In October 2015, a popular foreign singer returned with the lead single from their hotly-anticipated new album. Both the single and the album became massive number one smashes, enabling the artist to dominate the final quarter of the year… This narrative is obviously about Adele. But it also, bizarrely, applies to Justin Bieber.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Bieber was a laughing stock. Despite an initial burst of tween-driven fame in the early ‘10s, he tarnished his good name with media-baiting shenanigans, including a DUI, vandalism charges, an arrest for assault and even accusations of racism.
With his non-music related antics overshadowing his already-waning pop career, Bieber entered 2015 as another has-been that the industry had chewed up and spit back out. When Comedy Central roasted Bieber in his “honor,” back in March, it felt like the final nail in the coffin for this former star…
…but like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus before him, Justin Bieber is a pop phoenix, rising from the ashes of his teeny-bop past to transform, once more, into a legitimate hit-maker.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the top of the charts: Bieber has been number one or number two on the US singles chart since October with a golden trifecta of singles in “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry,” and “Love Yourself.” And his album, Purpose, sold 522,000 copies in its opening week, which would’ve been the highest debut week of the entire year, had Adele not eclipsed him. In fact, had it not been for Adele, Bieber would’ve been the success story of the last quarter of 2015.
But how did Bieber do this? After all, there are millions of former teen singers who never graduate to adult super-stardom; what makes Bieber so special? Some of it can be attributed to dumb luck, but we’re going to examine some of the controllable factors that contributed to this Canadian prodigal son’s return to the spotlight:
1) Bieber repented.
A pop phoenix can rise above in two ways: by being defiantly unapologetic OR by repenting for their transgressions. If their crimes are minor enough and their persona strong enough, some artists can manage the former; Miley Cyrus is the poster-child for this brash method. However, Bieber lacks the chutzpah to pull this off. Additionally, his tabloid hijinks were too numerous and too serious to brush to the side; Bieber would need to be remorseful if we were to ever take him seriously again. He did after appearing on an episode of Ellen, stating, “I think I was nervous because I was afraid of what people are thinking about me right now. It’s been a minute since I’ve been in a public appearance, and I didn’t want to come off arrogant or conceited or basically how I’ve been acting the past year, year and a half.”
While it might not have been the best apology ever, it felt genuine. Bieber must have been keenly aware of just how far his stock had plummeted. And when an artist’s career has hit rock-bottom, an authentic apology can spark the flame necessary to wake the phoenix within. By the time of his redemptive performance at the 2015 Video Music Awards, in August, he was already well on his way back to the top.
2) He switched musical styles.
The first half of Bieber’s career is littered with lightweight pop songs (”Baby,” “Somebody to Love”) that positioned him as a safe tween-idol. He then transitioned to a slightly more “urban” sound, as collaborations with Big Sean, Drake, and Nicki Minaj aimed to up his musical credibility. Both styles yielded radio hits for him at the time, but neither would be appropriate for him today: he’s much too old to be peddling Disney-channel music, and he’s too white (and Canadian) to convincingly rub shoulders with hip-hop stars.
Instead, Bieber wisely transitioned to something new. And what better then the hottest trend around, electronic dance music? Bieber tested the waters on a crafty collaboration with Skrillex and Diplo on last year’s “Where Are U Now.” The song’s surprise success convinced Bieber to fully embrace the format; his subsequent singles have borrowed heavily from the genre.
3) His songs are better now.
Switching musical styles isn’t sufficient by itself; the new songs have to be good. Thankfully, Bieber’s new direction is turning up aces at every turn. This is in stark contrast to his previous work: earlier songs like “One Less Lonely Girl” were offensively bland; he was basically singing a Kidz Bop song.
Furthermore, there was something disgustingly contrived about his music. While pop music gets a lot of unfair flack for being derivative, Bieber’s music was especially formulaic, as he was taking the middle-of-the-road approach every single time. In fact, it can be said without too much dissent that Bieber did not have a single great song before 2015.
But his new singles have all been fantastic: the warm, tropical glow of “What Do You Mean?” sounds wildly adventurous compared to his former hits. And what’s more, he finally sounds sincere: A song like “Sorry” could’ve come across as coldly calculated, but given Bieber’s recent career-arc, it sounds authentically heartfelt. What’s more, audiences have been able to spot the difference: Bieber has landed sixty or so songs on the US charts, but it’s his last three singles that have been the highest-peaking of his career.
4) He’s hot as fuck
Bieber has always had an adorable cute-kid charm to him. But lately he’s been hitting the gym, as his rippling abs and massive pecs attest to. And he’s not shy about showing off his new bod, whether he’s flaunting his goods for Armani or Calvin Klein.
He’s also dealt with a suspicious amount of “leaked” photos and video footage lately. Clearly he wants the world to know that he’s all grown up! And while this is by far the most shallow factor, it is just as essential as the other components: in order for Bieber’s transformation to work, he needs to public to move on from his past. What better way to do that than to come back looking hotter than ever? After all, if we’re busy talking about his smoking new body, we won’t have time to remember how much we used to hate him.
So there you have it: Justin Bieber successfully rose from the ashes thanks to an astute combination of repentance, a new musical style, improved song quality, and increased sex appeal. Time will tell how long he’ll continue to stay at the top of the game and/or if he fucks it all up again. But for now, Bieber is once again the biggest pop star in the world.