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Ladies and gentlemen, crushed-out tweens and cyber bullies: Let it be known that the voice of Justin Bieber, he of the carefully coiffed mop-top and lightly soulful, sweet-as-a-juice-box soprano, has finally begun to change. Call it the crack heard around the world, the most scrutinized advent of puberty since Michael Jackson’s, perhaps even the cure for Bieber Fever. The boy wonder will soon become a man. (More or less.) And with this momentous pitch-change comes a host of questions about ability and adult careers, of course, but also about the role the voice plays in gender norms.
Bieber’s is a classic coming-of-the-digital-age story, and his YouTube-abetted rising star became an easy target: Facebook groups rallied against him, Twitter rebelled against his trending-topic stranglehold, and a prank Internet campaign was waged to “help” the kid “tour” North Korea. His greatest offenses seem to involve his gender, his sexuality, and his voice—more specifically, the juxtaposition of the three. Even Daniel Radcliffe made news for remarking that he thought Bieber was a woman after hearing him sing.
Forget Bieber Fever—we’re talking Bieber Phobia. JB’s soprano (and, more recently, high tenor) is not only regarded as peculiar, it’s apparently threatening. But why? Falsetto singing has long been part of popular music, from Curtis Mayfield to Cee-Lo, from disco to recent indie rock. That history is contentious, however, and the meaning of a man’s upper register changes drastically by genre. Safely bolstered by guitars, for instance, a falsetto-singing rock frontman can come off as coolly secure in his masculinity. In already feminized, dubiously “authentic” genres like dance pop, however, singing “like a girl” in a style that signifies “false” requires some legitimizing legwork. Artists like Justin Timberlake and Usher compensate by closely aligning themselves with hip-hop producers and constructing self-images as ladies’ men. But while he’s dropped a few hormonal hints, balls-to-the-wall booty jams don’t exactly gel with Bieber’s boy-next-door image. Physically, nothing about a falsetto is “false”: It’s simply a register any man could develop if it were given as much attention as the lower timbres we associate with “adult male.” Socially speaking, however, vocal timbres are one of the means by which we attempt to neatly divvy up the world into two sexes. The falsetto singer’s (feminine) voice seems to belie his (male) body, so his masculinity must be re-established. JB can’t accomplish that stylistically: He is not a rock star, and he can’t pull off legit soul-singer status, despite the BET Awards nod. But due to both his actual youth and his incredibly childlike appearance, he can’t do it sexually either.
In other words, the go-to response to a white boy’s dance-pop falsetto is eroticization, but it’s just . . . creepy to think dirty thoughts about someone who looks like he’s seven. We don’t know what to make of the body that goes with the girlish voice, the ambiguous face, and the incredibly youthful boyishness of someone who is almost, but not quite, a man. Do those cooing, cherubic vocals belong to an overgrown boy soprano? A young man singing falsetto? A girl in teen-boy drag? A modern-day castrato?
The flurry of interest in Bieber’s vocal puberty, then, is not just about watching a child star try to roll with the big boys, but also about possibly alleviating the aural anxiety over his gender and sexuality. Maybe JB will grow up to be JT, who we are (mostly) comfortable with these days. Far less comfortably, maybe he’ll be MJ, his man-child voice frozen in time. Hell, maybe he’ll grow up to sound like Barry White. Wouldn’t it be interesting, though, if he remained somewhat ambiguous, a compellingly complicated figure, at once alien and appealing? At the very least, Biebs, keep the hair.
Justin Bieber plays Madison Square Garden August 31