We Stand on Guard for Bieber

How Canadian is Justin Bieber? His hometown’s “Steps to Stardom” exhibit provides some answers.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2018 | 18 minutes (4,330 words)

Stratford, Ontario, doesn’t announce itself. The first time I traveled there, in mid-February, I drove into its center before knowing I was actually in it. I had not noticed a sign. All I had seen were miles of flat snowy farmland — the odd silo, field upon field — a row of frosted evergreens lining the horizon. Stratford, population 31,465, is like any other small tourist town in Ontario — shabby strip malls, magisterial churches, brick Main Street, overpriced eateries. Like so many Canadian cities, it’s the kind of place where a kid could be born and, happily enough, have just as much chance of staying as leaving.

People generally visit Stratford in the summer for its renowned Shakespeare festival, but I went during the off-season. A couple of miles ahead of the town center, my boyfriend and I passed what appeared to be a school bus holding zone — about a dozen of them, parked like blocks of life-size Legos — before arriving at the Stratford Perth Museum. It was 10 a.m. on a Saturday, the opening time for the press day of the “Steps to Stardom” exhibit, which traced Justin Bieber’s life, all 24 years of it, back to his Stratford childhood. It was quiet. The exhibit scarcely announced itself either, aside from two festive planters flanking the entrance, each festooned with curlicued silver-sprayed twigs wrapped in bows and billowy purple gauze, a color that, for those in the know, announces JUSTIN BIEBER as surely as it might have once announced royalty. In the next room, even quieter, the “Railway Century” exhibit politely stood by with its black-and-white photographs of the industry that had built the town that had built Justin Bieber.

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How Canadian is Justin Bieber? How to be something which is defined by what it is not — not American, for instance? A better question might be, how American is Justin Bieber? What makes him tell Complex, “You see a dude who’s successful and he’s doing what he loves and people don’t take too well to that sometimes. I’d probably be the same way if I was in Canada, seeing this kid driving around in all these fancy cars and shit.” He does seem to embody the American dream, coming from little and becoming, well, this kid driving around in all these fancy cars and shit. If the Canadian dream is not that then what is it? Is there even one?

From what I can tell as a Canadian, the Canadian dream is not a dream at all. A dream implies an almost-impossible aspiration, a reality bordering on fantasy. Canadians are too practical for that. Our zeitgeist does not aspire, it simply is, accepting the limits of its lot and only really deigning to strive within that, if at all. This is the conservatism of Canada, or the Canada presented as the ideal: not too rich, not too poor, not too ethnic, not too anything. It is tidy acceptance rather than shambolic transcendence.

How much of this remains with Justin Bieber? He has not lived in Canada for the past decade (having left Stratford at 14). Music producer Adam Messinger, who also grew up in Ontario, initially met Bieber when the singer was 16. They worked together on Bieber’s compilation My Worlds: The Collection, which included acoustic versions of songs from his first two albums. Messinger recalls the two of them “playing off being Canadian together,” bonding over hockey and being “outsiders” in the music industry even though Bieber was very much inside it by that point. It was October and the teen star was four months into a relentless international tour — his first — which would go on for a whole additional year. He was scheduled to meet Messinger (and Nasri Atweh, the other half of the Messengers) in a Honolulu studio in the early afternoon. He arrived around seven hours late.

“Basically, we found out he kind of blew off the day to go surfing,” Messinger, who also worked (with Atweh) on Bieber’s third album, Believe, told me. He understood it: This was the kid’s day off, so the kid took the day off. That Bieber eventually turned up at all was something, considering he had almost thrown in the towel two months prior. “Justin sat down and told me he didn’t like being famous and couldn’t handle the pressure anymore,” manager Scooter Braun said in Bieber’s 2012 memoir, Just Getting Started. Braun gave him two options: Michael Jackson, or nothing. Bieber never brought it up again. Still, Messinger noticed his unease over the years: “You kind of saw him being ready to kind of like not necessarily have to work for a minute if he wasn’t pushed into it.”

Bieber does seem to embody the American dream, coming from little and becoming, well, this kid driving around in all these fancy cars and shit.

