By CHRIS STANTON
By all measures, Justin Bieber is having a remarkable year. After months of (not undeserved) public demonization for a seemingly never-ending series of lewd and offensive acts, the Biebs and his carefully assembled P.R. team began staging the biggest comeback of 2015. A year ago, the Canadian phenom made his biggest headline for getting punched in the face by Orlando Bloom — a move that tellingly earned the washed-up Pirates of the Caribbean star more praise than he received in his entire acting career. Who, then, could have predicted that Justin’s forthcoming album Purpose would be among 2015’s most anticipated releases? Resurrection might have made for a more fitting title.
To quickly recap, think back to the distant month of March, when Skrillex and Diplo’s “Where Are Ü Now” was not yet so ubiquitous that it ceased to exist as a song and instead acted as filler for Top 40 DJs. Released within weeks of Bieber’s Comedy Central Roast — which many, at the time, dismissed as a feeble attempt at earning back some good will — the confessional pop tune shot right up the sales charts and even earned some critical praise. “[Where Are Ü Now] might make you consider that Justin Bieber has feelings, which is kind of incredible in itself,” Ryan Dombal wrote in his Pitchfork review. That’s high and unexpected praise from a critic who once referred to the singer as “a real-life Richie Rich with flashy pants and silly hair and awful tattoos of owls and tigers and castles.” In retrospect, the song marks the beginning of Bieber’s ambitious return for pop’s crown.
After a few more head-hanging, self-effacing appearances on late night television — including a stop by James Corden’s always entertaining “Carpool Karaoke” segment — Bieber promoted and released “What Do You Mean”, a breezy love song that topped the Hot 100 and broke Spotify’s first-week streaming record. Bieber Season was in full swing, it appeared, and the singer expertly capped off his P.R. campaign into our hearts with “Sorry,” a blatant apology for his history of drag-racing in gated communities and abandoning pet monkeys in German airports (that is a real thing that happened). Thus, through the power of infectious pop and good management, Justin Bieber was back on top again. But what does it say (if anything) about the music-listening public that we seem to have forgiven him?
Of course, it’s not accurate to conflate the popularity of a hit song with how much people like its singer, or even to suggest that they have any opinion on Bieber apart from vague dismissal. After all, was anybody ever really a “Belieber,” or simply bemused by the idea of a prepubescent Canadian rising to fame through YouTube to make hit songs with Ludacris? Does that bemusement constitute “fandom” in any traditional sense of the word? All of these questions exist uniquely within the pop landscape and — while they seem silly — help listeners to renegotiate an understanding of our relationship with the music industry.
A few years ago, the idea of “poptimism” became popular in conversations around music criticism. The oft-disputed term is meant to denote a shift in how critics and listeners think about pop music, to correct a decades-long trend of praising Bob Dylan’s genius while dismissing the artistry of Madonna or Marvin Gaye. In other words, it’s the idea of taking pop music seriously. The ever-present 1960s fanboys who grew up to be music critics vehemently dismiss the idea, painting pop as a mass-produced, programmed mess of artificiality that music executives shove down our throats until we have no choice but to accept it.
The idea that rock musicians are “real” artists while pop stars are consumer products is reductive, especially in today’s landscape of overproduced and marketed rock music. My concern, though, is that the perceived “success” of Justin Bieber’s blatantly artificial P.R. campaign serves to reinforce a dismissal of pop music as the industry’s vomit and its listeners as mindless consumers. Casual fans of “What Do You Mean” (myself included) may not like Justin, but his renewed popularity suggests a certain susceptibility to an industry that smugly thinks it controls our music preferences. And maybe they do, even if you pretend that your love for the song is “ironic.”
Pop inhabits a unique space in the music world, and it also requires real artistry — be it singular or collaborative — to make. These are well-established points argued more articulately elsewhere, and that are better applied to more talented artists than Justin. For our generation’s pop culture to remain defensible, though, it’s important to remain aware of the industry machinations that play a hand in bringing us pop music. Justin Bieber is still the same shithead who assaulted his own limo driver and snuck out of a brothel disguised by a bed sheet. To start thinking differently of him because you enjoy the “Sorry” video is as mindless as convincing yourself that Hillary is progressive because you think Bernie won’t win. The music industry is as deceptive as politicians; pay attention to their tricks.