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On May 10 at 5:54 p.m., Justin Bieber posted a selfie-less block of text on Instagram.
“If you happen to see me out somewhere know that I’m not gonna take a picture I’m done taking pictures. It has gotten to the point that people won’t even say hi to me or recognize me as a human, I feel like a zoo animal, and I wanna be able to keep my sanity. I realize people will be disappointed but I don’t owe anybody a picture. and people who say “but I bought ur album” know that you got my album and you got what you paid for AN ALBUM! It doesn’t say in fine print whenever you see me you also get a photo. Justin Bieber”
He followed up by posting a screenshot response comment from a fan that began with the greeting, “You’re such a prick.”
This was only the most recent and explicit expression of Bieber’s displeasure with being a superstar on a string. In late April, he took another whiplash stylistic turn, shaving off his month-old bleached-blond dreads for a skinhead manqué. Ten days after that, he debuted via a dimly lit pre-show selfie what looked at first like two perpendicular eyelashes that had blown to the side of his right eye, but turned out to be a tiny wispy black tattoo of a cross. Then Justin walked barefoot through the streets of Boston, feeding squirrels in a public park. He went on to dis the Red Sox at his Boston show, proving he has some kind of death wish (he was lucky enough to merely get booed). And of course there are his many recent ventures into the nudist lifestyle, an apparent attempt to regain control over his naked image after prior nudes were leaked without his consent.
All of these hasty acts of mild rebellion in quick succession would seem to signal a looming potential breakdown, although they could also be Justin’s speed tour through all the phases of a liberal arts college student’s life cycle. Bieber has compared himself to Michael Jackson, and the sequined glove does fit in some ways — like the child stardom that accidentally robs you of a normal childhood. Reading Bieber’s latest plea for privacy recalls Macaulay Culkin’s similar struggle circa 2000, in which the former child star described feeling paranoid that people were always watching him, because they usually were. Notably, Culkin bonded with Michael Jackson over these same issues: Both lacked true childhoods, and their notoriety stripped them of their privacy. Culkin liked visiting Jackson’s sprawling Santa Barbara candy palace, Neverland, because he knew he wasn’t being surveilled (although that lack of outside surveillance at Neverland would come to pose its own issues). Culkin retired from mainstream film stardom by the time he was 20, but well into his thirties he’s still dogged by tabloid rumors of the demons of his childhood fame.
But Bieber’s tiny, lonely teardrop cross was hardly the late-night drunken face tat it would appear to be. Bieber purposely turned toJonathan “JonBoy” Valena, a tattoo artist who’s done work for Justin’s buds, including Hailey Baldwin and the Jenner sisters. Bieber and Valena were collaborators on the permanent work of art that now sits by the superstar’s eye: “It represents his journey in finding purpose with God,” Valena told the press. That’s no coincidence, either. Bieber’s jet set favors Valena not only because of his delicate tattoo line work, but also his high status within the New York branch of Hillsong Church — the wildly popular Australian hipster megachurch that aims to make Christianity cool and modern with attractive people in floppy hats and Sunday service–appropriate festivalwear, but won’t go so far as to approve of gay marriage or abortions. Bieber’s renewed faith has been the post to which the last two years of his life have been hitched. Ever since the yellow Lambo drag-racing Miami incident of 2014, he’s been on a constant apology tour. “Sorry” is not only his biggest single but his guiding mantra. Last year, he attendeda five-day Hillsong conference in Australia, and his recent press has centered on themes of purpose, faith, belief, and rebirth — terms that try to reframe Justin’s struggle with his fame as Christlike.
The placement and size of Bieber’s tattoo suggest a clear tribute to the teardrop tattoo — a form of body art typically worn for what it signifies, which, according to who you ask, is either time spent in prison or people you’ve killed. Bieber is not the first 100 percent definite non-murderer to get a teardrop tattoo, nor the first famous person. Amy Winehouse got a standard teardrop when her husband Blake Fielder-Civil went to jail; The Game, who has a teardrop under his left eye, got a butterfly by his right and famously suffered so much mockery for it that he finally had it covered up with an L.A. logo tattoo. Presumably, Bieber thought his face tattoo might look cool, like all people who get potentially regrettable tattoos do at some point. Bieber, who possesses one of the most famous, photographed, and recognizable faces in the world, has put a God Tear on it that seems to be there as much for us as it is for him.
