The Reinvention of Justin Bieber


Justin Bieber is back.

The onetime scourge of western civilization has reestablished his musical relevance with his first-ever Number One single (“What Do You Mean?”) on the Billboard Hot 100 and an album, Purpose, that was Number One on the Billboard charts until Adele’s 25 juggernaut steamrolled the universe. On November 13, he earned the most streams in a single day (36 million) and then broke the record for most album streams in a single week (205 million). With 17 songs on the December 5 Billboard Hot 100, he has broken a record held by the Beatles and Drake for having the most songs in the Billboard Hot 100 in a single week. Starting March 9, he will embark on a 58-date world tour — an ambitious undertaking that would have been unthinkable a year ago, after a binge of epically bratty behavior turned the Biebs into a pariah by age 20.

Why is Justin Bieber enjoying the greatest comeback in music history since Elvis returned from the brink of Hollywood B-movie exile? A number of factors come into play. Clearly, he and his manager Scooter Braun are engineering a charm offensive dating back several months when he issued a public apology on his Facebook page. He has played the media carefully and adroitly. He was relaxed, easygoing, and funny in his Carpool Karaoke segments on The Late Late Show with James Corden, and penitent in a November Billboard cover story, in which he confessed, “I was close to letting fame completely destroy me.” (The same article also described Bieber’s attendance at a religious service and friendship with a pastor.) Bieber as a performer has revealed a warmth and vulnerability, weeping onstage at the MTV VMAs in August and opening himself up to fans by taking questions from the audience during an intimate (and wildly popular) mini-tour no doubt intended to foam the runway for his world tour in 2016.

But acting like a nice guy is only part of the story. With his music and his persona, he’s leaving behind the child star and becoming a fully realized young man, confident in his musical powers and embracing a sensual masculinity. To wit: about the time he was apologizing to fans on Facebook in January, he appeared in a provocative, arty photo spread for Calvin Klein that cast him in a whole new sexually charged context that no one saw coming.

More surprises were in store with his music. The use of Bieber’s vocals in the Diplo and Skillrex collaboration, “Where Are Ü Now” legitimized Bieber in the more mature EDM genre.

The Skillrex-produced “Sorry,” widely interpreted as a both a mea culpa to ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez and to his fans, gained critical praise for its depth and dance sensibility (in the words of Mikael Wood of The Los Angeles Times, an “airy tropical-house banger”).

“What Do You Mean?,” which he co-produced, was not only massively popular; it was also named the best song of 2015 by Spin.

With Bieber embracing genres such as EDM and tropical house, it’s quite likely that he is attracting a more mature fan base. Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels told Billboard, “Any time an artist has been away and focused on personal growth, you see a change in the music. His fans will come with him because they’ve grown up, too.”

Ashley Sandal, a 26-year-old marketing professional in Chicago, is the kind of person Bieber probably needs to court to make a permanent transition to grown-up star. She says, “Justin Bieber didn’t appeal to me when he was a teenybopper. But he’s older. He’s changed. And so has his music.” In April, Sandal will attend one of Bieber’s Chicago appearances during his Purpose tour. She secured tickets the day they went on sale.

So far, the makeover is gaining traction with the news media. He was recently the subject of a positive profile from The Guardian, which focused on his “resurrection,” and The New York Times noted his surging popularity in an article about his and Ariana Grande’s performances November 29 at the American Music Awards. Even the perennially snarky TMZ referred to him as “the comeback kid” in lauding his “triumphant return on stage” at the VMAs. He still has a lot of work to do, though. According to YouGov, a market research company, 58 percent of consumers polled either “don’t like” or “really don’t like” him as of November 24 (although it must be said that on June 7, 89 percent responded the same way — so his numbers are improving).

But Americans love a comeback. So long as Justin Bieber stays out of trouble and stays focused on music, he’s well on his way.