The boys are up in the nosebleeds when Gabe gets a phone call. He gestures to Sam and Will, and the three men start to mobilize as if they are summoned by God. Something about getting into a suite. Apparently, Girls of Interest are there. Ja Rule is allegedly also present. Most importantly: Justin Bieber will be closer.
The show is about to start at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but they decide to risk it. Suddenly, they are running, and I’m behind them. All three are generic-looking white guys wearing exclusive Purpose Tour t-shirts, which they got in advance from a pop-up shop in SoHo.
“You didn’t know about the pop-up shop?” Will asks in disbelief after I admit to not having heard of it. “And you call yourself a fan,” Sam chides flirtatiously. As a female reporter, it’s common for men I interview to interrogate my qualifications. I just never imagined I’d one day be in a dick-measuring contest with straight guys in their twenties over Justin Bieber.
With his latest album “Purpose,” the 22-year-old heartthrob has carefully shaped “Bieber fever” into something much more universal (and much less girly). He’s collaborated with the likes of Skrillex, Nas, and Diplo, all artists with lots of male fans. Bieber’s new music is edgier and less cheesy, making it more socially acceptable for straight guys to like. After a string of scandals, he rarely smiles in photos, has covered himself in tattoos, and no longer wears his erstwhile favorite color, purple. He broke up with Selena Gomez, America’s sweetheart, and instead might be banging Kourtney Kardashian, who is 15 years his senior. And the crown jewel: A naked paparazzi picture revealed that contrary to popular belief he has a nice, big dick.
But Justin Bieber’s blossoming manhood is more complex than a stoic stare and a large penis. Bieber presents a tough exterior, but he still leans into some of his more feminine qualities. He is our nation’s most prominent fuckboi, having made an art form of balancing destructive behavior with tenderness and vulnerability. The kid who has been teased for “looking like a lesbian” has nose and ear piercings, platinum hair, and sometimes wears skirts. When he fucks up, he always apologizes, usually on Ellen. Justin Bieber leaves chaos in his wake, but he’s always seeking redemption, from God and from you.
Accordingly, Bieber’s new adult male fans are still struggling to find their place in a society that’s completely different from the world in which their parents were raised. A recent study of a thousand men revealed that millennial men struggle with self esteem because they don’t identify strongly with traditional notions of masculinity. Confronted by women who are largely more educated, they don’t feel they have to be sole breadwinners and want an active role in childrearing. Only one-third of those aged 18-to-29 said they see themselves as “completely masculine,” compared to 65% of retirement-aged males.
In their tempered devotion to Justin Bieber, his fan men expose a vacillating portrait of contemporary masculinity. They have an ambivalent relationship with Bieber’s latest incarnation—one that’s manly but contrite, angsty but staid, artsy but still a little douchey. They’d never make out with the ground he’s walked on or bottle the air he’s breathed like the girls, nor act unabashedly obsessed like the male fans of, say, Bruce Springsteen or the Flaming Lips. Bieber’s fan men “respect” his music and new look, but they’re low-key about it.
“I am kinda scared to come out so publicly as a Belieber but I guess I am one,” begins an email from a 27-year-old Latino man from New Jersey named Diego Ugaz. “I wouldn't call myself a fan. I like some of his songs though,” comments a friend on my Facebook when I put out a call looking for these elusive creatures. “*Slowly raises hand*” writes another. An acquaintance dragged into the thread by one of my female friends offers the most poignant insight of all: “I enjoy a select few of his records. a 'fan' is too loaded of a term.”
The word “fan,” in this context, is short for “fan girl.” As music journalist Jessica Hopper has said, it doesn’t really matter that fan girls are experts on the musicians they covet. The fact that they are young women invalidates not just their credibility but the legitimacy of the artist. It’s this—not necessarily his music—that has prevented Justin Bieber from being seen as a “serious” musician. Unlike fellow “soft” contemporaries like Bruno Mars or Drake, he hasn’t benefited from having a mixed-gender fan base from the beginning.
Back at the Barclay’s Center, Sam and Will want to make something clear: They kind of think this is a joke. Sam is a diehard Drake fan and dons a tattoo of the OVO owl, but he’s not ready to show that level of commitment to Bieber. “We’re not groupies,” Will assures me. “We are not like those girls.” He gestures to the fans surrounding them—mostly teens and tweens, some chaperoned by their moms. There are also crews of women in their twenties and thirties, and some lone men who look miserable, waiting for their girlfriends outside the women’s bathroom. “I’m only here for her,” one tells me, rolling his eyes before returning to his fries.
“They’re not secure with their manhood,” Sam says of the guys who hide behind the “boyfriend” label. He doesn’t believe them when they say they were dragged here. The way Sam sees it, they’re just afraid to admit they listen to, and maybe even really like, Justin Bieber.
Justin Drew Bieber’s origin story is well-known at this point. He was just a little Canadian kid whose mom uploaded videos of him singing angelic covers of pop songs on YouTube—the first big star to get discovered that way. He attracted the attention of record producer Scooter Braun and Usher, inking a record deal and embarking on a national radio tour, charming DJs with the infectious “One Time.” His rabid young female fanbase was already starting to form outside radio stations, and by 2010 when he dropped his single “Baby,” which became the then-most-viewed YouTube video of all time, the Beliebers were unstoppable.
