They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That's why we bring you "Popology," the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed previous installments, catch up with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and the Spice Girls here.
In this week's installment, an underage kid from Canada conquers the universe.
On Tuesday's (May 11) episode of "Oprah," guest Justin Bieber said he had no idea why teen girls scream at the very mention of his name and weep and faint in his presence. That's his age and relative isolation showing, as the rest of the universe recognizes exactly why Bieber is one of the biggest pop stars on the planet right now. He has that perfect combination of accessibility (he is the same age as most of his fans), origin story (he began his career on YouTube, where the next generation of musical stars will no doubt get their start), good looks (he's boyishly attractive but not threatening) and that special x-factor that superstars tend to have that cannot be taught. He's also massively famous, so when he crosses over into the real world, how could anybody do anything but scream?
It also helps that Bieber's music has more credibility than most teen stars, as he is mentored by Usher, shares a manager with Asher Roth and has already collaborated with hot stars like Ludacris and Sean Kingston. He has already scored huge with both of his releases: The recently-released My World 2.0 and his original EP My World, which is today's focus.
Though "Baby" has certainly became Bieber's signature tune, the hits from My World are a great representation of what the singer was capable of and how he operates. "One Time" came first and opens the album, floating Bieber's chirpy-but-smooth voice over a modern R&B track soaked in keyboards and hi-hat jitters. He has just enough swagger to make his use of the word "shorty" come across well, but not so much that it sounds cartoonish. He manages to play his age incredibly well, finding the balance between childish puppy love and more complicated adult relationships. Honestly, it's the soundtrack to most high school relationships — and that is the ideal tone. Not everybody can make that work, but Bieber pulls it off.
One thing that does stand out hearing My World (and especially "One Time") is that in the time between the recording of it and today, his voice has already changed significantly. In a savvy move, Bieber doesn't spend much energy knocking out castrato notes (even though he probably could). Rather, he focuses on a meaty middle range that he has grown into quite well. As his instrument picks up more end, these songs will continue to pick up a little more depth. (Even the recorded version of "Baby" sounds significantly different — in a good way — than the version he performed on "Oprah" yesterday.)
"Favorite Girl" operates in the same idiom as "One Time," as Bieber lays out his singular devotion to a single lady with the help of a bubbly track, this time with a bit more southern bounce tossed into the mix. The production on My World is exquisite (and probably cost executive producer Usher a large chunk of change or a whole bunch of favors), with heavy hitters like The-Dream, D'Mile and Midi Mafia laying down lush tracks. "Favorite Girl" is probably the best of the bunch, as you could easily hear any number of top-shelf R&B stars using the same beat.
As is the problem with most contemporary pop albums, My World stumbles a bit when Bieber hits ballad mode. "Down to Earth" opens as a piano burner that evolves into a sort of post-modern power ballad with surging guitars and live drums in the chorus. However, the singer's melancholy feels so real that he still sort of makes it work (especially on that bridge).
Things pick back up again with "Bigger," a spacious summer jam that features some phenomenal handclaps, twitchy counter-rhythms and eclectic instrumentation. It's way more intricate than it has any right to be, and it somehow sounds futuristic and old school at the same time. "One Less Lonely Girl," another giant single, comes next, and it works for the same reason "One Time" works. It's got a great beat (this time built around a sweet acoustic guitar groove) and has Bieber's best delivery on all of My World. His voice sounds comfortable and he seems extremely attached to the lyrics (which is ironic, it's one of the few songs on the album that Bieber doesn't have a writing credit on). "One Less Lonely Girl" also has an unforgettable melody and plenty of voices that sweep in and out of the mix. The comparisons to Stevie Wonder always seemed lazy and inappropriate (people seemed to center around the fact that they were both really young when they started), but the Wonder comparisons make the most sense on "One Less Lonely Girl." Let's call it Bieber's "My Cherie Amour."
The album slows down again on "First Dance," though it also has the most fascinating lyric sheet of any Bieber song. The chorus goes, "If you give the first dance to me/ I'm gonna cherish every moment/ Because it only happens once/ Once in a lifetime," and it operates easily as a metaphor for losing your virginity. There are a handful of other lyrics that zig when you think they are going to zag, most notably when he coos "Before the lights go up/ And the music turns off/ That's the perfect time for me to taste your lip gloss." If this had been an Usher song, the line would have been "That's the perfect time for me to slip your clothes off." But Bieber plays to his audience, even slipping in a line that he'll have his lady love home by nine o'clock.
"Love Me" is probably the strangest track on My World, as it borrows its melody from the Cardigans' hit "Lovefool" (which was a hit in 1996, when Bieber was only two years old). The pulsating dance beat supports Bieber's voice nicely, and the wash of keyboards in the chorus is a nice nod to the New Wave leanings of the Cardigans' original. Incidentally, anybody who enjoyed "Love Me" should check out the Cardigans' entire back catalog, including First Band on the Moon (which contained "Lovefool") and Gran Turismo.
While "Love Me" is a great, bubbly tune that could easily become an anthem, My World unfortunately ends on "Common Denominator," a wonky slow jam that crams way too much into its four minutes. It has epic-sounding lyrics and a sticky chorus, but there's something about it that doesn't come together. It's a shame, because it ends an otherwise strong collection of songs on a bit of a misstep.
It's no wonder why My World sold a million copies and turned Bieber into a household name seemingly overnight. It's catchy, it's fun and has just enough teenage pathos to tap into his core audience's complicated emotional shifts. Bieber's follow-up, My World 2.0, is sort of the technicolor version of this album, with some thicker sounds, more collaborators and bigger melodies. But My World might actually be the better, as it distills the Bieber idiom perfectly. Will he have staying power? It's hard to tell. But for the moment, there are far worse things the kids could be into.