For better or worse, it was going to be a huge night for Justin Bieber. He was performing at the MTV VMAs for the first time in five years, and he had a lot to prove. Over the last two years, he’d traded music for a slew of mishaps, both personal and legal. Whatever happened when he took the stage would redefine this phase of his career. The crowd at MTV were his fans, the people who had already helped his new single “What Do You Mean?”—the first from his then-upcoming album Purpose—rocket to number one on iTunes just a couple days before, and had made “Where Are Ü Now,” a song he was featured on, a summer sleeper hit. But the rest of the world was watching, too. Those critics, who had endlessly ridiculed him, were probably glued to the screen, hoping to witness what was really behind the curtain, to confirm that his latest round of hits was just momentary luck. That there was no actual way he could pull this off in person. He was still the same over-privileged poser he had always been. Childhood stardom had a short shelf life and a rocky adult transition that was usually made worse by hiatuses.
It was clear from the moment the beat dropped, though, that Bieber understood what was at stake. He knew he had to make everyone believe in the magic, even the ones who hadn’t ever before. So, he danced and sang with the passion of an unknown artist still trying to make a name for himself. In a way, maybe that was his new reality. This was Bieber’s very public announcement that music, and a new sound to boot, was his focus again. The analogy of the phoenix rising from the ashes was too easy when he went aerial. The performance ended to a standing ovation that left him breathless, doubled over in tears, and overwhelmed. His recent successes hadn’t been flukes after all. He was still that talented kid who became a sensation when a video of him belting out Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” hit the Internet in 2007. He’d killed it again that night. But don’t you dare call it a comeback. This was actually hard-fought redemption.
Scooter Braun couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Some 13 year old kid in some random Canadian suburb crushing a melody like he hadn’t seen in ages. He could tell this kid had the makings of a star So he hot footed it to Canada and did everything he could to sign the then unknown talent. After a winning a fierce bidding war with Justin Timberlake, Usher emerged victorious in the Bieber sweepstakes and quickly flew the tiny Canadian down to Atlanta to begin work on his first set of demos. And with that, the legend of Bieber began to take shape in earnest. Justin Bieber arrived on the music scene at the perfect time. By 2008, aside from Disney-backed trio the Jonas Brothers, the boy-band frenzy had burned out. Solo acts were now dominating the charts. Justin Timberlake, one of the most recognizable faces from the era of young male groups, had made an easy transition to more soulful pop as a solo artist, and Chris Brown had hit it big (before hitting someone else) a few years before. But there was a drought in the teen idol category, since they were both past the age of the demographic that bought Tiger Beat magazine. With the backing of an industry vet like Usher and cavity-inducing debut album My World, Bieber was able to slide into the spot, quickly becoming a household name and a platinum-selling artist in 2009. He was unstoppable after that: two more platinum albums, multiple music awards, high-grossing concert films, one of the most followed people on social media, and he even made it official with former Disney darling Selena Gomez. As much as he was beloved, though, he was also reviled. “Haters” has become a ubiquitous, worthless term for anyone who doesn’t blindly support popular people and things, but in Bieber’s case the near-constant vitriol seemed undeserved. He managed to rise above all the scrutiny, but cracks would soon show.
July 7, 2013
It seemed preposterous when you heard it. Bieber was peeing into what? A bucket? And yelling what? Something about Bill Clinton? It was so ridiculous it couldn’t have been made up. In the first of many very public mistakes, the veil of “nice Canadian pop idol” was officially off when a grainy video of Bieber peeing into a bucket and ranting went public on TMZ (and every byline shortly after). 2013 was a turning point for Bieber’s image. Early in what would be a very tumultuous year, he hurled insults at a photographer in London and had to be restrained by his security. In the months that followed, it was one PR disaster after another, including an assault allegation from a neighbor, a raided tour bus in Stockholm, accusations of heavy drug use, and multiple reports of reckless driving. The situations brought him right past the edges of what the public was willing to tolerate before forming an angry internet mob. Still, it was easy to brush the incidents off as the antics of a man-child who had too much entitlement and too little guidance. In a world where cameras are omnipresent, it was only a matter of time before anyone’s troubles went viral.
Seemingly unsatisfied with the level of public displeasure he was evoking, though, Bieber decided to up the ante with more reckless behavior, determined to scrub away whatever shreds of favorable opinions were left. When 2014 began, it mirrored the mess of the year before. His Calabasas home was searched in January as part of an investigation into whether he’d egged his neighbor’s house. Enough cocaine was found to warrant felony charges for his friend Lil’ Za, who had copped to the drugs. There was murmuring on the gossip blogs that suggested Za had taken the fall for Biebs. Later that month, those suspicions were strengthened when he was charged with a DUI the night Miami cops caught him drag racing. The rest of the year was a whirlwind of an old video where he used racist language, new charges (vandalism on his neighbor’s house, an assault in Canada involving an ATV) dropped charges (a totally different Canadian assault case) and plea deals (the vandalism case and the drag racing incident). There wasn’t even new music to bring some balance to the equation. Did anyone even remember that he used to sing? That he was the youngest artist to ever have four #1 albums? Instead, his story seemed destined for Behind the Music, the grim VH1 docuseries about fallen artists for whom fame had devoured.