In those early years, Bieber was a pint-sized, family-friendly cherub. His young fans adored him romantically, though not exactly sexually. Bieber’s merchandise was the cutesy, cheesy stuff your teen boyfriend would gift you last-minute. A dewy-eyed “fan girl” could snuggle up with a purple heart-shaped pillow at night or don a stretchy plastic bracelet with “boyfriend” across it. (It’s hard to imagine that soon his fans would be commenting “fuck me daddy” on his racy Instagram posts).
Briefly, it looked like Bieber was going to transition nicely from “good kid” to “swaggy adult.” In 2012 he dropped the sultry “Boyfriend,” the video for which paid homage to N’ Sync’s latter years. He gripped a girl—no, a woman—by the waist and whispered sweet nothings in her ear. Justin Bieber, The Man, had arrived.
But the honeymoon period didn’t last long. He started growing up and fucking up. His deposition video for a battery lawsuit against a photographer went viral with Gawker dubbing him the world’s “Tiniest, Most Insolent Asshole.” He puked on stage. He egged his neighbors’ house and even abandoned a cute pet monkey. Did he guzzle sizzurp? Was he hiring prostitutes? Bieber’s antics became pop-culture’s favorite punch line, with his questionable masculinity often at the heart of the laugh. At his Comedy Central roast in early 2015, the very beginning of Bieber’s larger apology tour, Kevin Hart called him a “hermaphrodite”: “Justin Bieber really does have it all,” he said. “He has a dick and a pussy.”
Things have changed with “Purpose”; Bieber is no longer a joke. He still has a ton of female fans, but his audience isn’t just the rabid and hysterical brand of feminine fandom we are used to mocking. The fans at Barclay’s run through the halls of the massive auditorium like a sleek and sexy army, their black-and-white outfits coordinating with the “Purpose” album art. The cover features a somber Bieber praying, his arms covered in tattoos and bracelets, his body marked by white paint, attempting to resemble some kind of tribal design with meaning. Fans at the show wear tees with “BIEBER” and “PURPOSE” and “SORRY” in big block and gothic letters—a far cry from the sea of purple that once marked a Justin Bieber concert.
It’d be wrong to call his newfound sense of style simply “growing up.” His obsession with mixing dark and light, layering, jewelry, and body modification are hints at a more profound transformation. And as if taking a cue from Bowie and Prince, he’s decided to nod to androgyny, to queer culture, to present a masculinity that’s both extremely hard and incredibly soft. Immature Bieber wore unstyled baggy jeans, t-shirts, hats. Now, with his bleached blonde undercut, nose piercing, and drop crotch athleisure pants, he says: I am a self-styled, serious artist. I am a man.
“He looks like the ultimate hype beast meets Zara mannequin,” says Jason Newman, a 30-year-old fan who listens to Purpose to get pumped up on Saturday night. Recently, he and his friends enjoyed Bieber’s remix of Drake’s “One Dance” over glasses of red wine with ice cubes. Even though he disapproves of Bieber’s more ridiculous antics, Newman admits that they are a part of his new appeal. “He doesn’t even seem like a human being,” he says. “He was just a person created for my enjoyment.”
Younger men like Colin Coyle, a college kid from Philadelphia, grew up hating Bieber, but is a recent convert after hearing him on the radio while driving his little sister to dance class. Coyle now admits he was just jealous that every girl he knew was obsessed with Bieber. Lately, he’s embraced the passionate female fandom as a part of the allure: “We would all love to sing and have girls swooning all over us.”
On stage, Justin Bieber looks weary and despondent, like a cashier at the end of a long holiday shift. He trudges through song after song, waiting until the encore to give the crowd what they really want: his breakout hit “Sorry,” performed under a baptismal waterfall of fake rain. The understated banger is the hallmark of Bieber’s redemption narrative, another key part of his appeal to male fans. “I guess seeing him find Jesus and try to fix who he is made me relate to him, not in the Jesus way, but in the sense that I also am constantly looking for redemption, public and private,” Ugaz says. “That is what Purpose is all about really, finding God and trying to make amends with your past.”
"Sorry" perfectly captures the modern, tumultuous relationship cliche, and in doing so assumes the voice of boys who wield the word “sorry” like a kind of magic wand. (Once a 30-year-old man stood me up and one week later just sent a screenshot from the video without context as an apology). Justin Bieber—and millennial men—are “sorry,” folks. But how sorry, really? After all, they could just be trying to get back into your pants. Or in Bieber’s case, your iTunes library.
The fan men and I finally arrive at the “suite” which is really just a row of empty seats down by the front. “Where Are Ü Now” is still bumping and it’s heightened by the crowd flashing shining white lights from their phones. Within minutes, security spots us and kicks us out. I get separated from Sam and Will, who don’t return to their original seats. We will never talk again, as my attempts to follow up will be rebuked multiple times. Sam will pretend he doesn’t know who I am; Will immediately hangs up on me when I call.
I sullenly take the elevator back up to my seat and it’s packed to the brim with women, the kind of die-hard Bieber devotees that have been there since the beginning. After a moment of awkward silence, one says out loud to no one in particular, “Have you noticed that there are a lot of men here tonight?” All of us laugh and nod our heads in disbelief. “They probably all claim to be with their girlfriends,” she says. “We know the truth.”
Alana Hope Levinson is a writer and editor of things on the internet.