If for some strange reason you’ve been waiting for approval, then 2015 is officially the year that made it OK to publicly admit your love for JUSTIN BIEBER – and not just because his songs are being covered by Chvrches and Florence + the Machine.
On the first day of March 2015 Justin Bieber celebrated his 21st birthday on a private Caribbean island, toasting the end of a very successful and lucrative childhood with a few close friends and his security detail. The past decade had been a busy and exhausting run for the Canadian singer featuring all the typical teenage achievements: an attempt to smuggle a monkey into Germany, a diplomatic row with South Korea, a piggy-back ride along the Great Wall of China on the backs of several bodyguards and a scandal involving a bucket of piss and a photo of Bill Clinton. But now it was time to do something new…
A few days after his birthday Bieber began work on his new life by submitting himself to a session of public abuse from a bunch of more experienced adults including Shaquille O’Neal, Martha Stewart and Ludacris, at a sneering Comedy Central Roast. But it was comedian Hannibal Buress who landed the hardest blow. “You should thank me for participating in this your extremely transparent attempt to be more likeable. I hope it doesn’t work at all,” Buress told Bieber and anyone willing to watch the strange spectacle.
Roastees submitting themselves to the onslaught of crass jokes and mockery are usually failing bufoons looking for another headline, any headline, to feed their monstrous egos: Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump, David Hasselhoff. But as Buress noted Bieber’s appearance was vastly different. As the youngest ever roastee he wasn’t looking for relevance. He was looking for acceptance and a way to make sure that he doesn’t become a joke or, worse still, a teenage star left behind at the same time his fans leave school.
Bieber has boldly named his upcoming album Purpose and it’s clear he’s on a mission to redefine his place in pop culture and pop music. And, judging by his recent singles, he seems to have decided that his role is to be an R&B singer for the EDM era. The album’s lead single, ‘What Do You Mean?’ – surprisingly his first #1 single in both Australia and The States – is an undeniable banger with a flute hook that’s insistently catchy. But it also showcases his nakedly emotional vocals – a welcome change from the nakedness that the tabloids associate with the Biebs. It’s a massive win for Bieber in his bid for redemption and has done wonders to rehabilitate his image with fans and haters alike. And it’s not the only hit on the album.
‘Where Are Ü Now’ has even shown up on the triple j playlist
‘Where Are Ü Now’ first appeared buried towards the end of Skrillex and Diplo’s Jack Ü album back in February and slowly crept its way into the charts peaking in at #8 on the Billboard chart in July. As detailed in an insightful piece on the New York Times website – yes, Bieber is now the subject of in depth NYT profiles – the song began as a piano driven ballad written by the singer and key collaborator Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd. “Now being 21, and going through some hardships, I think you can hear that in my vocals,” Bieber explained. “You can hear that through the emotion of my voice.”
But Skrillex and Diplo rewired the original vocal track into a wild explosion of noises that took Bieber to new heights and new fans. The song has even shown up on the triple j playlist; one of the few places on earth notoriously still immune to the powers of pop’s current ruler, Taylor Swift. The album’s third single ‘Sorry’ was produced by Skrillex and Blood Diamonds (who made ‘Go’ with Grimes) and co-written with Julia Michaels, who cites Fiona Apple, Lisa Mitchell, Laura Marling, Missy Higgins, and Sarah Blasko as influences – so maybe there’s even more triple j airplay in his future.
The transition from innocent kiddie star to R&B adult could be heard on the Justin Timberlake impersonation ‘Boyfriend’, the lead single from his 2012 album Believe, where the 19-year-old Bieber asked us to believe that he was the sort of man who liked “chilling by the fire while eating fondue”. But the campaign to relaunch the star as someone we should be taking seriously really began to hit its stride with the 2013 singles compilation Journals.
