The lights dim. The screams of thousands of young girls fill the air. The moment they’ve been waiting for nears. A countdown flashes on a 40-foot screen along the back of the stage, signaling one minute until the beginning of the Believe World Tour.
The moment will be hazy later, clouded by the overwhelming swell of emotions that hits each girl as they wait for their favorite boy to take the stage. But they’ll never forget the way their hearts raced and tears streamed down their faces as they waited to see him for the first, second, hundredth time.
5…4…3…2…1…he appears. Hanging from the ceiling adorned with wings made from speakers and guitars, Justin Bieber floats down toward the stage to meet his fans.
Sixteen-year-old Elise Lausier stood in the top row of the Time Warner Cable Arena, staring down at the small figure of Justin Bieber dropping to the stage. Even from hundreds of feet above the stage, seeing her idol for the first time moved her to tears.
“I cried the whole time,” the now-19-year-old gushes.
Four nights later in Miami, it happened again — just like clockwork. The lights dim, and the screaming begins. The countdown hits zero, and spiky-haired Bieber descends from the ceiling donning a white suit and pitch black sunglasses like the young Prince of Pop he has often been nicknamed.
This time, 16-year-old Kaitlin Kelly strains her neck from the floor of the American Airlines Arena to watch as he gets closer and closer to her. Just moments before, she had emerged from backstage, where she experienced a coveted five-second photo-op with the young singer.
The small hug and exchange of hellos before the flash of the camera wasn’t enough to satisfy her desire to see him up close, to hear his raspy teenage voice speak directly to her. She needed more.
As the bass to ‘All Around the World’ thumped from speakers, Kelly and her best friend were already making plans to wait for him outside his hotel until the wee hours of the morning — a tradition the teens had after each show they attended.
“We waited outside of his hotel until like 5 a.m. once because we knew he had to come out,” she smiles, thinking about the experience that millions of young girls across the world would kill for. “So we just waited, and he finally came out and he took pictures with us for a few minutes.”
Bieber, who has sold out arenas since he turned 15, is no stranger to obsessive fans screaming outside his hotel room and following him across the nation on tour. The young pop star, now 23, is well-versed in living in the spotlight.
However, in recent years he seems to have cracked under the pressure. In 2014, Bieber was arrested for driving under the influence, resisting arrest and drag racing in Miami, Fla. The arrest followed a slew of other stunts captured on video, including egging his neighbors’ home and urinating in public.
This didn’t stop fans from gathering around the chain-link fence lining the Miami police station where Bieber was held. Upon his release, they swarmed his car and screamed their devotion to him.
Even when it seemed like the world was fed up with Justin Bieber, his fans were unwavering in their support.
“I just feel like a lot of people make mistakes and sometimes you just have to ride it out with them, and then they’ll fix they’re act,” Kelly explains.
She says, if anything, the world turning its back on the young star only made her want to support him more.
“When you get attached to a person in your childhood, you kind of have this halo effect where they can do know wrong,” says Greg Webster, associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida. “I think people want to preserve the innocence of when both the artist and the fan were children.”
Bieber redefined the path to stardom when he scored a recording contract by uploading grainy videos of himself singing pop hits, like ‘So Sick’ by Ne-Yo, to YouTube. In 2008, his soon-to-be manager snagged him the opportunity to sing Usher’s ‘U Got It Bad’ for the artist himself, sealing the deal on his music career.
The videos, which now have millions of views, helped him cultivate a fan base long before he ever stepped in a recording booth. He released his first studio album, titled My World, at 15 and embarked on his first world tour just seven months later.
Both Lausier and Kelly can recall the exact moment in their childhood when they fell in love with the shaggy-haired 15-year-old from Stratford, Canada.
“I was in the car with my mom, and I heard the song ‘Baby’ for the first time on the radio,” Lausier reminisces. She beams as she remembers the first time she heard his voice.
“I just listened to his voice and I was like ‘oh my gosh,’ and then I was obsessed with him.”
Kelly’s discovery came about a year earlier, with the release of his first hit.
“When he came out with ‘One Time,’ that’s when I fell in love with him,” she states definitively. There’s no question in her mind. “It was summertime. I remember.”
Bieber isn’t the first celebrity to make negative headlines, and he most likely won’t be the last. It’s an inherent part of Hollywood, says music critic Holly Gleason.
