A former teen idol is onstage, met with boos from an audience that’s confident his best years are behind him. That could be Justin Bieber two years ago at the Billboard Music Awards — or Ricky Nelson at Madison Square Garden in 1971, when he tried playing new music instead of his old rockabilly-lite hits. Nelson took his revenge with a retelling of the incident in “Garden Party,” his final Top 40 hit. Bieber is having his last laugh with his first-ever Number One, “What Do You Mean?“
Call it pop’s Pinocchio moment, as stars who got their starts as teens cut their strings and strut their stuff in order to prove they’re real boys and girls. At an age when most people are barely out of college, Nick Jonas, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato — all 23, and all Disney veterans — are well into the second decade of their working lives. Bieber, at 21, is six years into his. All four have hit reset on their music careers in recent months.
It’s not a matter of growing up with their audience, the way former Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake each tried to (with different degrees of success and maturity). In the past decade, Disney and social media have created an entirely separate ecosystem catering to the instant enthusiasms of the tween market — and accomplishments in that realm bestow little credibility in mainstream pop. That means what’s needed for these four is less a progression than a full reboot.
Bieber has gone from punchline to chart-topper in under a year by building on the unlikely success of Jack Ü’s “Where Are Ü Now,” in which the wounded romantic confusion he lent to a Diplo and Skrillex track just wouldn’t quit, even when his vocals were manipulated into a dolphin-call hook. Jonas — mocked for wearing a purity ring in his tween-idol days — has found his great subject in sex, from the bad girl who knocks on his door in the middle of the night on “Chains,” to the good girl who’s so sexy everyone wants her love on “Jealous,” to the one whose druglike power inspires him to “go where they all couldn’t go” on the new “Levels.” Lovato is less successful playing the eager seductress on the Katy Perry-ish “Cool for the Summer” (“Got a taste for the cherry/I just need to take a bite”), but Gomez may be carving out a role for herself as a pop torch singer on tracks like “Good for You” and “Same Old Love” — songs that are moody and catchy without being obvious.
“There’d be no future for that stuff in the future.” That’s Bob Dylan writing in Chronicles about what Nelson’s teen pop meant in 1961. Until recently, you could have said the same for Bieber, Jonas, Gomez and Lovato. But all of a sudden, their future seems up for grabs. What happens next could be interesting.