Right now I admit I’m thinking about Bieber (again) and male Blackness in America even though he’s Canadian (and that other thing, white). I’m thinking about the cult of perfection and whiteness and the creation of products in America like toothpaste or lightening cream or pop stars. I am thinking about the fragility of celebrity and the toll that it plays on the real human psyche.
I get into loops. With singers or TV shows or types of liquor. There’s always some phase that I am in that I play on repeat. Right now that is Bieber.
By my twenties, punk was my medium and the lens I used to construct the world around me, but if I heard a well-constructed pop song I was almost amazed at the sheer beauty of such a sweet pleasurable thing. I don’t have a car (so I rarely listen to the radio). Which is to say, I don’t know what’s hot. I’m also forty-one. So, I never got into Justin Bieber during his first few albums. I did watch Never Say Never to see if my teen self would have been a fan the way I was for New Kids on the Block. And, yes, I decided, I think so.
Bieber was king. The darling of the world. American girls cried, screamed, and clawed at him. He went on Ellen (repeatedly) to the delight of her middle-aged mom fans. Tour after tour after tour took him around the world. He was packaged into wrapping paper, singing toothbrushes, backpacks.
Then, in 2013, his “bad phase” happened. I heard he egged a neighbor’s house, peed in a bucket, and said “hopefully [Anne Frank] would have been a Belieber.” He got arrested for drag racing his Lamborghini in Miami. I remember hearing there was a petition to get the nineteen-year-old kicked out of the country. I also remember telling my co-workers who had strong opinions, “He’s just a kid. He’s literally a teenager.” The vitriol was consistent. He was booed on the kiss cam at NBA games; booed at awards ceremonies.
I thought he must have done some really bad shit. I wanted to find out, so a few weeks ago, I started watching videos of Bieber’s early interviews.
Bieber entered the industry at twelve. He appeared eager, polite, excited by every question as though the experience were a collaboration. As though he and the interviewer had teamed up to go out there and make great television together. Some interviewers made fun of the wide-eyed pretty little boy; some fawned over him. Once, David Letterman appears to try to tickle him. In every interview, he smiled perfect white teeth and I wondered if he had been born with teeth that straight or if that was part of the packaging.
I grew up dancing. I love when white performers can dance. Bieber can really dance. I watched his old music videos, noticed the definite swagger, the gold and diamond chains tucked under his shirt, the fresh sneakers and ball caps. Wait, isn’t Justin Bieber supposed to be the perfect white boyfriend? In another interview, he told Letterman he had two perfumes: Someday (for the aspirational female, I suppose) and Girlfriend. Letterman teased him. Bieber’s arms were mostly still clean, but he showed off his fresh ink, his second tat, which greatly displeased the host. Letterman grabbed the eighteen-year-old’s arm and tried to scrub his day-old tattoo off of his skin, rubbing the wound, causing Bieber to writhe and scream in pain.
The marketing of pop stars has always been pretty cut and dry: Bad Girl, Good Girl, Bad Boy, Boyfriend Material. Black. Latino/a. Boyfriend Material is romantic, kind, and respectful to your parents. He has a little swagger, sure, but he studies hard and adults like him. He’s perfect. Young Black males singing R&B or even pop aren’t labeled as Boyfriend Material. And yet, Bieber was signed to an R&B label making R&B-tinged pop music and there was no problem. Was that the age-old situation of white audiences preferring their “Hound Dog” coming from Elvis and not Big Mama Thornton?
From the beginning, Bieber’s music has always intersected with Black culture without fully crossing over. In his early albums, he collaborated with hip-hop artists such as Ludacris, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Raekwon, and R&B singers such as Boyz II Men, all while making bubble-gum-cotton-candy-sweet pop songs. He had Black male mentors who have produced his music, offered advice, coached and guided him. He credits Usher as an early mentor. For a while, Will Smith was a mentor too. He often cites Kanye West as yet another sage advice-giver. Too often, in a music industry that has been built on the backs of Black artists, Black knowledge has been overlooked. Who has been screwed more than Black singers and musicians who for decades went underpaid and uncredited on so many hit records? If Black male artists took the young singer under their wing, he was probably getting some real deal info on how the industry works.
But despite all of the coaching, by 2014, critics said his career was over. What happened? For one, in 2013, he released Journals, an R&B album that wasn’t particularly cute or sweet.
I did an image search. Here’s what I found. Justin Bieber with Floyd Mayweather—the boxer he also once called a mentor. Justin Bieber with Lil Wayne, who called Bieber his “little homie.” Justin Bieber and Snoop, who participated in the searing Comedy Central roast of the young star. Snoop said that Bieber’s ability to take that kind of dressing down was a “hood” thing to do. So now Justin Bieber’s hood? When did this happen? Also, wasn’t this the kid who was said to have been caught on video saying n—-r this and n—-r that? [Note: a fifteen-year-old Bieber was videotaped telling jokes.]
