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Justin Bieber
Justin Biebervia

The YoYo-ing cool of Justin Bieber

The bratty pop idol transformed overnight and said ‘Sorry’ – is it a cheap marketing ploy, or is it about time we became beliebers?

At the turn of the decade, the name “Justin Bieber” was synonymous with everything that felt instinctively wrong with music. A half-dead pop factory churning out underwhelming love songs for an over-worked, tantrum-prone pre-teen destined for a nervous breakdown. He was the poster child for what happened when people threw fistfuls of cash at somebody in order to make even more fistfuls of cash; a mascot for the limpest corners of musical consumerism. Hardly anybody was convinced – apart from screaming young girls – and everybody looked on with a perverse glee when things started to go wrong.

Five years later, and attitudes towards Justin Bieber have done a U-turn, and so has his music. With its nimble horn riffs, undeniably catchy rhythms and smooth-as-cream vocals, today's release “Sorry” isn’t just better than before – it’s actually pretty good. Like his lauded-over collab with Skrillex and Diplo “Where Are U Now” and last month’s breezy dance track “What Do You Mean”, Bieber's latest creation is a further example of his fresh, artistically mature sound. And although “Sorry” feels meticulously shaped, a strategic move to really hammer home his redemption, this doesn’t detract from the fact that I am not the only person feeling excited about his fourth album Purpose. So what exactly happened?

Capitalising on the early-00s success of R&B kings Justin Timberlake and Usher, Bieber emerged from an avid social media hysteria and was primed, from the off, for worldwide stardom. The early acoustic creations that made him famous at age 11 were transformed into slick, R&B jams with a thick dollop of studio gloss, and he swiftly started racking up the dollars (“Baby” remains the most viewed music video on YouTube, second only to PSY’s “Gangnam Style”). This was followed by a $98 million-grossing, 3D biopic concert film Never Say Never and a teeny-bopper Christmas album Under the Mistletoe, which cemented him as the sickly sweet teen crush icon he had always been shaped to be, loved by adolescent girls and detested by nearly everybody else.

“There seemed no question that what he had called a ‘inexcusable mistake’ would bring his faltering career to a shuddering stand-still”

And then, some time between his third album Believe and his fourth album Journals, things started to get a little bit weird. From shoving paparazzi to pissing in mop buckets, spitting at fans and being pictured leaving a Brazilian brothel covered in a white sheet, Bieber’s squeaky-clean image became dunked in dirt. Instead of being painted as a bad boy, Bieber was exposed as a bit of a brat, and his free-falling breakdown lacked the musical masterpieces to cushion him. Having lost many of the hysterical ‘Beliebers’ that had once propelled him, and having never gained the more serious, adult-facing listeners to prop him up, the future looked a little bleak for Bieber. Even after last year’s hugely catchy Chance the Rapper collab “Confident” (below), things got gradually worse. The singer was caught on camera telling an abhorrently racist “joke”, and although the leaked video was filmed when Bieber was barely 15, there seemed no question that what he had called a 'inexcusable mistake' would bring his faltering career to a shuddering stand-still.

However, after a brief period of much-advised silence, Justin Bieber has somehow managed to redeem himself and emerge stronger than ever. Following a bizarre apology video on YouTube where he expressed regret for his arrogance, an appearance in a Comedy Central Roast where he acknowledged his mishaps, and a full three months where he made no glaring error, the tide began to very slowly change. 

And then, earlier this year, he provided vocals for arguably one of the best songs of the year, Skrillex and Diplo's “Where Are U Now”. With it’s sparse, EDM-flecked beat and Bieber’s effortless falsetto, the track was the earworm that didn’t quit; a slow-growing masterful creation that wasn’t just popular despite Bieber, but because of him. It was the added marvel of him appearing on an actually decent track that made it so appealing.

This appeal continued into his own comeback track “What Do You Mean”, his first official single since 2013, and another example of this brilliantly minimal, futuristic EDM-inspired sound. Following on from that, today’s release “Sorry” is a fresh, forward-facing embodiment of Bieber’s rejuvenation; a song that doesn’t just express his artistic evolution in words, but in sound too. “I know you know that I made those mistakes maybe once or twice, by once I mean maybe a couple of hundred times,” he sings over an uplifting, Skrillex-produced beat. “So let me, oh let me redeem myself tonight, cause I just need one more shot at second chances.” A far call from Bieber’s corny beginnings, his latest track sounds and feels like a certified banger. There’s also no getting away from the fact that he possesses some undeniable talent. Even in the early days of “Baby”, it was clear that his ice-clear voice far exceeded the stars that peppered the pop landscape around him. And although his still-short and chequered history elicits the obligatory side-eye and snigger, his position as an important pillar in pop culture, and his slow rise to becoming a cultural icon of our times, is inescapable.