I recently downloaded a Justin Bieber song. For 48 hours, it was my darkest, gravest secret, my greatest shame. The weight of it threatened to crush me. That is until I realized that maybe, just maybe, I was not alone.
It is October 2015 and against all odds, all of us—grown, sophisticated, self-respecting music fans—may be becoming Beliebers.
Of course (and forever and always) Justin Bieber, pop’s impressively-penised prince of petulance, is not cool.
Those two words, “Justin” and “Bieber,” connote a joke—a burden on society, a celebrity whose headline-grabbing fame is steering the world toward a pop culture nadir. But lately, for all the arrests and acting out and penis shots, there has been something else that’s become inextricably tied to Justin Bieber, and it’s something we never expected to say: He’s been making great music.
Sporting tight red pants and a matching three-sizes-too-large red tee, aka a slicker version of the J.C. Penney’s matchy-matchy sweatsuit I rocked for most of the ’90s, he glided and popped and locked his way through a confusing, dizzying, and ultimately impressive laser show. Biebz was all falsetto and swagger while pan flutes and beats soundtracked his surprisingly understated—and surprisingly great—breakout song.
It’s been a big year for Justin Bieber. Big news scandals. Big apology tours. Big penis. And now, actually palatable music, between “What Do You Mean?,” the recently released “Sorry,” and the Skrillex/Diplo collaboration “Where Are Ü Now.” But when your name is Justin Bieber, can you ever really gain respect for your music?
Of course, “What Do You Mean?” is not Justin Bieber’s real breakout song. That would be “Baby,” the 2010 bubblegum pop hit that, for most adults, was the musical equivalent of eating a bowl of Trix cereal for breakfast: sugary sweet and a fun guilty pleasure, but sickening in large doses. It was pleasant, disposable pop from someone who was supposed to be a pleasant, disposable pop star.
As time would have it, Bieber would ultimately prove highly unpleasant and lingered like the rancid stench off a rotting carcass. The years that would follow—songs far more substanceless than “Baby” and an unapologetically obnoxious persona—hinted at a career more as a public nuisance running on TMZ fumes rather than a legitimate musician engined by his merits.
Then we arrived at this past year—his Jaeger-soaked, weed-stenched 21st on this Earth. He became a joke this year. He also became an exciting, impressive recording artist. It felt uneasy at first to admit that the songs he was releasing were pleasurable, even quite excellent. Once we accepted it, though, the question became whether it mattered.
There’s a difference between praising an artist as a novelty—for real I think Justin Bieber’s new song is really good, LOL!—and actually accepting him as a legitimate artist. As what it means to be Justin Bieber evolves, so does the level of seriousness with which we treat him and his music.
Bieber’s big year in music began when he released the Skrillex/Diplo collaboration “Where Are Ü Now.” Ordinarily, the grouping of that trio would be the musical equivalent of the Axis of Evil, the trifecta of horrible, the Holy Trinity of the Get Me Out of Here. But three negatives apparently make a positive. The song was very good.
The sonically trippy track, somehow both moody and catchy, represented a maturing of the Biebz from floppy teenybop moppet and Teen Idol Gone Wild to pop star with actual musical taste. The reviews were ecstatic.
“This is the Justin Bieber we’ve been waiting for,” wrote Jason Lipshutz in Billboard. “Emotive, vulnerable, and smart enough to join forces with two of electronic music’s most reliable maestros.”
Ryan Dombal, writing in Pitchfork, was equally rapturous. “The track is unexpected in all the best ways. It tones down everything you know about Skrillex while retaining his knack for dynamics,” he wrote. “Diplo puts his own 10-ton-glowstick tendencies aside as the song combines sharp dancehall stabs and a gloriously sad Eastern melody in a way that recalls golden-age Timbaland. And Justin Bieber sings with something akin to actual human emotion.”
Graduating from his bubblegum roots and braving EDM territory was a bold creative move for the star, and pulling it off with “Where Are Ü Now” gave the laughingstock of music some actual street cred—to the tune of The New York Times even fashioning a high-tech, high-falutin’ digital interactive on the making of the collaboration. It was musical goodwill that he carried with him to the release of “What Do You Mean.”
“What Do You Mean?” is Bieber’s biggest hit to date. The video already has 213 million views on YouTube. Last month it set a record for the number of streams on Spotify in a week. It has hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. All around the country, hipsters have raised their PBR’s in the air, nodding along to the pan flutes and admitting, “Dude, I actually dig this song.”