Then there’s a mugshot. From the 2014 Lamborghini debacle, where he was arrested with his friend, R&B artist Khalil. It was also during that period that Justin was photographed with Khalil and his friends at the Christmas premiere of his movie Believe. Bieber is wearing a red silk suit, sunglasses, loafers, a rope of gold chains, and a diamond encrusted watch. Flanking him are six of his friends, five of them Black, dressed in black (some leather), sneakers, and chains. This picture garnered a fan’s Instagram response warning Bieber that his “team” was a “bad influence.”
Bieber challenged his fan in a post, writing: “It’s not your place to judge. God put these people in my life for a reason, and just because they are African American that makes them a bad influence? These are the people that I love and all of us are going to help make the world a better place.” Which, I have no doubt elicited all sorts of Belieber tears and accusations of back-turning.
It started to become clear—to me, at least—that the controversy wasn’t about an abandoned monkey, or a speeding ticket, or a bucket of urine. It occurs to me now, after watching dozens of interviews, music videos, and live performances, that when people say Justin Bieber went through a bad phase, what they’re really saying is Justin Bieber aligned himself with young Black men. He wore chains. He got high. And the women.
As he looks back on his childish transgressions, Bieber says, “I wish that I had listened more.” I’m sure he means that for a lot of reasons. He behaved like a rich teen brat. But, he also crossed a very important line with the white American public. I wonder if any of his mentors let him know, You can be too Black, even when you’re white.
In a 2014 video for MTV, Charlamagne Tha God, radio host and media personality, circulated a petition in NYC to make Bieber an honorary African-American. He tells potential signers that “Justin Bieber wants to be African-American,” and that with 100K signatures President Obama will consider the proposal. Two middle-aged white men eagerly accept the offer to turn him over; one woman asks, “Do you guys want him?” to which Charlamagne replies, “The jury’s still out.”
To me, the video is hilarious. It’s like when you and your Black friends adopt a white friend. You might call him, white Justin, per se. He’s not going to get everything about the Black experience, but it’s close enough for most social situations. On the flip side, of course, are the accusations of cultural appropriation (i.e., he dresses Black; he thinks he’s Black; he wants to be Black). I don’t think it means Bieber wants to be Black, but the issue comes up a lot.
Until 2013, his music and public image had been carefully constructed to function in specifically marketable ways that could be safely packaged and sold to (mostly white) audiences. When he started stuntin’ and driving fast, he scared people.
Bieber had a problem. If he was going to get back on top—if he even cared to—he had to win Beliebers back. In early 2015, he made a video apologizing to his fans for, frankly, not being very nice. In interview after interview, Bieber atoned. He had also recently gotten baptized.
Purpose, released in November 2015, is a hopeful album, melodic and upbeat. The songs focus on his journey to reclaim his purpose and to live up to his calling. While there are some seriously deep Christian messages woven in, mostly, it is love letter to an ex-girlfriend.
I just don’t think this album would have had the same success if Bieber had continued with the R&B sound of Journals, even though that was a decent album. For Purpose, he co-wrote many of the album’s songs with R&B hitmaker PooBear (Jason Boyd), with whom he had co-written Journals, but this time around they developed a collection that was more clearly pop. He also collaborated with EDM superstar producers Skrillex and Diplo. Electronic music was a new space for Bieber, and their production of “Where R Ü Now” garnered Bieber his first Grammy win. The album’s Latin-infused house beat tracks “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry,” earned Bieber the first (and then second) No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart of his career.
Some reviewers claimed his “Sorry” was an apology to the world for his bad behavior. It’s not. It’s pretty obviously a love song, but people still felt owed an apology. He kept on apologizing until he was welcomed back into folks’ homes, until the media cut him some slack, until the establishment would be willing to give his new music a shot. Throughout the pre-album release campaign, he seemed well aware of the fact that he was one step from falling from grace all over again.
In a 2015 interview with the France-based web series, Clique, host Mouloud Achour asks Bieber why his every move comes under such intense scrutiny. “I think that I’m just kind of walking on eggshells right now just to try to make sure that people feel like I’m not being disrespectful,” Bieber says. In response, Achour comments that rock stars and hip-hop stars get more of a break than Bieber, who calmly notes that he understands:
I think they put more responsibility on me because of my image and what I was representing. I think when you tell people you’re going to represent ‘belief’ and ‘hope,’ and you’re off not really doing that, I think people get mixed messages. If I would have came out from the get-go just like smoking weed that would have been my image. But it wasn’t, so people just got confused. Now, my image is that I just want people to see me as a normal dude.
I think we all know that his image was never going to be him coming out and smoking weed. Either way, the weight of perfection had taken its toll on him body and soul. He couldn’t go back to that. In the Purpose album song “I’ll Show You,” he sings, “It’s like they want me to be perfect / When they don’t even know that I’m hurting / ‘Cause life’s not easy, I’m not made out of steel / Don’t forget that I’m human, don’t forget that I’m real / Act like you know me, but you never will.”
