Arts·Point of View

Stratford's new Justin Bieber exhibit is a commendable tribute, but will it satisfy the Beliebers?

In honour of Bieber's 24th birthday, near-lifelong fan Oliver Skinner muses on the much-hyped "Steps To Stardom".

In honour of Bieber's 24th birthday, one of his earliest fans muses on the much-hyped "Steps To Stardom"

A young Justin Bieber drums on the streets of Stratford, Ontario. (Stratford-Perth Archives, The Beacon Herald collection. July 2002.)

Inside an unassuming farmhouse in small-town Ontario, a treasure trove of international pop culture relics is on display, waiting for the world to come see it. Welcome to the Stratford Perth Museum, where "Steps to Stardom," a new tribute to former resident Justin Bieber, has launched just in time for the pop star's 24th birthday. The exhibit has been garnering a lot of media hype as of late, but the question is: should you, er, Belieb it?

An incomplete inventory of artifacts I got to gaze upon at "Steps to Stardom": JB's first drum set; hockey jerseys, sticks, and other staples of Canadian boyhood; framed mementos of life in the limelight, from tour merch to backstage passes for Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez shows, Teen Choice Awards surfboards and Ellen DeGeneres underwear; pages upon pages of frenzied fan mail; unnerving life-size cutouts of the singer; and a Belieber blackboard that must be wiped clean every hour to make room for new messages. There's no prize item, per se, but rather a mass of memorabilia intended to drive home the narrative that's written on the walls: that despite humble beginnings in little Stratford, Ontario, Justin Bieber has left one hell of an imprint on the world stage.

Justin Bieber's Teen Choice Award. (Stratford Perth Museum)

The exhibit takes it name from the steps of the Avon Theatre, where Justin spent the summer of 2007 busking for Stratford Festival theatregoers and cutting his teeth as a working musician. It didn't take long for the boy prodigy's acoustic covers to wind up on YouTube, the 21st century answer to Shakespeare's proposition that "all the world's a stage." This lore is laid bare through panels of text lining the exhibit, suggesting that Stratford, with its Renaissance drama backdrop, was a vital launchpad for Bieber's preternatural creative abilities. Fair, but let's not overlook one consistently guiding force behind kids with big dreams confined to small towns: the overwhelming desire to get out.

It's an origin story I know too well.

Justin and I were born in the same hospital, in nearby London, just weeks apart. I have family members who went to school with the wunderkind, so I witnessed those early YouTube videos before Bieber Fever was ever a twinkle in the eye of Scooter Braun, his manager. Later, when the budding star broke out of YouTube's rectangular box to attain airplay on real TVs and radios, it struck me as surreal that someone I knew (OK, knew of) had been catapulted to such astronomic heights. Because we were the same age and from the same place, I fell into the habit of charting Bieber's incline and contrasting it with my own — a perpetual losing game. At 17 I passed an English exam on 0.5 hours of sleep; at 17 he was dubbed one of Time magazine's most influential people of that year. Checkmate.

 A myth was born out of the way the world watched as Justin came of age, made mistakes, suffered, plummeted and pulled himself back up — all integral pieces to the puzzle of his stardom. Justin is so revered because he rose from the ashes after it appeared he had completely burnt out.- Oliver Skinner

There are intriguing side effects to people you know making it big, or a neighbourhood you recognize popping up on the silver screen. While on one hand it can lead to envy, on the other it can legitimize an otherwise commonplace, lowly existence. If Bieber's from Stratford and he made it to the big leagues, some kid out there will daydream, then why can't I?

Hometown heroes possess a daunting amount of responsibility. But who, really, deserves to take credit for the runaway success of every elevated Olympian or Oscar winner? The exhibit is teeming with evidence that JB has had a fruitful career in the United States and abroad, that he has seen the world and that the world, no doubt, has seen him. But something within makes me wary of a Canadian inadequacy syndrome that underlies the reason the exhibit is mostly made up of tokens of American achievement — that somehow the hard proof that Justin has received honours in Hollywood suddenly makes his Pinocchio story real. Why, in that space amid the autographs he'd signed and instruments he'd played and shoes he'd worn, did Bieber almost feel more far away than he's ever been?

It's something I foolishly mulled over while I passed through the exhibit. Could the eponymous steps also be considered ones the guests are meant to ascend, in order to try to see the world from Justin's high-flying point of view? Or were the steps an invitation for Justin to come back down to earth?

Justin Bieber's mother, Pattie Mallette, poses with a cardboard cutout of her son at the Stratford Perth Museum's new exhibit about the pop star. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

On his debut EP, My World, JB sings a confessional ballad that still gets me to this day. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, in "Down To Earth" he revisits his broken home, singing: "Mama you were always somewhere / And daddy, I live out of town / So tell me, how could I ever be normal somehow?"

It's not something I'm entirely sure the Stratford Perth Museum gets across. While he was dead-set on becoming a musician from his earliest days, Justin had the odds stacked awfully against him even after he'd broken into the industry. He's held the record for most disliked video on YouTube since the site introduced the like/dislike feature; he was nearly booed offstage during his own award acceptance speech; and in the wake of a particularly unglamorous public moment, a petition to deport the U.S. transplant gained such traction that the White House was obliged to respond to it. It was hard to know, back then, if Bieber even felt he had a home to return to where he would be welcomed back with open arms.

It's a career path that inarguably blazed the way for so many that have followed after — Shawn Mendes, Joel Adams — but the problem is that none of the descendants are, well, Justin. A myth was born out of the way the world watched as Justin came of age, made mistakes, suffered, plummeted and pulled himself back up — all integral pieces to the puzzle of his stardom. Justin is so revered because he rose from the ashes after it appeared he had completely burnt out.

John Kastner, the general manager of the Stratford Perth Museum, told me that "Steps to Stardom" was the result of multiple visitors questioning why there was no record of the city's famed native anywhere in the museum. In the same manner that it came to be, the exhibit will change shape according to new acquisitions and visitor feedback. As someone who's had my eyes fixed on Justin all this time, if I could offer my two cents, I'd like to see something that Never Say Never, Bieber's 2011 tour doc, can't tell me. Where better than a museum to explore the contradictory nature of past and present, to showcase an idol who's staked out a page in the history books but is still searching for a home like the rest of us?

Justin Bieber's soccer cards from 2005. (Elaine Chau/CBC)

If he ever wants to drop in, Justin Bieber no doubt has a place to stay at "Steps to Stardom," the well-meaning and commendable tribute to the uphill climb that led to his 24 candles being blown out today. There's no need to censor any part of his journey, truly. It's an unBelieable story — and it's one worth being told.

Steps To Stardom. Until end of 2018. Stratford Perth Museum, Stratford.


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