By the end of the year, even Bieber was suffering from Bieber Fatigue, and he did the riskiest thing someone who makes his living in the spotlight can do: he decided to lay low for a while, promising new music eventually, but he had to know there was no certainty that anyone would be interested in him or his music whenever he decided to return. The public is fickle as it is. There was a possibility that he would be tossed squarely into obscurity. It turned out, though, that not only would Bieber rebound, but he’d also write the best playbook on how to do it.
March 30th, 2015
Everyone knew it was a risky move, but at this point, it might be the Hail Mary that he needed. Obviously Bieber had been plagued by jokes his entire career, but now, he wanted in on them. At the beginning of this year, he asked Comedy Central if he could be the subject of their next roast. He joked on social media that he’d provided them with enough material. Of course, everyone knew what was driving his willingness to be viciously insulted on cable TV, but there was still a lot of bravery involved in essentially putting yourself in the stocks in the middle of the town square, and asking people to throw tomatoes at you. And by people, we mean some of the sharpest, most uncensored, wittiest, and vilest minds in modern comedy. And those tomatoes being razor-sharp barbs about Kim Jong-un torturing people with his music, how he was one of the most hated people in America, his sexual prowess, his looks, and a lot of unprintable things that only professional comedians get to say out loud. Strategic PR move or not, people like public contrition, and JB sat through a night of cringe-worthy burns (probably deserved for once). Then he owned up to his misdeeds in a statement and said he was a changed man. There were a lot of ears and eyes on him that night—the event would become Comedy Central’s third most watched program ever—and he had certainly won back some hearts. Obviously some enterprising (and brilliant) soul in Bieber’s camp knew about one of those indelible, unalienable facts about American popular culture….everyone loves a comeback story.
Around the time of the March roast, a little-promoted track called “Where Are Ü Now,” released in February by producers Diplo and Skrillex for their Jack Ü project, was starting to gain traction on the interwebs. The song was obviously EDM, but with two refreshing twists. The downside of dance music going mainstream within the last few years was that it had all begun to blur together. “Where Are Ü Now” didn’t sound like anything that was on the radio, and the reigning “bad boy” of pop’s recognizable—yet completely unrecognizable—voice was on it. This wasn’t where the song started, though. In its original ballad form, it was a great track and raw emotion flowed from a more mature-sounding Bieber. His fans were getting older, too, and would have loved it on his album. According to an in-depth New York Times profile of the song, Diplo and Skrillex shaped it into something bolder, cooler and genre-bending: an infectious mishmash of sounds without an official chorus, and JB’s distorted falsetto vocals threaded throughout. If the original had elevated his game, this version would shove him onto a completely different plane. Biebs loved the final production; he probably also knew that he would benefit from Diplo and Skrillex’s credibility and open himself up to new fans. He was embracing change, evolving in some of the ways he’d promised, and it was paying off. “Where Are Ü Now” became Bieber’s seventh Billboard Hot 100 hit and was certified platinum in July. It has since gone double platinum.
Linking up with Jack Ü made good business sense in preparation for the release of “What Do You Mean?,” the first official single from Purpose. He’d built up so much interest in himself as an artist within the dance/house realm with “Where Are Ü Now” that it would be impossible for the die-hard fans to ignore him now. Surely, it was no coincidence also that the two songs sounded like halves of a whole: They were both questions and provocatively genre-blending; “What Do You Mean?” was light to the darkness of “Where Are Ü Now.” Connecting them in this way was a genius marketing play. “What Do You Mean?” debuted on Billboard’s Hot 100 at number one, earning JB his first top spot debut, and making him the youngest artist to claim the spot with a debut. Combined with that stellar performance at the VMAs, Justin Bieber was back where he used to be but better. And with hard-learned lessons in mind this time.
Be honest. You know you caught yourself rocking out just a little bit or not instantly changing the song before you knew “What Do You Mean” or “Where Are U Now” were Bieber tracks. It’s all good, trust us. The time to come out of the Beiber fan closet is now. Skrillex’s slick island rhythms and dance beat in “Sorry”—the second single from Purpose—make it easy to forget that you’re jamming to an apology song. Even the choreography for the video, performed by two talented female dance crews sans Bieber, is too hot to really sympathize with the level of emo in the lyrics. (They’re clearly for ex-main thing Selena Gomez and not us, anyway.) Maybe Bieber hoped by the time this song dropped that he’d be back in our good graces, and he just wanted us to dance. JB has spent close to a year making up for his transgressions, and with the quality music he has released recently, anyone who is still holding a grudge might be sorry that they didn’t give him a second (or third or fourth or fifth…) chance. The time is now, and yes, we’ll admit it, even after everything that has happened, we’re Beliebers.