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Don’t Look At Me: Justin Bieber’s Mixed Messages

Has one of the biggest pop stars in the world literally turned his back on us?

My precious son Justin Bieber is going through something. He’s walking barefoot in the park and feeding ducks. He’s opting out of meet-and-greets because they’re draining him of his energy (and the will to live). He’s writing Alexander Hamilton–length essays on the frivolity and pointlessness of award shows. And now he’s not even looking at us.

Can you blame him? Justin Bieber is a living show-and-tell. His childhood videos belong to us. At 22, he’s starred in two documentaries about his short life. The years 2010 through 2012 were defined by seeing our Boy Wonder’s face on sweaters, t-shirts, binders, pencils, stickers, and whatever else he could help market while he toured and performed tirelessly, giving us more opportunities than ever to look at him. When he began rebelling — clearly signaling the need for a break — we looked even harder, and he took it. Plus, many selfies.

But while he once bathed in the essence of exhibitionism (and bless him for it), Biebstagram has slowly evolved into something like self-awareness. He's begun using this platform to post Tumblr-ready affirmations, the faces of his friends, and sometimes even himself -- but with a sudden frequency he’s turned away from us, framed looking toward the distance. (Specifically the horizon, and taken from a distance of about eight to 10 feet, minimum.)

Call it mother’s intuition, but I knew this was coming back in March. After shedding his clothes in the name of new starts (or so I will argue forever), Justin’s social media presence has since abandoned a good chunk of his weak selfie game and replaced it with images capturing the back of his head. So, we now see Bieber perching on a Jet Ski. We see him standing on a surfboard. Or we see him on a patio overlooking a very well-maintained yard. Always, he is standing. Usually, he appears to be thinking. Never is he staring soulfully into our eyes.

There have been a few pointed exceptions, like the tragic image of Justin posing in his boxers, weakly grabbing his crotch to the caption of "#mycalvins." Or when, a few weeks back, he posted a pic of Ryan Gosling’s character in The Place Beyond the Pines alongside the commentary, "What a beast." Fair — but also kind of a cry for help when you remember that (spoiler alert!) Gosling’s character dies in a very sad manner in the first half of that movie.

And, sure, Justin still selfies — it’s the year 2016, and if you don’t, you will be wiped from the Internet forever. But the change in his feed is unmistakable. Most of the images he posts now are screencaps, pictures of friends, and snapshots of the wee precious singer himself thriving among nature. And most of all, the pics where he's staring at the horizon. So many horizon pics.

There are two ways to explain this apparent crisis. First, there’s a real chance that Justin Bieber was told by somebody one time that they loved a back-to-the-camera horizon photo he took and, in an attempt to impress them forever and always, made it his "thing." (Think: "Your hair looks sexy pushed back," but on steroids.) That would be fine. We’ve all adopted looks and stances we felt helped us live our best lives, and those moments of experimentation usually accompanied a phase of figuring out who we were and how we wanted our Instagram followers to see us. (But especially that one person, duh.)

So there’s that.

But on the other hand, this could represent something bigger — a new kind of rejection of all the years he spent posing for us and performing for us and appealing to us to please love him.

Maybe Justin has simply realized that he needs only to love himself. The Justin Bieber of 2013’s Apology Tour would not have decried award shows as amoral charades. He would not have cited a film like The Place Beyond the Pines (a very heavy movie about love, death, poverty, loneliness, and systemic corruption!) and likened himself to its most sorrowful character. And he would have faced us, always, because that’s what he was taught.

But in the words of Captain Phillips, he’s the captain now. And he’s smart enough to rebel quietly this time, so he's keeping those changes to his public persona subtle. He’s hanging out within nature. He’s capturing days spent with friends we don’t know. He faces away from the camera, alluding to the idea that he’s contemplating who he is and what he wants and what will become of him. And he does it in a way that brings us all along with him, but without entertaining or even encouraging us. We get to share his view and a bit of his space, but we’re his audience, not his friends. Justin doesn’t need our approval anymore.

While Baby Biebs is obviously navigating the trials and tribulations of being a twentysomething-year-old man, he’s acting out in a way that’s confusing us because we don’t usually see it. We don’t see superstars express their discontent regarding fan photos or fan interactions this openly. We don’t see them abandon their shoes for the sake of a lovely afternoon stroll (though we shouldn’t be surprised by it, since Bieber’s clearly comfortable with nudity and his own bod). And we certainly don’t see them condemn the very system that helped catapult them in the first place, unless they're quitting music entirely. Like his Instagram suggests, Bieber is turning his back on industry norms for the sake of his own happiness. So while we may have to settle for seeing less of his precious face, let’s celebrate that he seems to have realized that we don’t always need to.