The XX Factor

Justin Bieber’s Instagram, Like His Love Life, Is a Rich and Confusing Text

Justin Bieber prefers to communicate through his Instagram. Above, Bieber at the Staples Center, Nov. 13, 2015, in Los Angeles, California.

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Universal Music

Justin Bieber is having a wild fall. Just about every day there’s a new story about him in the press. Are things back on with Selena Gomez? Has he been ensnared by the Kardashians? Why is he saying stuff about 14-year-old girls at his concerts? Join us as we attempt to demystify what’s been up with Bieber lately.

Recall that Bieber made a big splash a few months ago when he was spotted—butt-naked!—on vacation with model Jayde Pierce, who he later claimed was “just a friend.” (“So you’re just naked with your friend?” Ellen DeGeneres asked on her talk show.) But a couple weeks ago, gossip circulated that the greatest on-again, off-again love affair of our generation—heartthrob Bieber’s romance with put-upon Selena Gomez—could be back on. He sang to her at a hotel bar! He asked to be seated next to her at an awards show! The signs were everywhere. Even Drake ships Jelena.

But lo! Early last week, Bieber posted a photo on his Instagram account of a beautiful girl with pouty, Kylie Kardashian–style lips. “Who is this!!” he asked, blithely unaware that it was a little creepy to send his fan army on an Internet manhunt for a young girl who turned out to be under 18. This was around the same time Justin joked at a concert, “We got any 14-year-olds? … We got four more years, and then you’re 18.” (“Too much, Justin,” he said right afterward, catching himself.)

So, is this a pop star who’s just a little too into his underage fans? Not so fast; Bieber’s heart is not an organ bound by mere chronology. At 21, Bieber is apparently has viable romantic interest in both teenagers and women 15 years his senior. (Remember the time he—allegedly!—broke up Miranda Kerr and Orlando Bloom’s marriage?) This weekend, rumors surfaced that he was hooking up with none other than Kourtney Kardashian, age 36 and a mother of three, who was said to be seen leaving Bieber’s hotel at 4 a.m. This summer Kourtney broke up with her longtime boyfriend Scott Disick, a man most well-known for stuffing a $100 bill into a waiter’s mouth and for giving himself the designation “Lord” Perhaps big egos are her type? Yet we must remain skeptical: Kardashians have been linked to more people than Justin Bieber has tattoos. Remember Kris and Ben from The Bachelor? Kendall and Harry Styles?

And already Kourtney is yesterday’s news. Beliebers went crazy on Sunday when the star posted an Instagram photo of him getting close with a woman whose face wasn’t visible, captioned “Lord knows.” Initially, fans made a connection between “Lord” and Disick, and thus Kourtney, but reports quickly pointed out that the leg of the woman pictured didn’t look all that much like Kourtney’s, and soon enough, TMZ identified her as model Jasmine Villanueva.

All of this underscores the point that Bieber’s Instagram, like all celebrity Instagrams, is a rich text. Bieber loves a cryptic caption. “Playing poker with sour patch kids,” he wrote the other day. As fine as an encapsulation of his persona as that provides (gambling/bad boy stuff + candy/kid stuff=this former child star is 21 indeed), it does not make any gestures toward answering our burning questions. Who you datin’, Bieber? Why post an Instagram hovering over an unidentified woman when you know it will drive everyone absolutely crazy? Until Congress passes a law against enigmatic social media updates, we must seek out secondary sources and the refuge of our own minds in order to interpret his Instagram feed.

Bieber released an album last month, hence the media onslaught. Slate’s Carl Wilson called it “extended hymn of funky penance for the 21-year-old star’s past couple of years of personal rumspringa and sins against Selena Gomez.” The thing is, the “sinning” hasn’t stopped. He may be singing “Sorry,” but from the sound of all these stories, Bieber’s still getting into the same kind of trouble that led the Daily Beast to dub him the “the tatted-up Dennis the Menace of pop.” Which puts the rest of us, as a culture, in the role of Dennis nemesis Mr. Wilson, doomed to spend our days shaking our fists and exasperatedly shouting his last name into the ether.