Justin Bieber, race, and Pop music
By Lena Potts
Let’s talk Bieber. Bieber is back. And he’s not back in a Chris Brown way, where people don’t even want to openly acknowledge your success because you’re still a public relations nightmare and have not been forgiven. No, the Biebs pulled off an impressive image overhaul- on a Robert Downey Jr. comeback grading scale (where RDJ is the A+), I’d give him a solid B.
A couple years ago your options were to 1) hate Justin Bieber, 2) quietly like Justin Bieber, 3) pretend you didn’t care at all even though you probably had an opinion and were not as above it as you claimed to be 4) live in North Korea and not be allowed to have an opinion about him. A few months ago, with the rise of the term, some people even claimed that Bieber was the ultimate “fuckboy” (there are at least nine Instagram fan pages devoted to him with “fuckboy” or its derivatives in the name).
Then, in March of this year, before beginning press for his new album, Bieber was the subject of a Comedy Central Roast, one he reportedly asked the network for as a 21st birthday present. Whether he actually asked Comedy Central to talk publicly about what an ass he is, or just claims to have, it was a great move. He took all the jokes well, didn’t actually seem like much of a fuckboy, and made an appropriate quasi-sincere speech at the end about how excited he is to turn his life around. It’s the sort of requisite acknowledgement of celebrity wrongdoing that allows the public to move on, whether or not we believe in any actual reformation (and, notably, something Chris Brown did not do well).
In the summer he dropped “Where Are U Now”, a Diplo/Skrillex track with Bieber’s vocals that made us dance reluctantly until we just accepted our national fate. Then he cried at an award show because he was so #grateful for second chances. For his next two tracks, the first tastes of his new album, he took a page from the Swift book and leveraged every celebrity connection possible (another false, but effective squad) to hype the songs on social media before they dropped. Both “What Do You Mean” and “Sorry” have been huge hits commercially and critically, with fun music videos and celebrity support. At this stage, it’s hard to bash the Bieber; he’s at the top of the charts with Ariana, Taylor, Adele, and Drizzy, and, for what feels like the first time in a while, everyone at the top has the critical acclaim to match their catchy songs. Pop is doing well, and 2015 Bieber is integral to it.
Much of any conversation about contemporary pop music is necessarily tied to a conversation about Taylor Swift. T-swizzle has always been undeniably White, as the country space is almost exclusively so, and she has for years been transitioning from her country roots to a true pop star. But her official move to pop puts her in a firmly White pop space, as opposed to any sort of crossover; the entire 1989 album sounds like the soundtrack to a movie about White teens in, well, 1989.
In a review of 1989 for the New York Times, John Caramanica wrote,
Modern pop stars — white pop stars, that is — mainly get there by emulating black music. Think of Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber. In the current ecosystem, Katy Perry is probably the pop star least reliant on hip-hop and R&B to make her sound, but her biggest recent hit featured the rapper Juicy J; she’s not immune.
1989 has absolutely dominated not just the charts, but the internet, friendly conversations, and everyone’s consciousness since it dropped a year ago. It’s a notable dose of Whiteness injected into the system Caramanica mentioned above, where White pop stars rely on normatively Black sounds for radio play and financial success. And, because of the scope of Swift’s influence- she can make anyone, even Apple, do whatever she wants- this also marks a change in what popular music more largely sounds like. This is anecdotal, sure, but post-1989 I feel I hear significantly less songs on the top 40 station overlapping with the rap and hip-hop station than two years ago; this could be because Swift has 5 singles receiving airplay at once, so she constitutes a large percentage of top 40 time at present. It is also fascinating to recognize, here, that despite being by far the buzziest pop star in the business, it is not actually Taylor Swift who ranks as the highest earning woman in music, but rather her rival, Perry, by a large margin; her sprawl is so amazing it isn’t even directly tied to financial dominance.
Caramanica rightfully throws Bieber into the “emulating Black music camp”, as that review was written before he dropped his most recent string of hits. The Biebs used to be a prime example of the co-opted Black music trend: Usher was his mentor, he had the dance moves of a White teen who is trying to be Usher, and his songs frequently featured Ludacris, Nicki, Big Sean, etc.
Now, though, he’s moved into the radio-friendly dance music space, one that, while not completely devoid of color, is much Whiter than the R&B-pop crossover sound that dominated a few years ago. His latest batch of hits, taking influence from dance and house music, and produced by DJs famous for once again turning the radio into platforms for those genres, are surely not Katy Perry pop joints. And while those styles are often rooted in the Caribbean, the Southern United States, etc., the public faces of them are now White DJs from Norway and Scotland and American art schools and other places famous DJs come from. Diplo and Rick Rubin are both listed as producers on Bieber’s newest album, Purpose. They are both White men who have spent decades producing popular hip hop, R&B, and rap projects. Benny Blanco, another of the producers (and a rapper), is Jewish.
Bieber’s most recent grouping of super-popular songs, “Where Are U Now”, “What Do You Mean”, and “Sorry”, come after a 2 year radio hiatus, and are of a completely different style than his White-boy-R&B past, one more connected to the electronic-leaning radio trends of today. With this move- dropping the dance moves and third verse rappers- he’s maintained the hip-hop, Caribbean, and R&B influence that made him famous, but matched it to Whiter faces, more comfortable (and successful) in a Whiter climate.
His contemporaries, too, are different. With Justin Timberlake voluntarily out of the game to be a mogul and father, Chris Brown disgraced and pushed to hook singer status, and Adam Levine’s solo career not taking off like he wanted, the solo male pop field is thin. Really dominating now are Bruno Mars, Jason Derulo, the Weeknd (whose crossover is remarkable, and who Caramanica, in different profile, likens to Swift), and, the lone White kid on the block, Bieber.
1989 is a throwback album by design, and has been wildly successful. Bieber, too is accessing White pop by looking backwards. His video for “Sorry”, my favorite of all the Bieber things, looks like a bunch of women (who, for a group of dancers are very White) had a great time raiding the Saved By the Bell wardrobe and then had a highly choreographed dance party. This is really the only way in which Bieber has thus far leaned on a past aesthetic to successfully accomplish Whiteness, but it does make me wonder whether it is currently easier to access a Whiter pop space if you, like Swift’s entire pop album, and Bieber’s newest video, embrace going back in time.
In any case, watching Justin’s career can help us chart social trends of musical popularity. He’s been wildly successful at every stage of his career, but at each point with a different public perception. Now, especially in combination with Swift and as opposed to his counterparts, his departure from former styles also constitutes a shift in representation and social identity- one that isn’t inherently negative or positive, but helps us think about the entertainment we consume and where it really comes from.