Released as a series of “Music Monday” downloads in the style of Kanye’s 2010 Good Friday campaign, the Journals compilation was Bieber’s chance to experiment with a bunch of tracks without the pressure of writing an official album. (Think of it as the pop world equivalent of that weird EP that your favourite indie band put out before their breakthrough album.) Journals featured the almost grown-man R&B of ‘Hold Tight’, a filthy R Kelly duet called ‘PYD’ (“From the door to the wall, coffee table, girl get ready, I’mma put you down, all the way down”) and a collaboration with Chance The Rapper that the pair performed on stage at Coachella in 2014.
According to a profile piece published in the New York Times, Bieber told his main writing partner and vocal producer, Poo Bear, that he wanted the followup album to be “inspirational”. The pair reportedly wrote more than 100 songs together for Purpose, searching for the sounds and words that would explain who Bieber is and wants to be in 2015. Although Poo Bear is more than a decade older than Bieber the pair had bonded over a shared love of ’90s R&B and were both raised in religious homes by struggling single mothers who instilled a strong morality and work ethic in their sons. “I just wanna honestly live like Jesus. Not be Jesus—I could never—I don’t want that to come across weird,” Bieber awkwardly explained in a recent interview with Complex. Maybe that trip to Australia to attend a Hillsong meeting wasn’t just for show…
It’s rare to hear Bieber without the background noise of crowds or controversy
There’s certainly no doubting the pure faith of his Beliebers who turned out en masse for his recent promotional shows and awkward interviews in Australia. For the first performance of that brief visit Bieber took to the stage at Fox FM’s rather optimistically named World Famous Rooftop, singing for a crowd of fans who’d signed waivers swearing that heart conditions, recent surgeries or mental illnesses posed no risk to the station’s legal team or insurance premiums. The street below had been closed off by police and hordes of fans gathered, many waving banners declaring their undying love or something a little stronger: “I’d Never Say Never” one promised, another just offered the blunt advice “Sniff and Lick”. Some fans had been queuing for their front row position since 2am.
The gig was never going to be quite intimate enough for those Beliebers, but there’s still something odd about seeing Bieber perform for a crowd of just 300 people where the loudest screams were the ones rising up from a larger crowd on the street below. Wearing sunglasses and shrouded beneath a hoodie and cap, he requested silence early on in the set. “There’s not a lot of production on this track,” he explained. “So if we could just try to respect the fact that I came all this way to sing for you guys … I really enjoy that, when I can just sing, and you can just listen.” It was at once both casually arrogant and naively honest, but it really is rare to hear Bieber without the background noise of crowds or controversy. The fans obeyed their idol; falling to a reverent hush interrupted only by the buzz of the Fox FM drones that darted about in the air above the stage.
That “dolphin” noise that forms the hook on ‘Where Are U Now’ is Bieber’s voice pitch shifted beyond reality, but he doesn’t rely on studio trickery to mask his voice. (His spoken voice when he chatted with the crowd between songs was strangely similar to Micheal Jackson’s.) The set focused on recent material – ‘Hold Tight’, ‘What Do You Mean?’, ‘Boyfriend’, ‘As Long As You Love Me’ – but Bieber knows that he can’t completely escape his past and closed out with ‘Baby’, goofing around with improvised lyrics about a forehead pimple and spitting the Ludacris verse with ease. And like any seasoned performer he knows how to work a crowd. Every sly grin would send his fans swooning, screams were heard when he hinted at lifting his t-shirt and every camera phone was raised when his cap and hoodie were removed to show off that shocking blonde combover quiff.
That new haircut got plenty of headlines after the VMAs but his performance during the awards show, which ended in tears, was the real story. “I just wasn’t expecting them to support me in the way that they did,” Bieber told Jimmy Fallon soon after the show. “Last time I was at an award show, I was booed. I think I’ve worked so hard on this album. I’ve worked so hard at just becoming the man I want to become. Stepping into situations, you just can’t help but feel judged. I was just feeling judged and wanting to win so badly and just wanting to do what I love so badly that I just put everything on the line … It was authentic, it was real. I was really just wanting it so bad.”
Authentic and real. That’s Bieber in 2015.
Justin Bieber’s Purpose will be released on Friday, November 13 via Def Jam Recordings.
Tom Mann is the deputy editor of FL. He tweets at @grattan_