In 1996 I was determined to be Liam Gallagher’s girlfriend. It would be announced to the world under the heading: ‘All Bets Are Off: Liam Smitten With Mystery Blonde Aussie.’ The lead singer of Oasis and I were perfect for each other. I knew everything about him: where he grew up, his family life (his dad left when he was young and his ma, Peggy, was his best friend) and that he dreamt of being a footballer. I even started watching the English Premier League so that, when we were a couple, I could share his obsession with Manchester City F.C.
I loved Liam. I believed him to be a complex and thoughtful person, despite his oafish public persona. I had just turned 13 and lived with my parents in St. Helens, Tasmania – a long way, I’d later comprehend, from the Groucho Club in Soho, London, and a little too young for a grown man.
When Oasis announced their Australian tour that year, I cried – Liam was coming for me. I remember staring, agitated, at the clock on the wall of the woodwork room all afternoon the day the Melbourne tickets went on sale. What if Dad hadn’t rung Ticketek early enough, and I missed out?
Thankfully, when I got home from school the precious tickets were pinned to the corkboard in our kitchen. Now all I needed was for Liam to fall in love with me and the fantasy would be complete. How, exactly, this would happen never really crossed my mind.
Things have changed since then. With his bar-fighting ways and shaggy-dog looks, Liam is a relic from another era. Today there is a new, younger breed of pop star for a new media-savvy audience, and the most adored male pop star of them all is Justin Bieber: a conventionally good-looking, soft and feminine-featured 17-year-old from Ontario, Canada. At this moment he is being cast in the lead role of early adolescents’ daydreams all over the world. His (lately shortened) Lego-like helmet has been copied by millions of adolescent boys (and gay girls) across the globe, and earlier this year a tiny piece of his hair sold in a charity auction for around $45,000.
Justin Bieber’s popularity at times defies comprehension. Three per cent of all activity on Twitter, for example, consists of conversations about Bieber. As Seth Leth pondered disbelievingly in the Guardian:
‘That is, three per cent of an entire communicative medium – on which any and every idea in human history can potentially be discussed – is spent on talking about Bieber.’
He’s inspired hundreds of blogs, from ‘Legal Beliebers’ and ‘Love Justin’ to ‘Boys Who Look Like Lesbians Who Look Like Justin B’. The video for his single ‘Baby’ is the most-watched clip on YouTube, with more than half a billion hits. He has over 10 million followers on Twitter, with around 25,000 more joining each day, and well over 29 million people ‘like’ his Facebook page.
In short, Justin Bieber is a contemporary phenomenon. Discovered after his mother posted videos of him performing on YouTube, he was just 12 when music executives started taking notice. And while he has older admirers, Bieber’s fanbase is predominantly young girls aged eight to 14 – defined in marketing terms as ‘tweens’. Calling themselves ‘Beliebers’, his fans follow his every move with the reverence of disciples. The celebrity world he inhabits is known as the ‘Biebersphere’.
I am not a Belieber, nor am I his intended audience. I am 27 years old, I don’t have a Twitter account and the only poster I have on my wall is of Tom Waits. My 12-year-old niece, Lucy, made my lack of Bieber credentials plain when she visited me in Melbourne earlier this year. Staying with me so that I could chaperone her to his concert that night, Lucy looked up from her vegemite toast in the morning, concerned: ‘I just don’t know when he will end his career…’
I replied encouragingly. ‘Well, he’s pretty young – I reckon he has a few years left in him.’
Her bright, tween eyes rolled in condescension. ‘He’s just turned 17…’
Lucy is a devout Belieber – the obsession began just over 12 months ago when a school friend gave her a poster of him for her eleventh birthday. Blu-Tacked alongside Twilight’s Robert Pattinson on her bedroom wall, Bieber soon eclipsed all Lucy’s celebrity suitors, becoming her sole imaginary boyfriend.
I saw this love in the way her eyes widened and protruded when he appeared dressed in a reflective white ensemble on stage at Rod Laver Arena later that night. The crowd anticipation had been building for well over an hour; every so often someone, somewhere, would imagine they saw him standing in the wings of the stage and set off yet another round of berserk chanting.
Bieber’s warm-up DJ, Tay James, nearly caused a tween riot when he asked, provocatively, ‘Who came here tonight to fall in love with Justin Biebeeeeer?’ Thirteen thousand squealing jack-in-the-boxes bobbed up and down in micro denim shorts, wild with desire. Rod Laver Arena quickly felt like a steaming sweat lodge – I felt cruel for having made Lucy change into jeans and a woolly jumper before we left the house. Tween brunettes in matching singlets – ‘Justin Bieber’s World Tour 2011’ handwritten across the back – slapped each other excitedly with Belieber glow-sticks, till one of the fuschia batons went f lying into the seats below. ‘Stop it! It’s not funny! ’ a petulant voice wailed from behind. Laughing, a young boy rubbed his eyes with clenched fists, pretending to cry; his teary-eyed older sister lunged for his head with both hands. Bieber was no laughing matter: every girl was there to fall in love with Justin, and every girl there loved him more than her friends jumping alongside her. I thought, ‘Well, no Tay James, I didn’t come here to fall in love. But I will try.’
Giant screens flanking the stage began counting down: 1:00, 00:59, 00:58. Frantically, I inserted earplugs and held my breath. Lucy clawed at her cheeks and made a strong, high-pitched sound that I had never heard from a human before. The events that followed, for precisely 118 minutes, were at once spectacular and truly terrifying.
