When Calvin Klein unveiled their new publicity campaign featuring a half-naked Justin Bieber, I thought, Calvins have never looked better. As someone who had a window at 1515 Broadway looking down on a billboard featuring Marky Mark clutching his funky bunch and can vividly remember a teenage Brooke Shields's Calvin Klein Jeans campaign, I can say CK aced it this time. "Do you want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?" Shields asked in 1980. The answer, according to masses of Beliebers: "Me, please."
Anyone who pays attention to important cultural events has known for months that Bieber would appear in a CK underwear campaign. As far back as last April, fans were gossiping online about Bieber flying to New York City for a Calvin Klein shoot. Bieber teased us with shirtless underwear photos, and it girl Kendall Jenner was reportedly involved. Any lingering doubts about the campaign's existence disappeared yesterday when @CalvinKlein tweeted, "Drum Roll… #mycalvins," followed by shots of a ridiculously ripped Bieber, both solo and with Dutch model Lara Stone. Welcome back, Calvin Klein. And welcome back, JB.
The past few years have been rough for Bieber. Germany forced him to leave his pet monkey in quarantine, Miami police arrested him on suspicion of drunk driving after they caught him allegedly drag racing, a video leaked of him using the N-word, and TMZ obtained footage of Bieber peeing in a bucket at a restaurant as he yelled, "Fuck Bill Clinton!" On top of all this, his most recent album, the critically acclaimed Journals, had subpar sales. It only produced one top 20 single and debuted at 46 on the UK album charts.
Bieber's punchline status sounds similar to issues Mark Wahlberg faced in 1992 when he modeled Calvins. Although today most people know Wahlberg for his Academy Award-nominated work as an actor, he was flirting with one-hit wonder status in 1992 when he donned tighty whities for a photoshoot. Nobody imagined a slab of beefcake would go on to be one of the more lauded actors of his generation, but then again, beefcake was really the point, wasn't it? Bieber's the perfect heir to Wahlberg's sleazy, high-fashion throne because he's hot.
There's a difference between the two performers' Calvin Klein campaigns, of course. Wahlberg looks 30 percent bulkier than the lean Bieber appears in the new pictures. And even in smiling shots, Wahlberg looks slightly scary, reminding people of his past in Dorchester, Massachusetts. No matter how hard he tries, the kid from Ontario will never look tough like Marky Mark. And then there's the differences between the co-stars. Wahlberg poses with Kate Moss, arguably the biggest model of the 1990s. When she draped herself on Mark, it was two stars aligned. This time? No disrespect to the gorgeous Lara Stone, but she's just an accessory.
The ads confirm Bieber's sex appeal, but fails to fix all his public relations problems, some of which also afflicted Wahlberg 20 years ago. Both Wahlberg and Bieber's sexed-up images appeal to gay men, and both performers have had complicated relationships with this segment of their audiences. During the Marky Mark years, Wahlberg pandered to gays while also being accused of gay bashing. Unlike both his male and female peers, Bieber has barely embraced his large gay audience. In fact he's mostly ignored them. Maybe it comes from his church background—he reportedly has reconnected with his pastor and faith—or maybe it's somehow related to a nagging wish to be "hard" like his hip-hop pals. Either way, it's not the 90s anymore, and he needs to get over it. Few male pop stars exist during this moment, period. And those who succeed either accept their gay fanbase, tacitly acknowledge them, or keep their shirts on. I'm not saying Bieber needs to play up to the gay audience the way Nick Jonas did, stripping in gay bars. But Bieber does need to indicate he's actually part of the 21st Century.
Unlike Jonas, Bieber hasn't tied his sexed-up image to music. And most importantly, at the end of the day, what's he got to offer musically? It's been too long since we had new music from Justin, and all signs point to him having a new record out in the first part of 2015. I'm optimistic. The R&B-leaning late-2013 singles collection Journals featured some of his best work to date with tracks like "Heartbreaker" and "Roller Coaster." But either because he released the album as singles throughout that fall—not exactly an "event" strategy—or because Bieber's off-the-field antics overshadowed the music, people didn't seem to notice.
Bieber resembles a man now. He looks good. Really good. The Calvin Klein campaign confirms that, but Justin Bieber is also a legitimately talented performer. It's high time he got back to reminding people what made him a celebrity in the first place, hopefully with a record that makes him sound like a grown up. Imagine that.
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