How the Internet Made Justin Bieber a Star

The Internet-fueled rise of Justin Bieber

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Gabrielle Revere for TIME

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As a songwriter, Bieber specializes in two subjects: tender ballads about his parents' divorce and the kind of desperate puppy love to which anyone who has ever been a teenager can relate. His audience can be understood just by looking at his song titles: "U Smile," "First Dance," "One Less Lonely Girl." This is the brilliance of Bieber. Kids will listen to anything if it's catchy, especially if it makes them feel grownup, but Bieber's music says something they actually understand. Nobody is going to believe a 14-year-old boy when he sings, "You're my one love, my one heart, my one life for sure" — nobody, that is, except a 14-year-old girl.

By the time Bieber released his first, seven-song EP, My World, in November 2009, he had 50 million YouTube subscribers and was one of the most discussed topics on Twitter. Four tracks issued as singles had already topped the Billboard charts, making him the first artist to have four hit songs before ever releasing an album. Hordes of screaming, crying girls showed up to his concerts, inspiring headlines like "Bieber Fever" and "Biebermania." Crowds at a November album signing at a Long Island, N.Y., mall got so out of hand that the event had to be called off. Braun was arrested for not canceling the event fast enough, a charge that is currently being reinvestigated. On April 26, police in Sydney canceled an event after fans became unruly. Two days later in Auckland, a crazed mob rushed Bieber at the airport, knocked down his mother and stole his hat.

New Kid on the Block
By the time My World 2.0 debuted at No. 1 in March, Bieber was everywhere. The video for his single "Baby" was viewed more than 107 million times. He performed on The Late Show with David Letterman, on The Tonight Show and at the White House. He appeared on Saturday Night Live. Bieber possesses a quiet confidence; he'd never acted before, but he nailed a skit with Tina Fey. He was cute. He was funny. People liked him — even some who could legally drink.

It's these older fans who will matter when Bieber begins his all but inevitable slide into a more mature, sexed-up image. By album sales, he's already more popular than the Jonas Brothers, 'NSync or New Kids on the Block were at the same point in their careers. But he is so young, and his fame so new, that any speculation about his future seems wildly premature. Usher calls him "the beginning of a new generation of artists." Bieber is simply grateful for what's already happened. "I feel like I just won the lotto," he says.

The day after his appearance on SNL, Bieber gave a small concert at New York's Highline Ballroom for several hundred teenage girls, many of whom had waited for up to five hours to win tickets through a local radio station. The girls wore Bieber T-shirts, carried Bieber CDs and had Bieber backgrounds on their cell phones. "He's so sweet. He's not like every other guy who is just like, 'Ugh, whatever,' " says Alicia Isaacson, 13, from Long Island. It's a sentiment once professed for every artist from Shaun Cassidy to Paul McCartney. Every few seconds, a shrill cry of "Justin!" erupted from somewhere in the crowd. Security guards handed out water bottles and escorted those who felt faint or overwhelmed outside. Offstage, Bieber played with his baseball cap. "I'm really tired," he confessed. "Right now my schedule is just go, go, go. Sometimes I just want to sleep." That afternoon, he had cut his rehearsal to just half a song because he didn't have the energy. But signs of fatigue were gone now, and he took the stage with force. For the first few minutes, the only discernible sound was screaming.

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