The behaviour I witnessed that night is not, of course, new to concert performances. You can chart this sort of hysteria back to Dionysus. More recently, music fans are familiar with ‘Beatlemania’, but they’re probably not aware that this phenomenon was predated by over 100 years by ‘Lisztomania’ – the ‘mass public enthusiasm’ from Berliners to the famous pianist Franz Liszt in the 1840s. Interestingly, the word ‘Lisztomania’ was invented by Heinrich Heine to connote a medical problem – mania.
The medicalisation of such behaviour was later echoed in the 1960s by various parents and advocacy groups – they were concerned, particularly, that Beatlemania might be an early sign of a lifelong dysfunction in teenage girls. And while respected psychologist A.J.W. Taylor, who examined hundreds of Beatles ‘enthusiasts’ in the 1960s, concluded there was no evidence ‘to support the popular opinion that the [Beatles] enthusiasts were hysterics’, Heine’s mania diagnosis has proved durable, setting a precedent for the sorts of pseudo-medical discourses that have since surrounded outpourings of public adoration for famous musicians.
Never was such a theory so apt as it is to ‘Bieber fever’. This term refers not only to the verve I witnessed at the concert, but also to displays of passionate anticipation (manifest as giddiness, stammering and spontaneous squealing) en masse at Bieber’s nearing proximity. The contagion was tracked in the media as it spread through Australia, in headlines screeching ‘Bieber Fever Infects Aussie Teens’. So endemic is this lexicon that in the lead-up to the concert, friends texted me to coyly ask if I’d ‘caught the fever yet?’
In another context, one could be forgiven for thinking that Lucy’s dilated pupils were the result of major trauma or illness. But under the rainbow hue of thousands of swaying Belieber glow-sticks, it was clear that my niece was reaching the zenith of a very specific and temporary malady. Like millions before her, Lucy was experiencing the physical release of an intense obsession that had been building for months: a singularly hopeful desire we might call ‘tween love’.
That early adolescent girls come to experience infatuation or obsessive love more than boys of the same age is likely a result of differing developmental stages between the sexes. In 2001, psychologist Rachel Karniol looked at the romantic attachments of adolescent girls in Israel to ‘generally feminine-looking’ male media stars. She argued that because a girl’s development can exceed a boy’s her own age by about two years, girls often adopt a figure called ‘the idol’ – a ‘practice object on which to test new exciting feelings […] that entails no risk’. Like ‘playing house’ or ‘grown-ups’ when we’re young children, early adolescent desire is a transitional phase that provides a highly imaginative realm in which to experiment safely with exciting scenarios – number one being what it might be like to have a ‘real’ boyfriend. As Rolling Stone contributor Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in February 2011: ‘The female fantasy about Bieber has a lot to do with wanting him to be your first real boyfriend – or, for older women, with the way that he hearkens back to the time when you had your first boyfriend.’
In the days leading up to the concert, Lucy explained to me that being picked to be Justin’s ‘girl less lonely’ on the night was a big, big deal, and she would just die if he chose her. One lucky gal at each of Bieber’s live shows is plucked from the audience and brought on stage, given a red rose and serenaded by him singing ‘A Girl Less Lonely’.
‘You’ll let me go up if I’m picked?’ Lucy had begged me earlier. ‘I’ll die if you don’t.’
In these few, brief minutes during the concert, the tween fantasy explodes into life: one special girl is no longer ‘lonely’ but Bieber’s handpicked girlfriend. That night it was a pale-skinned blonde of around 15 who sat awkwardly on a tall stool, smiling with disbelief into Bieber’s eyes. ‘The bitch didn’t even cry,’ girls complained loudly in the toilets after the show. ‘She didn’t deserve to be up there with him.’ Interestingly, this was one of the few songs where the crowd remained silent throughout.
Bieber’s manicured show (it ran with less spontaneity than the Royal Wedding) ironically – and more explicitly – winked at his role as a fantasy ‘first boyfriend’ to his sexually uninitiated fans. This role developed through a series of double entendres, parroted at various stages of the concert. My favourite occurred after he had performed a few faster numbers back-to-back. He looked out – wiping sweat from his brow with one hand and unconsciously grabbing his crotch with the other – and tried, half-heartedly, to hush the audience. ‘Wait, wait,’ he pleaded. When there was some semblance of calm he moved to the edge of the stage, gazed out at his kingdom, and said slowly: ‘Now… Who thinks I’m going too fast?’ Ecstatic screaming burst from the crowd. The twin-clad brunettes in front of me stopped filming with their iPhones and stood very still; hands clutched tightly around their phones, they sobbed. ‘Who wants me to take things slooow?’ Girls began moaning wildly. If Bieber’s role in the obsessive internal world of his fans is to be an imaginary, surrogate boyfriend – a safe love object – then the concert acted as a simulated, ‘safe’ first sexual experience. It was both discomfiting and hilarious.
That night, thousands of early adolescent girls’ semi-private obsessions unlocked publicly in a torrent of unbroken screams, sweat and tears. For many young girls, this type of infatuation, whether unleashed at a concert or not, is an intense and visceral rite of passage toward adulthood. And though early adolescent love for a pop star may appear, in retrospect, flippant or embarrassing, it is one of the single most intense emotional experiences of a young person’s life.
Oasis never did make it to Australia in 1996: infighting between the Gallagher brothers prompted the cancellation of the tour.
I was devastated. I stayed in my pyjamas in my bedroom watching Oasis’s video ‘Live by the Sea’, singing along faintly, too disappointed to cry. But when Oasis announced another tour in 1998, I didn’t even try to get tickets. Over a year had passed since Liam broke my heart, and the shape of my devotion had changed almost entirely. I still liked Oasis, but I had fallen out of love with Liam. The fever had passed.