This February, the same month the “Steps to Stardom” exhibit opened, Bieber reunited with the Messengers for a couple of practice sessions. In the two and a half years since Messinger had last seen him, Bieber seemed to have mellowed. “He was definitely in a loose kind of vibe,” Messinger told me: “It seemed like there was no pretension, no Hollywood, or any part of that kind of celebrityism you might think that people feel pressure to turn on when they’re in the spotlight.” He recalled that Bieber’s hair was unbrushed, (he had just come from a hockey game), and that he wore simple green khaki shorts and a white T-shirt, which reminded Messinger of the way his Canadian classmates used to dress in high school: “It made me feel like, ‘Here is this small-town Ontario kid, kind of just regaining his roots, or something, or himself.” Bieber had contacted Atweh wanting to improve his writing. On the way to their meeting, he had even listened to a couple of their early songs together. To Messinger, this signaled that Bieber was “coming back to a place before everything got a bit crazy.”

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Before Justin Bieber came along, Stratford ran on steam. Initially a railway town, two lines cut through it — one from Buffalo, the other from Chicago. But, according to Lutzen H. Riedstra, the former head archivist of Stratford-Perth Archives, “It wasn’t a normal blue-collar place.” By the 1920s, close to 70 percent of the local workers were skilled tradesmen. The railway shops employed unionized engineers, and the furniture trade attracted artisans in the late 1880s. “At one point in the 1920s one sixth of all furniture made in Canada was made in Stratford,” Riedstra told me, adding that 90 percent of the Victrola record players made in Canada were built there at the time.

Thirty years later, Stratford was sputtering. World War II brought the end of the furniture industry, and steam trains succumbed to diesel. The automotive industry arrived, bringing in a blue-collar workforce, but the town was not the same. Enter Shakespeare. Journalist Tom Patterson had always thought Stratford, which shared its name with Shakespeare’s birthplace, ought to stage the playwright’s work. So, as a means of “filling the gap” left by the railway, according to Carolynn Bart-Riedstra, cowriter (with husband Lutzen) of Stratford: Its Heritage and Its Festival, Patterson launched what became known as the Stratford Festival of Canada. Now in its 65th year, its attendance has surpassed half a million. What had been a middle-class town is now a hybrid of artsy and blue-collar residents. “That cultural divide is definitely there,” Bart-Riedstra explained to me over the phone. “Definitely culture and arts is encouraged here, and it’s something that people like Justin did benefit from.” This, despite one Bieber fan’s mother pointedly telling me and my boyfriend outside his exhibit: “Shakespeare didn’t bring us. It was Justin.”

Bieber was connecting people as early as 2002. That summer, Cory Smith, a student reporter at the Stratford Beacon-Herald, was assigned a story on an upcoming fundraiser. Local musician (and Smith’s former classmate) Nathan McKay was looking to raise enough money from a benefit concert to buy 8-year-old Bieber his own drum kit. The boy’s mother, Patti Mallette, was raising him on her own, working part-time at Zellers, and sometimes using the House of Blessing food bank. In his memoir Just Getting Started, Bieber recalls stealing clothes from the school lost and found because he couldn’t afford new ones. As Smith wrote at the time, the goal of the gig was to help “Beiber” — he remains embarrassed by this misspelling — “realize his gift, and maybe his dream of someday playing in a jazz or rock band.” The precocious drummer hoped “hundreds” of people would come to the show. “He was pretty shy,” Smith, now sports editor at the Beacon, recalls. “He didn’t say a whole lot.”

Justin Bieber’s first official performance cost $2. Too young to try out for American Idol (he was 12, and back in 2007 you had to be 16), he settled for the Stratford Star talent competition. The event took place in January 2007, and he sang, among other songs, Alicia Keys’s “Fallin” (his “jam in the shower,” he writes in First Step) and Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” (the number that would catch manager Scooter Braun’s ear when he saw the clip on YouTube). In Nowhere But Up, Mallette recalls girls chanting and holding up glittery signs displaying messages like“I love you” and“I vote for Justin.” “I got up there and sang my little eighth-grade butt off,” Bieber says in First Step, “thinking this was possibly the greatest moment of my entire life — of anyone’s life — better than hockey, better than Star Wars, better than Grandma’s turkey and gravy.” He came in third.

A dream implies an almost-impossible aspiration, a reality bordering on fantasy. Canadians are too practical for that.

