Justin Bieber’s “Purpose” album is ridiculously good. “Sorry” and “Love Yourself” battled each other for the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 list over the winter, and both still remain in the Top 30. Admitting I like them shouldn’t be so hard.
When I was asked for a first-person piece explaining why men in their 20s are coming around to Bieber’s music, my editor joked it would be worth $10,000 for all the crap I’d have to take for writing it. It’s never been cool for men to like the Biebs, but I figured this wouldn’t be too hard. I’m in my mid-20s after all; being cool doesn’t mean as much as it used to.
Yet figuring out why I’m now willing to say I like Bieber’s music has been a more complex question than I anticipated. It’s more than just explaining why the songs are good. This is about why he was so hateable before, why he’s less hateable now and how that change took place.
Bieber’s “Purpose” Tour comes to First Niagara Center on Tuesday, and I’m still not sure I have all the answers. But any time I got frustrated writing this, I just played some of his music and suddenly felt better. I tried to think through the issues to see where that took me.
Here we go:
Why didn’t you like Bieber before?
Bieber’s story seems likable enough. He was just a kid grinding on his own who got discovered through YouTube. I guess he just seemed like an annoying pipsqueak with that stupid hair and punchable face. Songs like “Baby” and “One Less Lonely Girl” didn’t do him any favors. Bieber is past his awkward teen years now but still struggles to be a likable human.
His face looks weirdly arrogant at almost all times. He’s been charged with DWI and resisting arrest. He tries so hard to flaunt his scrawny-guy muscles in Calvin Klein ads. He hangs out with certified terrible person Floyd Mayweather. He likes the Toronto Maple Leafs. I could go on and on. The only time he ever actually seemed kind of funny was when he was being a complete jerk in a deposition.
But despite all that, there’s been a small shift lately in how I see him. He’s still as punchable as ever, but I have this small glimmer of empathy for him now, and I think it (sadly) has to do with his breakup with Selena Gomez.
I know that sounds lame. I hate myself for writing it. I don’t exactly feel bad for the guy. But seeing him struggle does slightly humanize him. Something finally didn’t go his way. And for it to be over a girl who doesn’t want him back? We can all relate to that.
What’s more important is the rejection seems to have changed him slightly, to the point where he now expresses things like feeling sorry for hurting someone – a basic human thought, of course, but progress.
What is it about these songs?
It takes more than just good music to be likable. Not only are his newer songs fantastic, they’re also the strongest evidence we have Bieber is at least starting to move past his old ways.
The first change I saw was last year when Bieber collaborated with Skrillex and Diplo for “Where Are U Now” – a song that’s both weird and affectionate, with a good beat and better lyrics. It’s a thinly veiled message to Selena and even flashes a direct, if brief, question to her in one of the trippier parts of the video.
But, importantly, Bieber seemed sad – and maybe even legitimately upset. For the first time, Bieber shared actual human emotion.
In August 2015, “What Do You Mean?” was released as a single. I liked it the first time I heard it. It sounded like a song about not understanding what women are trying to tell us. I’ve been there, man.
“Have you heard the new Bieber songs?” I asked my brother later that day. “They’re, like … good.”
Then “Sorry” came out in October. Biebs apologizing? Admitting a mistake? No way! Our little guy is growing up so fast. “I know that I let you down. Is it too late to say sorry now?” he asks. Nah, man. Never underestimate the power of a sincere apology.
A month later, Bieber released “Love Yourself,” which might be the best thing he’s ever done. It’s a perfect screw-you song without really being a screw-you song and might be as honest as we’ve ever heard him. That really drives home that he’s not 16 anymore and singing bogus lines about how he’s going to show girls the world and give them everything they ever wanted. He eschews insults and you-were-nothing-special-anyways for subtle truisms that can shake someone deeper than harsh words can reach.
The beat picks up around the 48-second mark when Biebs drops his first bomb: “My momma don’t like you, and she likes everyone.” Boom! That’s as real as it gets.
You didn’t like my friends? “The only problem was with you and not them.” You think I’m still holding on to something? “You should go and love yourself.”
So, what’s happening here?
Maybe, hopefully, this is also a little about me judging people less than I used to and being more emphatic to someone else’s struggles. Learning the reasons why someone acts the way they do – even if you don’t approve of their actions – is endearing. But it also does seem like JB is maturing, even if it’s at a glacial pace.
I’d still hesitate to say I’m really a “fan” of Bieber. I think I’m at a point where I can tolerate him enough as a human to admit his songs are fantastic. I don’t think I’ll be at First Niagara Center on Tuesday, even if I could get in for less than $150. But maybe I’ll be sitting at home bumping “Sorry” by myself and loving it.
Who: Justin Bieber • When: 7:30 p.m. July 12 • Where: First Niagara Center • Info: firstniagaracenter.com