Justin Bieber is one of the biggest stars in the world. His newest song, "Sorry," debuted at number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and the single before that, "What Do You Mean?" debuted at number one. He's a force driving not only legion of teen girl fans, but the very essence of modern popular music.
From the moment he existed in the public conscious, Bieber was taken seriously. He was Usher's protégé, somehow magically discovered on "the Internet." He was massively, unbelievably popular almost the instant he released his first single, "One Time," in April 2009 at the age of fifteen.
What did music critics think of the teen with waterfall bangs? What did they expect would come of his career? What did Bieber reveal about himself? Here are some of the earliest mentions of Justin Bieber I could dig up in a LexisNexis search:
Bieber's debut single came out only six years ago, but very few articles about his early work have been archived. Seems like no one's quite figured out how to properly preserve old websites and blogs—the only stable archiving happens for articles that are physically printed. So the first mentions of Bieber come from major music publications like Billboard. Here's what Monica Herrera wrote about Bieber in July 2009:
It's a fairytale beginning for a kid who had little more than a popular Web video profile two years ago, but Bieber still has plenty of dreams to fulfill. "I would love to collaborate with Beyoncé once," he says, "She's beautiful."
2009 seems like eons ago when you read the words "Web video profile." What she meant was that Bieber's career, like many since, began on YouTube—and only later aligned with music industry standards like having a label, a manager, and an album. This article was written four months before Bieber's debut album dropped; Billboard was already monitoring his rise. But six years later, Bieber still hasn't collaborated with Beyoncé.
The first mention of Justin Bieber in The New York Times appears in a fall preview written by Jon Caramanica. Caramanica certainly wasn't the first reviewer to compare Bieber to Justin Timberlake, who had lost the battle to mentor Bieber to R&B singer Usher.
On the lighter-than-air single “One Time,” Justin Bieber—whose debut album is “My World”—strips the Timberlake model free of its tension, its sensuality, its motor. What’s left is chirpy and loose, and if Justin Timberlake’s arc is creating the path, about 10 years from full bloom. Nov. 17. Island. (J. C.)
Caramanica predicted that Bieber's career would peak in about ten years. This Friday, Bieber will release his fourth studio album. Already, it has been reviewed as a kind of turning point for Bieber—from pop star to serious artist. It's totally possible that in two more albums, Caramanica's prediction might come true.
In November of 2009, Bieber's debut album, My World, came out and Mikael Wood at Entertainment Weekly graded it a B-:
My World is long on sugary puppy-love ballads and dinky dance-pop confections; diabetics are advised to stay away. Bieber’s better on ”Love Me,” where he riffs on the Cardigans’ ”Lovefool” atop a killer electro-glam groove. Here’s hoping his swagger grows with age.
It is definitely difficult for a 15-year-old to have any legitimate kind of swagger—especially a 15-year-old with swoopy bangs and a voice like sugar, even with a fandom of millions of screaming teen girls. Still, Wood makes a prescient point; when Bieber had the most swagger (speeding in sports cars, getting arrested, smoking in public) he was also highly criticized.
The first Justin Bieber listicle (!) was published in November 2009 in Billboard. Titled "6 Questions with Justin Bieber," Bieber is asked about the MTV VMAs, his new album, and connecting with his fans. In one answer, Bieber reveals how much fame has already influenced the way he thinks about his job and the people who support his music:
Do you still keep up with your fans on YouTube?
Oh, definitely. I think the Internet is the best way to reach your fans. A couple of years back, artists didn't have that tool, so why not use it now? I'm also on Facebook, and my fans got together and sent me a "Get Well" card on Twitter when I was sick the other day. That was really cool. For now, I'm too worried about getting too close to the fans. I don't share much personal information.
At fifteen years old, just on the heels of his first album, Bieber was already wary. And he had reason to be. That month a scheduled autograph signing at a mall had to be cancelled because the police deemed the event unsafe. The teen girls inside, it seemed, were on the verge of a riot.
What's interesting about these early reviews is how unanimously they predicted that Bieber would succeed even though he was a very fresh, very young face in music. Jon Caramanica wrote about Bieber again in December 2009 after attending the Z100 Jingle Ball. The majority of the article is devoted to proclaiming how much better Bieber is than his contemporary, Taylor Swift:
Ms. Swift, who turned 20 on Sunday, is a grizzled veteran staring down the late period of her underage-crowd dominance. Comparatively, Mr. Bieber, a light-voiced pop-R&B singer, is fresh meat, and accordingly, was met with the sorts of shrieks normally reserved for slasher films and kidnappings…
Even the title, "20-Year-Old Fogy Cedes Audience to 15-Year-Old," is a dig at Swift. But while this seems like a severe underestimation of how big of a star Taylor Swift would become in the next six years, it also shows just how much faith was placed in Justin Bieber, even by highly-esteemed publications. It's no surprise then, that their predictions panned out.
Justin Bieber's new album Purpose comes out on Friday.
First Reviews is a series that finds and evaluates early critiques of now-popular and well-respected artists.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.