Album review: Does ‘Purpose’ establish Justin Bieber as now cool?
Two weeks ago, the remnants of the NME’s readership were thrown into scandalised consternation over the magazine’s latest choice of cover star: the troubled, perennially misbehaving teen pop icon Justin Bieber.
“Actually kinda cool”, declared the strapline across a picture of the 21-year-old with a poorly Photoshopped knife through his head – tame by the hyperbolic standards of the British music press, but enough to unleash an inevitable flood of vitriol on sundry social media outlets.
“Actually kinda what the [expletive]?” asked one commenter, fumbling for a witty riposte; “Never buying this magazine again,” harrumphed another, seemingly unaware of its new freesheet status.
Die-hard indie kids’ tetchiness about pop is nothing new – but it was quite the volte-face from the NME. After all, just three years earlier Bieber had not only defended his Worst Album crown at the magazine’s annual awards but scooped its Villain of the Year trophy – a gong that oscillates nonsensically between harmless teen pop idols and right-wing politicians.
Not that the NME was alone. A month previously, Vice’s music platform Noisey had declared portentously, “It’s Time to Start Taking Justin Bieber Seriously” – this after a half-decade and more of treating Bieber and his fans as clickbait punchlines.
In March, online indie bible Pitchfork – having comprehensively ignored Bieber’s output for half a decade – rhapsodised about his Where Are Ü Now single; suddenly, an artist once verboten was deemed worthy of coverage extending even to an unofficial remix of Drake’s Hotline Bling.
The maturation of a teen idol is a well-worn career arc. Fifteen years ago, ex-Mouseketeers Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake navigated it to adult success and varying degrees of longevity, give or take a few speed bumps (mostly for Spears).
These days, Bieber’s peers such as Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, Miley Cyrus and ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez are all focused on the art of repositioning.
For Bieber, the hurdle to overcome hasn’t just been uncoolness in the eyes of music snobs but a little more personal.
Prior to their adult-friendly makeovers, Spears, Timberlake, Aguilera and Cyrus were clean-cut, media-trained ciphers who made brilliant pop; following their reinventions, they were artists who spoke their minds while continuing to make brilliant pop, only with cutting-edge collaborators to ease the guilt of the kind of listener who needs hand-holding to enjoy brilliant pop.
Bieber, on the other hand, has had credible cosigns from the start: a protégé of R&B star Usher, his first worldwide hit (2010s Baby) was written by The-Dream, one of the finest producers of the past decade.
R&B legend Rodney Jerkins (Darkchild) created an immense, post-apocalyptic drama for Bieber in 2013’s As Long As You Love Me, arguably his finest single yet; Vampire Weekend producer Ariel Rechtshaid also popped up on its parent album, Believe.
And while his fourth album, 2014’s Journals, came and went without making any commercial impact or spawning any hits, the few who bothered to listen would have heard a surprisingly excellent R&B album that found Bieber growing into both his persona and his voice.
Both were overshadowed by the singer’s increasingly torrid tabloid antics: egging a neighbour’s luxury compound, urinating in a restaurant bucket, abandoning a pet monkey, the now-familiar arrests for drink-drinking.
And so to Purpose, an album that feels less like an artistic statement than a rehabilitation of Bieber’s character. The usual aesthetic strategy with a pop star’s reinvention album is to go bigger, brasher, further out there: to prove that there’s even more to the artist than anyone had previously imagined.
Bieber has even hired the most likely producers to help him down that route, in Skrillex, the man who brought dubstep to mass American audiences by morphing it into the lurching drops and belching bass of brostep, and renowned party boy Diplo, who has made his name as a magpie swooping down on the shiniest elements of global street music and repackaging them for western audiences.
Curiously, though, the results are understated, subtle and even tasteful. Instead of vulgar, relentless energy, Where Are Ü Now features synths fluttering like birdsong, skipping tropical house beats and acres of space. I’ll Show You is all languid, stretched-out bass until an oddly weedy synth riff hoves into earshot to function as the hook.
Sorry practises genuine restraint in its deployment of its fanfare motif. All are sonically pleasant without seizing the attention even half as much as Bieber’s previous best work – and these are the album’s most immediate, uptempo moments.
Elsewhere, Bieber sinks back into maudlin balladry (Love Yourself, Purpose) and torpid R&B (No Sense) that could have easily been the more forgettable cuts on his past couple of albums.
Throughout, though, Bieber’s voice is foregrounded more than ever, and it’s what he says that’s significant. In a transparent bid to be praised for his honesty, Bieber divides his time between reflecting on his career and expressing the ways in which girls have bruised his delicate emotions.
Sometimes, the two intertwine. On I’ll Show You, it’s the world – us – who have hurt his feelings. Sorry is ostensibly sung to an ex, but in the context of the grand tour of contrition for his misbehaviour that has been Bieber’s 2015, it’s hard not to hear the chorus as directed to the public as well.
The problem, though, is that while Bieber may come off as more genuine, having assumed that this is sufficient character work, he also comes off as even more unpleasant. When he sings, “Don’t forget that I’m human, don’t forget that I’m real” on I’ll Show You, you almost feel sorry for him – before the song turns on that bratty stuck-out tongue of a title.
And while the album is heavily indebted to Bieber’s compatriot Drake in many ways, even more striking than the shared submarine synths is the self-pityingly manipulative approach to women disguised as sensitivity. What Do You Mean? is textbook gaslighting, twisting a girlfriend’s words and expecting sympathy for it; Sorry – spoiler – turns out to not be an apology at all, but rather a mealy-mouthed self-justification.
Following these, Bieber has the temerity to then enjoin an ex to Love Yourself in a cloying Ed Sheeran collaboration, all the while listing her shortcomings: of all the petty whinges to stain a record in 2015, “My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone” must be one of the least edifying.
The teenage idol acting out is a well-trodden path, and a gendered one. If starlets such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan were shamed for stumbling outside of rigidly-defined “good girl” lines, the subtext to the diminutive, youthful-looking Bieber’s tabloid antics has consistently been one of mockery for not being enough of a man.
Purpose then, functions as a coming of age album in the worst way: learn how to emotionally abuse women, and then you’ll be a man, my son! Bieber’s strategy is a Janus-faced one. He simultaneously apologises for and doubles down on his dislikeability – but cunningly, now manifests the latter in more socially acceptable ways.
By the time the album lurches into its home stretch of rousingly inspirational anthems, any trace of shame is long gone: the former penitent has morphed into a messiah suffering little children to come unto him, and the titular purpose is definitively a divinely ordained one. That’s one way to show them.
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.