Is Justin Bieber, the once bright-eyed, irresistibly smiley kid America fell in love with when he burst onto the world stage in 2008/9, at the point of no return yet?
Clearly, we're a long way from the mass Bieber Fever of yore, but is TMZ's walking bonus scheme in danger of losing his crown as this generation's biggest, male pop idol?
Yes, he's one of the most talked about people on the planet right now, and apart from Amanda Bynes and the recently returned Alec Baldwin, there isn't another celebrity whose social media accounts are as closely monitored by media outlets. But infamy isn't what the teen singer says he wants, the gist of what he asked for at the Billboard Music Awards was respect.
But has video --- God,video --- of the pop star dropping trou somewhere in the city they named twice to deflower a mop bucket before doing the same to that great intern de-flowerer Bill Clinton, finally delivered Bieber to a place he can't hashtag out of?
Beliebers are a tenacious type and there are millions of them. So far, at every show on this leg of the singer's Believe tour (holding at number five on the mid-year Top 100 Worldwide Tours) thousands held up encouraging signs --- "We Heart Kidrauhl," "Unbreakable," "We Will Always Be Here," "This Is Forever," "Love," in Columbus, Ohio it was "Look At Us Now."
Those signs are indications of two things: a) the expert harnessing of the projections and consumer power, albeit via their parents, of millions of young people, and, b) that Bieber has charisma in spades.
But kids don't run the world, write the narrative, nor can they prevent the triumvirate of lawsuits, police investigations, and increasingly contemptuous media reports now circling the singer.
While Bieber insists his "heart is still the same," that's not what the majority of the public sees when they look at the now heavily tattooed, ripped, super-rich pop star in leather crotch-dragging pants. And it's not what they believe when they hear stories about him being ejected from nightclubs or allegedly tearing up Calabasas tarmac.
And yet. There is a yet.
Bieber's transformation from baby idol to tabloid godsend has taken place in a context many either don't get or ignore. Scorching media spotlight, dedicated hate sites and blogs, and years of insults about his sexuality and appearance backdrops his body-centric exhibitionism and oft-expressed defensiveness.
Throw in relentless paparazzi and fan attention, a tide of over-egged tabloid reports, and --- if the rumors are correct --- an opportunist among his friends who may have sold the video to TMZ, and we're talking about serious pressure on an adolescent who's clearly struggling.
But the teen has survived controversies before. A misreported quote in Rolling Stone's February-March 2011 issue when Bieber replied to a question about abortion in rape cases set off a rash of protest. RS, who, frankly, only asked the then 17-year-old for his opinion because of his declared Christian beliefs, subsequently printed a correction which they called an "editing error."
What Bieber actually said was: "Um. Well, I think that's really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I don't know how that would be a reason. I guess I haven't been in that position, so I wouldn't be able to judge that."
Booed at the Knicks-Mavericks Madison Square Garden game in February 2011, the same day his movie Never Say Never premiered, at the time it was put down to a push back against the singer's ubiquitousness having won four awards at the 2010 American Music Awards three months before.
After seeing off a clutch of PR landmines from then to early 2013 including a false paternity lawsuit from crazed fan Mariah Yeater in November 2011, a bag hitting run-in with a London paparazzo in April 2012, and an alleged attack on a paparazzo in May 2012 during a date with Selena Gomez --- the photog, Jose Osmin Hernandez Duran is now suing Bieber.
A personalized June GQ interview painted the singer unfavorably. July citations for speeding on the 101 Freeway while pursued by a pack of paparazzi followed. On January 1, the later death of a paparazzo when he was struck returning to his car after snapping the singer's police stopped white Ferrari [Bieber wasn't in the car] in Los Angeles, set the tone for 2013.
During these turbulent months Bieber and Gomez broke up in November 2012, rumors of infidelity were later denied. Many observers have suggested the start of the Canadian's troubles coincide with his split from the Spring Breakers actress.
Fast forwarding through pictures that surfaced on January 4 of Bieber smoking what appeared to be a blunt in a Newport Beach hotel room, his Grammys shut-out, an infamous "worst week" during his tour's London leg which saw him booed after a delayed show, an expletive-filled encounter with a paparazzo following provocation, the rest of the year has seen an increase in molten headlines and incidents.
Some of these include, the seizure of Bieber's former pet monkey in Germany, ongoing issues with his Calabasas, CA neighbors over accusations of anti-social partying and alleged reckless driving.
Other dramas include a possible prosecution for alleged battery, a firestorm after the singer left a unique guestbook entry at Amsterdam's Anne Frank Museum, a tour bus police drug raid in Sweden in which a small amount of marijuana and a stun gun was found, Dubai speeding fines, and boos at the Billboard Music Awards.
Bieber is also under investigation and is being sued for alleged assault and/or theft of goods from three separate paparazzo's. Persistent rumors of underage drinking and weed smoking round out the 19-year-old's recent eventful history.
So, can the heartthrob rise above the controversies engulfing him and those intent on wringing the last commercial drops from them?
Bieber and his manager Scooter Braun are hoping his upcoming album will silence the critics and "end the witch hunt." But while a well received new album will definitely help, to imagine this alone is enough may be naive. The singer's music and ability to thrill a crowd isn't the problem.
It's the perception that he's a teen horror story moving through the world behind a shield of paid security --- which he undoubtedly needs if Chicago Blackhawks fans are anything to go by --- and a sense that America no longer understands or knows the sweet kid he most likely still is underneath the bravado.
Despite the fact that Bieber does an enormous amount of charity work through organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Pencils of Promise, support for funding child brain cancerAT/RT research, work with the Child Hunger Ends Here initiative, and ongoing donations to the deprived Whitney Elementary School; reconnecting with the American public is crucial if he wants to sustain a long-term, adult career.
A tried and tested method would be a frank sit-down with a respected television host so that people can hear and see a more rounded picture of who Bieber actually is, and dial back the bad boy persona that's partly his making but also partly media constructed and exploited.
This, plus more shine on his charitable efforts and a full stop on behavior which could be criticized, are routes to consider going forward.
Bieber's mother, Pattie Mallette, recently said: "I definitely think he's getting a bad rap, but I'm also not naive to think that my child is perfect and making all the best decisions of his life."
She went on. "He knows what I disagree with, and he knows all the things I'm really proud of him for, too. I mean, people don't talk about all the great things he does every day. Every night before a show, he meets with Make-a-Wish kids. He goes to sick kids' hospitals. He visits with them [and] takes his time. He gives back to charities."
Maxim TV director Ken Shadford, added:
"People love him." He continued. "People want him in the spotlight and there are a lot of people who make a lot of money off him. I don't think it's his option to take a hiatus right now. We're just going to have to enjoy the Bieber coaster."
In the wake of Cory Monteith's untimely death and a casualty-strewn celebrityville, here's hoping Bieber can recover the public's goodwill and that --- in time --- this period becomes a footnote in a life and a career that need not be ruined over confused, teenage missteps.