It’s easy to discount the privacy issues of famous young millionaires as temper tantrums — to downgrade them to sheer petulance and ungratefulness. Humility and tact are not Justin Bieber’s strongest suits, and it’s easy to laugh at the ways in which he is trying to work through his identity issues. One wonders how it is possible to feel unhinged or miserable when your real life is what other people dream about and never achieve, when you have endless access and money but lack one specific, extremely important kind of personal freedom.
Amy Schumer also recently called off impromptu fan photos after a guy demanded a photo with her and said “It’s America and we paid for you.” Fame has no off switch, and it’s possible to enjoy the perks of recognizability and still resent the trade-offs. Bieber reposted “fan” comments on his no-photo policy on Instagram last night, lined with entitlement: “I’m sure it’s annoying not being to live a ‘normal’ life but ‘normal’ isn’t what you signed up for. Get over it and stop being a douche.” Bieber captioned the photo with his response: “If you think setting boundaries is being a douche I’m the biggest douche around but I think it’s smart and will be the only way I last.”
In this time when stars seem to give us more of themselves than ever, furthering the illusion of intimate parasocial interaction via social media, it can be jarring for fans to find out that their idols are fallible human beings. Everyone needs to clock out sometimes. As a child star, Bieber spent years forcing smiles for the camera. There is always pressure on female stars to not complain, to willingly pose for every photo, to never step outside without a full face of makeup and a fully styled outfit. Male pop stars get mocked for their predominantly female audiences, but Bieber also gets criticized for not behaving femininely enough: for refusing to perform the way he is supposed to, for failing to just shut the fuck up and look pretty.
When Britney Spears shaved her head in 2007, it seemed like a symbolic rejection of the femininity forced on her since birth, and a reveal that the femininity was drag all along. (Had her hair ever been real?) But it was not a cathartic moment of triumph for Britney’s personal freedom; it was the beginning of a continued public battle with mental health exacerbated by the spotlight. The level of attention placed on stars like Britney would turn anyone into a paranoiac. Even after her Las Vegas comeback and the leveling off of her personal image into an appearance of suburban motherhood and onstage stability, Spears is still stuck with that lifetime conservatorship, essentially keeping her in the legal status of a child so that adults can keep making money off her.
The first signs that Britney Spears was not interested in being “Britney Spears” anymore in the mid-2000s came via her off-duty looks. Wearing bad extensions and Juicy sweatpants, smoking cigarettes and drinking Starbucks, Britney often looked happy and at ease until she noticed the camera covertly watching her. We may never know what motivated Spears to shave her head that night in Tarzana. The rumors said that she was supposedly concerned about drug testing and had been told illicit traces could show up in her hair. Britney was a star for a transitional age — the bridge from TRL to TMZ — and even as a child reared on beauty pageants and The Mickey Mouse Club, she was not ready for the new digital fame panopticon. It was a world in which her shopping sprees to Ralphs became parking lot fashion shows for paps, in which the red carpet bled onto everything, even her period panties and a drugstore visit for a pregnancy test. These days, Britney’s Instagram posts are just as wistful as Bieber’s. For stars and plebes alike, the Internet that punishes with one hand provides brief escapes from the mind-body problem with the other.
Even if Bieber isn’t making manic decisions about tattoos, there’s something increasingly urgent about his recent behavior. There’s a public reluctance to use the term “breakdown” here until something bad happens — and certainly the world seems to trust male pop stars like Bieber with more agency than female icons like Britney. There’s an ingrained belief that men like Bieber will simply work through it themselves and suck it up, while women like Britney need outside people to come in and save them (whether or not those people actually help). Maybe Bieber stuck that reminder of God on his face because he’s hoping for someone to come in and save him from himself.
If Bieber’s Instagram rant rings a little hollow, it’s because he’s being willfully ignorant about the ways in which his physical image is attached to his music. Bieber’s dopey expressions of freedom — like walking around barefoot in the park in Boston — plucked my heartstrings. It was his little Walden Pond moment. I walk around barefoot in parks sometimes, and if you took candid photos of me doing it, I would look stupid, too, and I wouldn’t care, because I’m happy. Justin Bieber has everything a human boy could want, but he’s not happy, because he’ll never get to be a real boy — he’ll always be trapped in his stage cage. Ironically for a star “discovered” on YouTube, Bieber is nostalgic for a kind of fame he’ll never know: the pre-Internet kind. Quoth the Bieb: “Years ago it was impossible to even take a picture at anytime not everyone was accessible to a camera now everyone has a camera phone and Now it’s just a different thing.”