Confession: a friend once gave me box seats to a Justin Bieber concert for my birthday. It started out as a joke. We were the annoying people there to eat free food and make fun of the thousands of idiots who actually liked this swoop-haired twig’s music. Things escalated quickly and after a few songs my friend and I looked at each other in horror. We were impressed. The kid had moves! And a good voice! And the songs were so catchy! That was the beginning of the end for me.
The Rise and Fall of Justin Bieber
We have come a long way since the most surprising thing about Justin Bieber was that he was not, in fact, a girl (a common myth when “One Time” went viral). Since I first heard his music he has been a constant presence in public conversations. He’s peed in buckets, dated Disney stars, covered himself in tattoos, and recorded himself singing racially explicit versions of his songs.
As the missteps began to reach a critical level, Bieber stepped back from music and got in touch with his spiritual side, eventually falling in with an Evangelical Christian crew and recommitting his life to God via baptism and a tattoo of a cross on his face. On his not-so-subtly titled album Purpose, released in November 2015, Bieber attempted to make things right. One of the singles was entitled “Sorry” and it quickly became one of the most popular tracks of the year. Apology, apparently, accepted.
While the album’s musical merits and sincerity of Bieber’s bad boy makeover have been thoroughly questioned, the subversive nature of the message has not been discussed.
Pop Music Is Boring
A completely unscientific assessment of popular Top 40 songs from the last few years reveals the primary themes of the radio to be sex, clubbing, looking for someone to have sex with at a club, grinding, alcohol trivia, and more sex. Consider the Billboard’s list of the top 10 songs from November 14, 2015, which included songs about saying hi to an ex-lover, going numb from cocaine, stitching a heart back together after it’s been shattered, and admiring a hot chick.
A study from the Medical University of Vienna in Austria proved we’re not hallucinating when we think today’s biggest radio hits sound the same. In a massive study analyzing 500,000 albums the researchers found that as a genre grows in popularity the sound of the songs within that genre become increasingly similar. There’s money in homogenous club beats with catchy hooks about attractive people and drinking.
The themes of popular music surely play a role in the lives of the people who listen to them, but I remain deeply unconvinced that the role is important enough to be the driving force of the music industry. If people spent a fraction as much time in clubs as musicians spend singing about them the economy would collapse. Loans, friendships, sickness, taxes, work, and building a meaningful life are unsexy issues real people think about all the time. They remain completely unrepresented in popular music.
This is problematic because research has demonstrated that music is one of the most significant influences on young people.
“Music alters and intensifies their moods, furnishes much of their slang, dominates their conversations and provides the ambiance at their social gatherings,” write Donald Roberts and Peter Christenson, the authors of It’s Not Only Rock and Roll: Popular Music in the Lives of Adolescents. They say adolescents in the United States may spend as many as five hours a day listening to music—more than they spend watching television or hanging out with friends.
Back to Bieber
The biggest accomplishment of Purpose is using pop music to address some of these larger concerns. A typical song with a club beat is about sex, dancing, getting drunk, or (my personal favorite) all of the above. Bieber’s anthem Children is about helping impoverished children. It actually includes the line “We can make a difference” in an earnest, completely unironic way.
What about the children?
Look at all the children we can change
What about a vision?
Be a visionary for a change
We’re the generation
Who’s gonna be the one to fight for it?
Sure, the album also has songs about sex and relationships, but on the title track Bieber sings “I put my heart into your hands/here’s my soul to keep.” He’s a pop star singing about God and poverty and sex as if these are things worthy of consideration.
There’s a lot of talk about pushing boundaries in art, but the boundaries are usually only pushed in one direction. More graphic, more shocking, more bloody, more sex. This is fine, but gets stale after a while. Bieber goes deeper instead of farther, exploring questions of identity and justice alongside typical radio confections.
Outside of his music, Bieber continues to push the boundaries of what it means to be a celebrity. He cancelled the meet and greets on his tour because “I end up feeling so drained and filled with so much of other people’s spiritual energy that I end up so drained and unhappy.” He had the audacity to tell people to stop taking pictures of him because “it has gotten to the point that people won’t even say hi to me or recognize me as a human, I feel like a zoo animal.” His words have angered fans, but make the spirit of the album resonate more authentically.
In a world where social justice is trendy and celebrities benefit from giving lip service to the right causes, Bieber is attempting to reconcile intellectual questions and relationship problems and bad habits and the meaning of life. He is putting to shame those who, like me, assume a male pop singer is a shallow person unworthy of analysis. He is literally making harmonies out of the chaos of inconsistencies that make up his character. It’s almost like he’s an actual human being.