Justin Bieber's latest single, "Sorry," a moombahton-pop delight, opens with the line, "You have to go and get angry at all of my honesty." It's an odd choice for an apology song, Bieber prefacing his mea culpa by blaming the object of his touted remorse.
It's also a classic, #unapologetic millennial trope: "I'm sorry... that you're mad," a sentiment I'd imagine we've all both used and had used on us once or twice. In the context of this song, it's one that muddles Bieber's message, a moment where the narrative we're meant to buy into surrounding his new record Purpose, released Friday, openly conflicts with what's actually on display.
"I'm Sorry You're Mad" is a patented go-to for anyone painting themselves as the victim and victimhood has more or less been Bieber's musical MO for the entire rollout of Purpose. Lead single "What Do You Mean?" tells of a courtship tainted by a female who simply cannot make up her mind, while our innocent hero suffers from good-hearted confusion. Buzz track "I'll Show You" features Bieber moaning, "this life's not easy, I'm not made out of steel," and the Skrillex and Diplo collaboration "Where Are U Now?" tells of a broken-hearted Biebs who's been abandoned by his lover in a time of need, befuddling our faultless protagonist. "I gave you faith, turned your doubt into hoping," he croons of his own virtue. "Where are you now?"
This message of victimhood, however, is far from the story we're being sold in the non-musical piece of Purpose's rollout, a sturdily constructed personal narrative, albeit a tinny one. It's a prime example of many Pop Star Narratives in the 20teens: Meta-Stories that become so bloated and convoluted that they begin to usurp, redefine and overshadow the actual music.
Demi Lovato, who publicly struggled with addiction and eating disorders, now wears clothes that show off her body. Thus, she sings "Cool for the Summer" and releases Confident. Selena Gomez, Bieber's ex-girlfriend, has publicly broken up with him, so she is sick of this "Same Old Love" and primed for her Revival, the title of her recently released second solo album. The stories surrounding these records are often more notable, and indeed more of a sales pitch, than any of the music they contain.
Purpose's overarching non-musical narrative goes something like this: Justin Bieber, once America's Most Beloved Sweetheart, became very famous and rich at a young age, got drunk on himself, royally fucked up over the last three years but now is All Good. He's rediscovered Jesus, he understands his mistakes and is ready to return to his life's mission: giving back via his musical gifts. In the video for the Purpose opener "Mark My Words," Bieber monologues: "I felt like I lost my purpose for a while but now I've found my purpose and I just want to bring that hope to people."
With modern pop event records that are driven by narrative, the music often feels like an afterthought, tunes crafted to work in the service of the story. For instance, "Sorry" begs the question: Is Bieber simply presenting us with a banger or is this his public apology to Selena? This intentional ambiguity is what we all dissect while Steve Bartels and Scooter Braun tap their fingers together in delight.
Thing is, this story accompanying Purpose works, but only in the broadest strokes. When you get granular however, there's a distinctive wiff of bullshit, a fudging that begins with the fact that Bieber has never actually been America's Sweetheart in the way that he and his handlers would like you to belieb (sorry) in order to manufacture redemption.
During his initial rise in the late 2000s, Bieber was mostly dismissed and even laughed at by anyone over the age of fifteen, far less universally-adored than childhood icons like Shirley Temple, Michael Jackson or even Justin Timberlake. Yes, he was successfully sold as the object of tween lust, but he had very little actual pop cultural capital, namely memorable hit songs, to show for all the fuss. Adults were hip to this and most thought of Bieber as a joke, a fad.
And yes, Bieber messed up in the past couple years. He got a DUI, peed in a bucket, flipped off a picture of President Clinton and acted generally like a punkish d-bag. But what privileged, white 20-year-old hasn't drunkenly relieved themselves in an inopportune place? He never physically abused anyone or threatened to join ISIS. This was hardly a Chris Brown-ian offense, one demanding a large scale apology tour. It was more the doings of petulant, and wealthy, man-child.
Upon listening to Purpose, though, the planning that went into its narrative, into making it something that connects as broadly as possible and tells a larger story about Bieber's evolution, begins to fray. The friction between the redemption story and Bieber's actual capacity to convey that story generates music that is flat and empty.
One big feature on the album is Justin's newly-minted vocal delivery. Throughout the record, Bieber croons in an airy, wounded tenor that deftly showcases his remarkable vocal chops and is meant to convey sophistication. But just because Bieber sings songs like "Love Yourself" in a controlled, breathy tone doesn't mean that he's actually emoting on what amounts to a mean-spirited song. Indeed, you can tenderize the delivery of "Go Fuck Yourself," that song's not-at-all thinly veiled message, but that doesn't make it register as anything resembling actual vulnerability or maturity, Purpose's ostensible, well, purpose. In fact, "Love Yourself," like many songs on Purpose, scans far more clearly as defensive and lacking in self-awareness, hallmarks of childishness, and leaves a bitter taste on your tongue.
Throughout, like on "Yourself," Purpose misconstrues "Emoting" with maturity, from the maudlin piano ballad "Life Worth Living," to the MJ-striving rave, "Children," (sample lyric: "What About the Children?"), but showcases very little actual depth, or any of the personality, nuance, specificity and idiosyncrasy of the adult artists -- Jackson, Timberlake, Drake -- with whom Bieber is clearly attempting to align himself here.
Mostly, Purpose smacks of Bieber stomping his foot and screaming to the world, "you don't know how hard it is to be me." "It's like they want me to be perfect," he whines on "I'll Show You," "but they don't even know that I'm hurting." Is delivering that message his actual purpose? It sure feels like it.
Regardless, the meta-narrative, along with a trio of truly fantastic stand-alone singles, has worked seamlessly. Purpose is expected to debut at number one this week with over half a million in sales and its three singles have each placed in the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, with "What Do You Mean" becoming Bieber's first number one in the US.
The true story of Purpose and its' subsequent success, however, is a far darker one and one that I'm sure Bieber, Braun, et al are not trying to tell. The Bieber that actually shows up on Purpose is a self-martyring, straight, white millennial male, a talented artist whose work is stifled by an inability to see anything from outside his limited purview of "Me." We're meant to accept this record as Bieber's transition into adulthood but to this adult's ears, it's an album defined by immaturity. Furthermore, from the perspective of someone who believes in the power of pop music to move us, it lacks a true, fully-rendered emotional life, the work of an artist in control of his gifts. Someone needs to stuff Bieber's Christmas stocking with Abbey Road, The Velvet Rope, The College Dropout and Body Talk.
But Bieber is certainly emblematic of his times, a huge piece of why he's superstar. This album by the kid who got famous by posting YouTube videos of himself is a clear example of an emotionally flattened age, one where we confuse narcissism for self-awareness and -- as the stars of our own respective films -- where we can create narratives online and bring them to life regardless of truth, tailoring reality as we see fit. We're the constant protector of our own personal brand and the creators of our own images. It's also a world where too often, the rich, white male is allowed to play victim. Maybe that's Purpose's true purpose, to reflect those troubling and very relevant tenants of our world back onto us. "My life is a movie," Bieber whimpers, "and everyone's watching."
"You think that you know me, but you never will," Bieber sings at the end of "I'll Show You." It's the most revealing thing you're likely to hear on or about Purpose.