“There is nothing less natural or less inherent to the human condition than being famous, because everybody who walks up to you is writing a script about who you are, what you value, who your friends are, except they’ve never met you,” she says.
Spending day in and day out in the spotlight will put a toll on anyone.
“I think you can get disoriented,” she explains. “I think you can get callus. You can start to lack empathy.”
Gleason cites John Mayer as another young singer who was once denounced for his less-than-admirable actions as well. After a risqué interview with Playboy, where he revealed details about his sex life with both Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson, he lost his heartbroken, coffee-shop-singer persona.
“He crashes down on his head, and once he gets past the horror of screwing up his career, he starts peeking his head out again,” Gleason says, as if this is to be expected. “He built himself up to be a musician and got a top producer to help his music.”
After he found a new, respected girlfriend in Katy Perry, the world began to forgive John Mayer — just as the world might begin to forgive Justin Bieber now that he’s “on the right path,” as 19-year-old Kelly believes.
As rumors swirl that Bieber has reunited with his old flame Selena Gomez, it almost feels like 2011 again, when he still donned his floppy, side-swept hair and his fans still loyally wore their rose-colored glasses.
Maybe, they never took them off.
“People want to forgive, just in general,” Gleason says, giving reason to Bieber’s second rise in popularity. “People never want to believe its as bad as it is.”
Bieber is a product of his environment, to an extent. Grossing a net worth of over $200 million before the age of 22 came with power. Very few people will condemn someone with that amount of money and that level of fame, Gleason says.
“If you’re very young when [fame] happens and people are making money off of you, they’re less inclined to discipline you,” she says.
But, the world isn’t making money off of Justin Bieber. They’re throwing their money his way — buying albums, T-shirts and other memorabilia. They’re making him more rich, more untouchable. Why?
“As long as a given celebrity is producing something of worth, it tends to cancel out some of their terrible behavior,” UF psychology professor Webster says.
Throughout all his ups and downs, Bieber has never stopped making chart-topping music. Bieber earned his first №1 album in the United States in 2010 with My World 2.0 and his first №1 single in 2012 with ‘Boyfriend.’
In May, he became the first artist to debut at №1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in back-to-back weeks, with ‘Despacito’ dethroning ‘I’m the One.’ With his other song ‘2U’ coming in at №3 on the charts, he also became the first artist to own the top three bestselling songs simultaneously.
In fact, Bieber has never gone more than two years without releasing a full-length album, and he frequently releases singles in between to keep fans happy. The almost constant influx of new music ensures the connection between Bieber and his faithful Beliebers is never lost.
His music — the thrill of hearing his soft voice flow through the speakers with a new, unheard melody — reminds his fans that he is their best friend, the person that can do no wrong.
“I think people view celebrities as they would their friends, even though it’s a one-way relationship,” Webster theorizes. “We are more forgiving of celebrities, just as we would be more forgiving of our friends than we would any random stranger.”
Over the past few years, fans have battled with their moral compass to remain loyal to the person who was there for them through nearly a decade of their lives. The person whose face adorned their walls and whose voice flowed from their speakers day in and day out.
This cognitive dissonance, as Webster calls it, was no easy feat.
“It’s hard to resolve,” he admits. “Even though we know they’re doing something bad, and that bad thing may outweigh the good things.”
For some fans, including Kelly and Lausier, the good — the music, the swagger, the hair — outweighed the bad.
“I really don’t know why,” Lausier admits when asked why her love for Bieber has never wavered. “I’ve been obsessed with him for so long. I just think he’s so cute, and I like his music.”
As a young artist, Bieber had to develop his music to keep his fans interested as they grow up with him. Fans have stayed — and come back — to watch his music mature.
With the release of Purpose, his most recent studio album, came an err of maturity that was not seen in his earlier music. The lyrics hinted at more stable relationships, rather than the puppy love he often sang about in 2009. He collaborated with respected artists whose fan bases were much different than his own.
The more complex, adult melodies attracted new audiences as it appealed to the loyal one he’d already established. Maybe his music, if not his character, helped him continue to sell out arenas on his Purpose World Tour in 2016.
“I feel like his music has grown, because he’s growing,” Kelly says. She radiates pride at how far he’s come. “Back in the day he was making music for younger fans, but as he’s getting older he’s more towards older people as well. So that’s probably why I still like him now.”