A word here about Canadians and competition. While competitiveness is more often associated with Americans, Canadians are not immune to ambition within the confines of their own conservatism. In the 2011 concert documentary Never Say Never, Bieber’s childhood coach describes him as a kid who never passed the ball or the puck: “I had to stress to him that making the goal was as important [as] scoring the goal,” Martin Butler says. In his 2012 memoir, the singer himself explains, “I have to win, or what’s the point in playing? I feel that way about everything I do — from my music to shooting pool.” Aspiring North American stars like him, like Celine Dion, like Drake, cross over into the States and are no longer vying for the attention of 30 million people, but 300 million. Celebrity tunes motivation, and Bieber now has what Messinger calls a “seriously competitive attitude.” He remembers the singer, a few years ago, “getting pretty kind of frustrated” that One Direction could potentially beat him in the charts (they didn’t). Even at their recording session in February, “out of nowhere,” Messinger said, Bieber challenged Nasri Atweh to a race. In 2015, he attempted to explain his superlative fixation to Complex: “Growing up, I literally got my identity through being good at stuff. I always wanted to be the best because I felt like that’s how I got my self-worth.” What made him more American was not that he wanted to win — many Canadians want the same thing — but that he believed he should.

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The girl who beat Justin Bieber in the Stratford Star competition is a country singer-songwriter named Kristen Hawley. She has a good, if generic, voice. Though she has mainly toured across southern Ontario, she once played Nashville. She still lives in Stratford. Without the internet, this might have been the arc of Bieber’s career, too. But he became a YouTube star before becoming a YouTube star was a thing. Then he joined Twitter before joining Twitter was a thing. That’s when he spawned millennial Beatlemania. “I think if social media didn’t exist, he wouldn’t even be half as popular as he is,” Jennifer Van Gessel, the Australian director of Bieber Generation, explained to me. Bieber’s omnipresence on social media (in 2010, New York, citing Billboard, reported that he tweeted “four times more” than other celebrities) fuels an illusion of intimacy. “He makes himself seem accessible to them,” Van Gessel said. “If he friends one of them or adds them on Twitter or whatever, that seemed to be like the biggest moment in some of their lives.”

While making her documentary, which was released in March 2018, Van Gessel traveled across America interviewing hundreds of Beliebers and discovered a sort of stock character: She — usually it was a she — was a young outsider who aspired to be more, which is exactly what Bieber personifies. “It sort of makes them think they can do it too,” Van Gessel explains, “and they sort of miss the fact that he’s actually really talented and good-looking.”

The machine behind Bieber designed him this way: to be approachable. The pre-pubescent boy with the high-pitched, tremulous voice was like a modern-day castrato. Packaged with girlish swept hair — according to his stylist, it captured his “Canadian hockey helmet hair” — and purposefully lo-fi videos, he was a paean to puppy love. Any good Canadian would recognize the brand of locally sourced self-deprecation saturating his first three albums. On My World, My World 2.0 and Believe, he sings multiple variations of the lyrics in his initial hit single, “U Smile”: “Cause my cards are on the table / And I’m willing and I’m able / But I fold / To your wish.”

On his first tour, he doubled down by pulling a girl out of each audience to whom he would sing “One Less Lonely Girl” with a bouquet of roses. “If you’re a young girl and … you’re insecure … and some guy like that rolls out the red carpet for you in that brief moment, it’s enough to just blow people away,” Van Gessel says. “I think that’s a big part of it: He knows how to make girls feel special, and guys actually.” A vociferous family with four daughters in line at the “Steps to Stardom” exhibit proved Van Gessel’s point: They had driven nine hours from Connecticut even though they had already seen Bieber in concert more than 20 times. One of the daughters was deemed the “true Belieber,” but her mother, a small blond woman with a big voice, admitted she had much “love” for Bieber, too. “You listen to his music and he’s never telling you about, ‘You have to do this to keep me,’” she said. “There’s nothing disrespectful to women, you know what I mean? And with four daughters how can you not support that?”

The stock Belieber: She — usually it was a she — was a young outsider who aspired to be more, which is exactly what Bieber personifies.

Bieber even charmed Van Gessel. In January 2013, she met the 18-year-old superstar backstage at the Denver stop of his Believe tour. She had been left out in the cold, and he consoled her, rubbing her back to warm her up, complimenting her necklace. “I felt like a little schoolgirl around him,” she says. “He just made you feel like you were the only person there.” At the same time, however, he seemed somehow unreal. “The way he moved and everything,” she says, “he could’ve been a robot or something.”