He was giving up on being perfect, but he would still be good. He stopped wearing gold chains. And diamond earrings. And big crusty watches. The Purpose Bieber played by the rules, smiled, and gave polite answers during interviews, regardless of how many times people asked about his penis paparazzi photos or the bad phase. He talked about Christ and rebirth and growing up.
Then there was this parallel public persona, who seemed to be giving the middle finger to everyone demanding his perfection in the first place. This is the guy who could sit on a stage and get roasted without breaking a sweat because he had heard it all before. He didn’t care anymore.
For the first time, too, he was making adult hip hop and reggaeton songs that were edgy and sexy—not included on his own albums but as guest features for other artists’ records. In some ways these collaborations run counter to his Purpose movement, but more practically, they allowed him to project a more adult image to a diversified and expanded fan base.
A few months before Purpose came out, Bieber was guest featured on a trippy song called “Maria I’m Drunk” with rock star and hip-hop artist Travis Scott and Young Thug, respectively. In the song, Bieber invites a lady friend to drop by the studio for some conversation and a shot of Don Julio, where he’d like to “see what her booty do.” I’m into it. Bieber had Scott do a track with him on Purpose, but in that song he’s just lying in bed pining over that one special girl. That’s sweet, but sometimes you just want someone to come on over and get drunk.
In a 2015 Billboard article, Scott explains that it was Bieber who reached out to him about collaborating. “Just ’cause he does these certain songs, this n—a has history of doing hip-hop songs! His voice is a sample in its own.” Scott also credits Bieber’s “All That Matters” from Journals for inspiring his own mixtape hit “Drugs You Should Try It.” Unlike the people who kept insisting that Bieber needed a comeback, some folks knew he never left.
On a sidenote, Scott’s 2016 album, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, includes the song “beibs in the trap,” which features Canadian rapper Nav Using the name “Bieber” as a euphemism for cocaine, the song centers on a white girl hooked on Bieber. For the “Purpose Bieber” this name association is definitely a negative—celebrities have certainly cried cease and desist for far less—but since he’s no longer a shining ball of perfection, maybe it doesn’t matter.
In May, Bieber teamed up with Quavo (Migos), Chance the Rapper, and Lil Wayne for DJ Khaled’s “I’m the One.” For Bieber, this song is a way for him finally to hook those adult males who had ignored Belieber mania. It was also bit of a risk. If he was seen as too much of a teen idol, it wouldn’t be believable. “I’m the One” scored DJ Khaled his first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It’s been certified 4x Platinum, and the official music video has more than 760 million views.
Then there is this remix Bieber added his voice to—that sexy song of Summer 2017 named “Despacito.” As much as people want to drag Bieber for his participation in Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” it charted sixteen weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart, tying a record for longest reign at the top spot. Bieber doesn’t speak Spanish but sings the chorus in Spanish. He can’t sing it live. Should he have done this song? Why not? It’s a club banger. In ten years when you’re ready to turn up and the DJ puts on “Despacito,” all that will come rushing back are the memories: the beers, the twirling skirts, and those wild, crazy nights. That’s worth any amount of controversy.
Few artists have charted such huge hits in multiple genre columns simultaneously—pop, electronic, hip-hop, Latin. While his music has certainly become more mature and more complex over the years, Bieber hasn’t much veered from his formula: collaborating with artists and producers who understand how to stretch across musical genres. The progression from “Sorry” to “Despacito” isn’t actually a huge leap. Whatever the genre, he makes songs that sound consistent to his vocal range, tone, and style. From growing up in the industry, he has learned how the machine works, and he has developed an ear for what will sell.
I have learned something through this whole process: Bieber is damn good at getting money. At the end of the day, pop music is a billion-dollar business, and Bieber is a businessman. He did all this while people have questioned his every single little move. He did it after being the most hated entertainer in the US. While he has cleaned and smoothed his image, to me, it seems that he never really changed—he just stopped trying to be something he never was.
We don’t know him. He’s a pop megastar, a hip-hop head, and a Latin King (according to Spotify). If some people still think he’s perfect, then great. If he’s a villain, fine. Bieber is like a prism that reflects back whatever you want to see.
To make his rise back to the top, he had to take control of his image and repackage it. He did that while still holding back something for himself.
In a 2015 interview with New Zealand’s “Si & Gary” radio show, host Simon Barnett acknowledges the ups and downs of the Justin Bieber Journey, the controversies and the lessons learned, and he asks the singer what he, ultimately, would want people to say about him.
“I just want them to appreciate my heart, and appreciate that I’m just genuine. Even when I was going through it, I stayed true to what I believed. Sometimes it got me in trouble, but I’m always the same guy,” Bieber says. “I’m never going to change.”
I may not know Justin Bieber, but I believe him.