everyone in the entourage plays.

Something more clear and hard than just singing is at stake here. For without mass recognition, Bieber’s singing was just juvenilia — unformed in terms of persona, he’s defined by the fantasies of his fans. During an archival video of Bieber’s first recording, the audience was mute while their hero hit the high notes but shrieked when consigliere Usher entered the studio and told the camera that Bieber would be a huge success. Fame itself is the star, it seems; Bieber just the vehicle.

The movie ended, leaving the Observer with more questions than when we’d entered. For one, wasn’t the movie’s notion of following one’s dreams a bit misplaced, given the number of tween girls interviewed whose only dream is to marry Bieber? (No matter—they have Taylor Swift to teach them ambition.) Over the end credits, Bieber announced that he would play a new song for the crowd. After the song started, the Observer ran out of the room, discarding 3D glasses somewhere. Then the screaming began. We could hear it from the subway entrance across the street, the screaming. Somewhere, for Justin and for Scooter, the girls scream still.

ddaddario@observer.com :: @DPD_