Not long after that things started to go south for Bieber. The small wonder initially controlled by the adults around him — his mother, his manager, his vocal coach — suddenly unplugged. Out of nowhere, Bieber dropped his native politesse; more than a decade of acquiescence, gone. In only four years he had acquired all the accoutrements of an entitled American frat boy so he acted out like an entitled American frat boy: pissing in a restaurant cleaning bucket, egging a multimillion-dollar home, exposing himself at Mayan ruins in Tulum, posing before a controversial Tokyo war shrine, publicly hoping Anne Frank would have been a Belieberdrag racing in his Lamborghini, landing in jail. It was familiar behavior, the sort exhibited by other child stars (Britney Spears, Shia LaBeouf, Lindsay Lohan, et al.), one that originates in the growing pains of public identity formation. And just as familiar was the response: The American celebrity industrial complex that had created this monster immediately disowned him for being one.


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A petition to deport Bieber materialized and was signed by 273,000 Americans — the White House, forced to respond, issued a “no comment” — but Canadians did not play along. The country that prides itself on refusing to value fame above all else declined to renounce its celebrity export for not living up to the southern ideal. Canada saw Bieber less as a spoiled lucrative brand than as a kid rebelling against an irregular life. Filmmaker Sarah Polley, a fellow Ontarian and herself a former child star, believed Bieber was being “mistreated” and was “within his rights” to behave how he chose. The mayor of Stratford, Dan Mathieson, added, “As far as I’m concerned, he is a 19-year-old person who has made some errors… We all have made errors in our life.” The then-principal of Bieber’s old high school offered similar sentiments: “He was an everyday, average young man then, and in my heart of hearts he’s still that everyday young man,” Martin Ritsma said. “We can put him under a microscope and judge, but that’s something I’m not prepared to do.”

Nor is it something his hometown exhibit is prepared to do. “Steps to Stardom” silently passes over Bieber’s noisy past, focusing instead on his local upbringing and ascension to worldwide idolatry. The show is designed to celebrate the homegrown star and promote the place that grew him, but even if it wasn’t, the omission would be expected; the instinct to look on the bright side suits a country that is accustomed to papering over its own dismal past.

A petition to deport Bieber materialized and was signed by 273,000 Americans — the White House, forced to respond, issued a “no comment.”

But Bieber hasn’t forgotten. “I was a wholesome pop star who was so amazing who had nice hair and a fucking image that no one could ever live up to,” he told NME in 2015. “So when all this happened people were like, ‘Woah, let’s rip him apart.’” His trajectory seemed to mirror that of his mother, who became mixed up in substances before she had him at 16. Both sides of Bieber’s family have a history with alcoholism, though it is unclear what he actually did to make his manager tell the New York Times that he thought sending Bieber on tour might result in his demise. Neither has Bieber disclosed any details, but his description of how he felt at the time is reminiscent of the poem his mother wrote — titled “I am troubled/I feel empty” — before she was admitted to hospital following a suicide attempt: “Empty. Lost. Like I didn’t know myself.”

In the end his mom found God. And so did he.

The cover of Purpose, Justin Bieber’s most recent album, is the most overtly religious of his career. He bows his head over hands almost in prayer, a white, upturned crucifix overlaying his six-pack, darker crosses enveloping him. The 2015 record was deemed his mea culpa after — in perhaps his most Canadian move to date — he publicly apologized for past misdeeds. One of the album’s three hit singles was literally called “Sorry.” He intended for the tracks to be “uplifting,” though that makes less of an impression than the fact that JUSTIN BIEBER — writ large — seems to have reverted to plain old Justin Bieber. Where he was the central feature in his pop days, this new EDM stage of his career paints him onto a wall of sound. In a number of the album’s music videos — “Sorry,” “Life Is Worth Living,” “Love Yourself” — he doesn’t even physically appear. And in late July 2017, after 16 months on the road, he canceled the remaining four months of his Purpose tour. “Me taking this time right now is me saying I want to be SUSTAINABLE,” he wrote in a note posted on Instagram. “I want my career to be sustainable, but I also want my mind heart and soul to be sustainable.”

Bieber now seems less about being the best, more about making the best music. In practice, that means collaborating, an approach that recalls the community he grew up in, the kind of place that would pay for a little kid’s drum kit without even knowing who he was. “I’m just used to working harder than everybody and other people taking the credit,” Purpose’s main writer, Poo Bear, told the Times. “Justin is the first person — literally — to bring my name up and say we did this album together.” Post-Purpose, while quietly forging his fifth album, Bieber has appeared primarily as a featured artist, boosting other people’s songs to the top of the charts, most notably Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” DJ Snake’s “Let Me Love You,” and DJ Khaled’s “I’m the One.” Messinger says the credibility Bieber acquired with his most recent album, which thrust his oeuvre both critically and commercially into the vicinity of his celebrity, allows him to “kind of just show up.” Sometimes he even shares the glare (for instance, Quavo and Chance the Rapper also appear on DJ Khaled’s summer sunburst “No Brainer”). In an interview with Billboard in 2015, Bieber spoke about consciously setting aside his ego. “Enough with the Justin Bieber Show. I want to veer away from the self-centered attitude,” he said. “I’m just focused on the people who have been there since the start.”