And if people were responding positively to “What Do You Mean,” they are losing their minds over “Sorry,” which Bieber released last week to a din of Twitter hysteria and mass soul-searching: “Holy hell, I think I seriously like Justin Bieber…” Part reggaeton, part tropical club banger, the song had the missing piece from the first two entries in Bieber’s comeback run: fun.
Jezebel has gone as far as to say in a headline, “Justin Bieber Has Released the Best Singles of 2015.” It’s the kind of run the fire emoji was invented to describe. It’s a musical streak that has eluded the year’s biggest musical heavyweights, including Nicki Minaj and Drake, and garnered a near-unanimous critical ovation that steady commercial players like Taylor Swift and The Weeknd haven’t managed.
Sunday night’s MTV EMAs performance of “What Do You Mean?” should’ve been a victory lap of sorts, the five awards he picked up that night the crowning achievement on a year that arguably has rehabbed his musical reputation. “It’s been a long couple of years,” Bieber said in an acceptance speech. “I just feel like this is pretty awesome to be recognized for my music.”
That’s the thing, though. Three great songs may not be enough to absolve what’s otherwise been an absolutely ridiculous year-plus for Bieber. He may not be enough for him to be truly, solely recognized for his music.
For starters, there’s this poetic bit of timing. The release of “What Do You Mean?” and its ensuing accolades on Sept. 8, 2015, was exactly a year after a major development in one of his legal years. On Sept. 8, 2014, criminal charges against Bieber for allegedly assaulting a limo driver in Toronto were withdrawn.
It’s been a year and a half in which oppressive levels of arrogance and entitlement were rivaled only by public embarrassment, in which smugness and ridicule battled for supremacy.
He was arrested in January 2014 and charged with driving under the influence in Miami. He was put on probation for a vandalism conviction that came from egging a neighbor’s home. Egging! Cool, dude!
There was the conflagration of scandals that caught fire in the summer of 2014: the videos that surfaced of him using racial slurs as a young teen, reports that his house parties had gotten so out of control that neighbors complained to police, a rumor that he had gotten smacked around by Orlando Bloom while in Ibiza. (If you’ve ever questioned Justin Bieber’s masculinity, he was punched by ORLANDO BLOOM.)
There was the simultaneously hilarious and concerning report that pilots on a private jet transporting the star were “forced to wear oxygen masks” to protect themselves from the cloud of weed smoke. In a peak moment for douchebaggery everywhere, Bieber was carried out of Coachella, the annual conclave of the worst humans in America, in a chokehold by security guards.
(This all ignores Bad Boy Bieber: The Early Years, which included stories of pissing in a mop bucket while saying, “Fuck Bill Clinton,” and signing the guest book at the Anne Frank House predicting that she would have been a fan of his.)
That’s the serious stuff. Now for the silly stuff.
There was the tone-deaf Comedy Central Roast aimed to publicly atone for those past transgressions, featuring a smug and oblivious and ineffective apology for his behavior. The Calvin Klein underwear ad that had the locker room pointing and laughing because he had his muscles allegedly Photoshopped and no one believed that bulge was real. (They’d later change their tune on that latter point.)
He attended Kanye West’s birthday party wearing a man bun—for the love of god—only to commit greater sins against hairstyling with his Edward Scissorhands meets anime idiot ’do at the MTV Video Music Awards—an awards telecast during which, by the way, he cried. Not like “endearingly” cried, but like “what the hell?” cried.
Then there was the penis.
It was a good news/bad news situation for Justin Bieber when his privacy was crudely violated and nude photos were taken by paparazzi while he was on vacation in Bora Bora. Most of us were, suffice to say, impressed by what Bieber was packing. Bieber’s Magnum-sized ego, it turns out, was not overcompensating for anything. And in turn, the photos of Bieber’s manhood broke the Internet.
Yes, they broke the Internet, sparked national conversation (and some drooling)… and completely rerouted the conversation away from his musical comeback and back toward the celebrity circus. By the time his dad tweeted his grotesque fatherly pride over the whole situation and Bieber himself bemoaned his “shrinkage” in the photos, the clowns had rushed back in.
So will Justin Bieber ever earn true respect for his music, the way other spectacle-stars like Miley Cyrus have managed? We’ll just say this: On Monday, the same day that Bieber was being praised for his “What Do You Mean” performance, a sex toy company publicly offered Bieber a contract to advertise their company, which lets people make molds of their own sexual organs and turn them into dildos.
Just like Aretha sang about.