By Breeanna Hare
(CNN) — After the year he’s had, no one could blame Justin Bieber if he really does want to retire.
The 19-year-old has spent the past 12 months stuck in a public storm of negative press, bad decisions, ailments and misfires, all while trying to scrub off the sheen of his tween popularity. With a barely there ‘stache lingering on his upper lip, the pop star has spent 2013 attempting to assert his manhood and find a bridge over to the adult side of the pop world — all without completely disregarding the persona or the young fans that helped him become a star in the first place.
It’s a delicate and practically impossible balance, a tightrope that Bieber, his ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez, and some cohorts like Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande have all walked this year to varying degrees of success.
Gomez, now 21, has long shed the role that made her famous with younger crowds, that of Alex Russo on the Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place.” Even as she grew more recognizable thanks to Disney’s marketing prowess, Gomez was never solely definable by the series — there were departures for albums with her band, Selena Gomez & the Scene, and movies like 2011’s “Monte Carlo.”
But even with those efforts, Gomez began 2013 with a still-intact image as a young adult star. Although she’s in the same age group as her BFF Taylor Swift, Gomez didn’t enjoy the same broad demographic appeal.
Then March brought Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” a sly project aimed directly at the nexus of emerging womanhood. Alongside one actress who’s already come out on the other side of the teen star transition, Vanessa Hudgens, and one who stands on the cusp, Ashley Benson of “Pretty Little Liars,” Gomez put on a string bikini and struck the requisite provocative poses.
It was the kind of risque territory that legions of adolescent stars before her have eagerly walked into, because it always sends a crystal clear message: I’m not a kid anymore, and it’s time you started treating me like an adult artist.
“The transition’s weird and it’s awkward,” Gomez told CNN of trying to mature in the spotlight with projects like “Spring Breakers.” “You don’t really know what the right and wrong thing to do is when you do it, but you can just do projects that you’re really passionate about and this was something that I was definitely excited to be a part of.”
Go back roughly 10 years and you would have heard something similar from a then 21-year-old Britney Spears, who caused her own uproar when she kissed Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards. “Honestly, it’s about me just performing and expressing myself,” she told CNN of the backlash to her “adult” behavior, which at the time left some, including this network, questioning how the change in the former Mouseketeer’s image would affect her young fans.
Although Spears herself perhaps put it best when she said, “I’m not a girl; not yet a woman,” she wasn’t the only one struggling. Around the same time, Christina Aguilera was “Dirrtying” up her reputation with chaps and explicit lyrics, and Spears’ ex-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, was in the midst of reforming himself from a boy band member to bonafide pop star by promising to have his love interest “naked by the end of this song.” He took his freshly cultivated sex appeal a step too far at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, when he assisted in Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.”
But if there’s any comfort to be had for today’s young celebrities, it’s that each of those singers has been able to move past that “weird and awkward” phase Gomez described. Bieber especially is probably relieved to see that Timberlake survived that enormous scandal to dominate the charts years later with “The 20/20 Experience.”
In Bieber’s case, he can end the year satisfied that he has stretched himself enough artistically to gain positive attention for an older sound, even if the world isn’t quite ready to accept the adult artist he’s becoming. Bieber never had to contend with being a part of what’s referred to as the “Disney machine,” but he did become very famous very quickly at a very young age. Chances are it’s still difficult for the average adult older than 21 to name a Bieber hit that isn’t “Baby” or “One Less Lonely Girl,” two songs that helped launch his career when he was 15.
So when he says he plans to retire — which he’s done repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the end of the year in what may or may not be an extended prank that his rep won’t comment on — perhaps it’s more likely that he doesn’t want to quit singing but just wants to retire that old, floppy-haired image. In some ways he’s done that, even if it was inadvertently, with the constant topless photos he’s shared, his altercations with paparazzi, and the salacious rumors that dogged the South American stretch of his tour this year. The music he’s created — sultry songs about love, heartbreak and pillow talk, with a suggestive video to match — have only further shown his willingness to leave the kids’ table.
One of his tour companions, Ariana Grande, has shown the same desire in a much more subtle way. At 20, Grande is best known to the under-18s as Nickelodeon’s Cat Valentine on the network’s “Victorious” and “Sam & Cat.” But with the release of her debut album, “Yours Truly,” in August, Grande proved she’s ready and capable to handle an older audience.
She did that not with the usual scandals but with a No. 1 album that gained her entrée to larger platforms, such as a performance at the 2013 American Music Awards that earned praise from the likes of Lady Gaga and Kelly Clarkson.
The Disney Channel says it’s aware of the rocky terrain that lies ahead for kids who want a career beyond the network’s family-friendly realm.
According to Patti McTeague, the senior vice president of Kids Communications for Disney ABC Television Group, the Disney Channel doesn’t try to “control or dictate an actor’s image” while they’re working with the company, although they do offer a “Talent 101” orientation to help the budding star prepare for what’s ahead.
Outside that guidance, though, McTeague said in a statement that “the talent has the control over their career; we want them to be obligated to the art of their craft not obligated to us. We recognize we are working with young people at a transition in their personal development — aka, teenagers — and we trust parents of employed minors to support and guide their kids.”
And, when the time comes that said talent wants to move on from Disney, “we don’t try to slow the hands of time,” she continued. “Hopefully, these young actors continue to follow their dreams, explore roles that make sense for them and take their career to the next level.”
For at least one former Disney name, Miley Cyrus, making that leap to a new level meant burning down that Mouse House image altogether.
The 21-year-old has been trying to liberate herself from her “Hannah Montana” past for years, but it wasn’t until 2013 when she was fully able to, in her own words, kill off the character who made her famous.
With a new aesthetic, a discovered fondness for suggestive photography, an unfiltered Twitter account and a bold approach to stealing the limelight at each and every awards show that had her on the bill, Cyrus cheerfully let her prior kid-friendly image go up in flames. Although the public stood by and watched like a collective set of exasperated parents, Cyrus is entering 2014 with her mission accomplished. The shock value of seeing a singer and actress who was once the idol of nearly every 9-year-old in America swing naked from a wrecking ball has sunk in; there’s little, if anything else, she needs to do to assert her adult independence.
The transition, for Cyrus at least, is complete.
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