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The first day of the “Steps to Stardom” exhibit was sold out. When we arrived, 10 minutes before the opening, there was a line of around 30 people, mostly young women in their teens and early 20s, with parents and relatives rounding out the crowd. It was too cold for jean jackets, but there were a lot of jean jackets. A 19-year-old bear of a guy named Daniel, who wore a black Justin Bieber shirt (and a jean jacket) and came from Toronto, said he and his 20-year-old friend Hamali had been fans “since day one.” This was a recurring theme. Bieber’s disciples appeared to take his 2010 song “Never Let You Go” as something of a directive. “They all said the exact same things — the exact same lines in the exact same way,” Van Gessel had remarked. “And one of those things that they always said was, “I’m never gonna leave him.”

The Bieber machine has ensured, through the years, that his devotees feel not just like they know him, but that he is their kin. Braun, who calls Bieber “the kid,” even has family tattooed on his wrist. As one 18-year-old girl from Kitchener, Ontario, (jean jacket, check) told me, “Because I’ve just grown up with him I feel like I know him personally even though, like, obviously I don’t.” Online, Beliebers from across the world form a digital tribe of unanimous devotion, like a small town on the web. “They’re like one big family, and they love to say that,” said Van Gessel. Even in line at the exhibit there was a sense of camaraderie. At one point a woman at the front of the line yelled, “Is he here? Has anybody seen him?” We all laughed, and I mentioned that the museum’s manager had told me Bieber had asked if he could visit during off hours and bring a guest (he ended up dropping by two months later with his grandparents). “Se-le-na,” one girl said, knowingly, referring to singer Selena Gomez, Bieber’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. The rest of her family began to talk about how “adorable” they were. “It’s gonna happen, ladies,” one woman said, “it’s gonna happen.” (It didn’t — they reportedly broke up in early March and he is now engaged to model Hailey Baldwin, one of his people who has “been there since the start” — the couple was first introduced in 2009, right at the beginning of his career).

On the sold-out first day of the “Steps to Stardom” exhibit, it was too cold for jean jackets, but there were a lot of jean jackets.

The sense of tribalism extends particularly to Bieber’s Canadian admirers, some of whom are literally related to him. Though his mother no longer lives in Stratford, Bieber’s grandparents and his dad, Jeremy, as well as his new wife and Bieber’s half-siblings, still reside nearby. And Carolynn Bart-Riedstra, whose son went to school with Bieber, says that in Stratford, “everybody knows everybody.” Bieber’s continued involvement in charities and fundraising in the community also give the impression of proximity. Though he does not have a home in Stratford, one group of fans told me they had driven by the house belonging to his grandparents, Bruce and Diane Dale, who serve as living, breathing connective tissue to their famous grandson.

Without the Dales, in fact, “Steps to Stardom” might not have existed. When John Kastner, manager of the Stratford Perth Museum, came up with the premise for the exhibit in June 2017 — after Conservative MP and Heritage Critic Peter Van Loan suggested it — he contacted the Dales, who have a home full of Biebernalia. “It’s like a museum itself,” Kastner tells me. He found more than 100 items, including a minor hockey jacket and a library card. “Those sorts of things really fit the narrative of the exhibit,” he explained (immediately reminding me of all the things that don’t). “Steps to Stardom” also includes a room wallpapered in fluorescent posters, which shout cute phrases like, “Forget swine flu! We’ve got Bieber Fever!” Kastner says the posters are “real,” confiscated from Bieber’s 2010 concert at Madison Square Garden. It was a circular bit of serendipity that had Nathan McKay, the guy responsible for raising money to buy Bieber his first drum kit — for essentially setting him on the track to becoming famous — noticing thousands of these posters in a pile at the New York show. Having been told they were going to be thrown out, the Stratford native grabbed about 100 and delivered them to the museum, to the town where Bieber first came from, with the kind of understatement that could only be Canadian: “Someday these might be interesting.” 

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Soraya Roberts is an essayist, a cultural critic, and the author of In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life.

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Editor: Kelly Stout
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel
Copy editor: Jacob Gross