Justin Bieber is very, very dear to me. I am writing this piece in advance of the piece that I am going to write about his new album because, as I was telling a friend of mine the other day, if I wrote about his album without first separately unpacking all of the stupid-deep emotional shit that I have about JB, I would have to put all that shit in the album post and it would be thousands and thousands of words and you wouldn’t read it, so we are splitting it up. I am going to try to keep this relatively brief but I am not promising anything, and what I want to make clear first and foremost is that every time I am talking about Justin Bieber I am talking about me, and who I am and who I have been, and the ways in which this Canadian goofball has been with me through that.
The first thing you need to know is that I have been listening to Justin Bieber for a long time. Like, a long time. I was listening to Justin Bieber before I even allowed myself to admit that I cared about pop, that it mattered to me deep in my soul. We have a history that is only surpassed by my history with My Chemical Romance.
The second thing you need to know is that people hate boys who sound like girls. They hate them with a weird and burning intensity that I have never understood, but as a JB fan and later a One Direction fan I can tell you that there are three things that a person will say to you, usually in this order, when they find out that you care deeply about these musicians: “I just can’t get into it, he sounds like a girl, like, no offense, but-” “Oh my god, aren’t they, like, twelve?” “You know they can’t really sing, right?” This last is my personal cross to carry through my entire life, apparently, because I can’t ever let it go, can’t ever just let these people exist in their wrongness. Oh really, they can’t sing, I shriek as I fling YouTube video after YouTube video in their general direction. Here are eight thousand instances of you being wrong, you colossal idiot. And of course no one listens or believes me or watches the videos, and then inevitably there is a moment in popular thought where the boy-who-sounds-like-a-girl stops sounding like a girl, and his music stops sounding like ~girl music, and suddenly the thinkpieces are everywhere. “Justin Bieber Slays Us All With His Acoustic Chops”, you’ll see a headline. “He Really CAN Sing!”
Remember when FOUR came out and that twentysomething dude went to a One Direction show and wrote this incredibly un-self-aware piece about how, like, wow, One Direction are actual musicians and he just was so impressed by how actually musicians they are because he never realized that, even though teen girls have been adoring them forever? That’s what it’s like all the time. There’s a tipping point for these artists where they become ‘cool’, where everyone (read: “music” “professionals” (read: dudes)) realizes that they’re good and that it’s not a shameful thing to enjoy them. And that point is both gratifying and incredibly frustrating.
So this is where I am coming to you from, as a person who has watched Justin Bieber grow up from a teeny-tiny thirteen-year-old, who has watched him do some stupid, stupid shit, and who has loved him anyway because he is a human person who reminds me both of myself and of my little brother. I am coming to you as a person who has been literally laughed out of rooms at parties, I am coming to you as a person who gets loudly and too-intensely defensive of a small millionaire who does not need my defending. Except maybe he does, because again, you know, he is just a person.
Now on the one hand it’s hard to feel sorry for the very rich
You could record an album of Mountain Goats covers and torpedo your career overnight
You chose this life
But on the other hand even a rich guy needs some space
And should be able to get to his car without people all up in his face
And getting on his case
You don’t have to leave Justin alone
You don’t have to leave Justin alone, but don’t be an asshole
Are there bigger problems in the world yes
Abortion is legal but not everybody has access
Try not to be an asshole
Try not to be an asshole
Justin Bieber has done some stupid shit. He is a 21-year-old who has been Beatles-level famous since he was fourteen, and he is a millionaire white boy with questionable taste in TV and jewelry, and he has done some stupid shit. And he is still a person. I talked about this a little bit when I wrote about Taylor Swift. I think people very genuinely forget that celebrities are real people. There’s this weird and callous disregard of their humanity that you see anytime they are suffering, or doing something stupid, or some combination of the two. “Well, they chose to be famous. You know the paparazzi don’t bother people that don’t give them anything to talk about. They knew what they were getting into.” So let me just – to lay the cards out on the table – let me say a thing, here. I am very much invested in becoming a pop star, I am probably trying out for the Voice next year, I would love nothing more than to be wildly famous. Like, I have dreams about this and they are so vivid that it sometimes hurts to wake up. So, okay. I want to be famous. But I don’t want people to scream things at me, and I don’t want people to write mean things about me in magazines, and I don’t want to feel like I can’t leave my house or say anything ever without it being misinterpreted. I don’t want those things, and I think it is cruel and disingenuous to suggest that anyone does, and to suggest that that is simply the cost of being a celebrity. Maybe it is, I guess; maybe I am too forgiving, to willing to let them simply be people. All I know is that when I was fifteen and sixteen and seventeen and eighteen and beyond, probably, I was doing and saying a lot of stupid shit that I genuinely regret, and if I had been in any kind of a public eye when I was doing those things I can guarantee you that people would not sympathize with me. And I know that you all know how I feel about forgiveness, and who does and does not deserve it, but I have to say this. If you don’t allow for the possibility that people can grow and change and become better, then I don’t know what any of this is about. And maybe I am too soft on JB, maybe I am too optimistic in my faith in the human spirit to overcome the weirdness of being young and famous, but I can’t help it. There are things I can’t forgive but being young and rude and feeling invincible are not those things, because I did a lot worse, and if I can’t live in a world where Justin Bieber can still be a good person then I myself am probably not a good person.
I had a Justin Bieber shirt in college, one that I wore until it physically disintegrated, and I loved it because it was sort of a trick, visually. It said “JUSTIN BIEBER” in massive letters, but they were so big and blocky that you couldn’t really immediately tell what they said, and then within the letters was a picture of JB himself, but it was all sunset-colored and again, you couldn’t really tell immediately who it was. So I would be talking to someone and we would be carrying on a conversation and they’d be respecting me, you know, as a person, and then they’d take more than a second to look at it and I could see, visibly see, their estimation of me change. And it hurt! It still hurts, if I’m being honest, when I meet someone new and they say something dismissive about pop music, about teen fiction, about the things that have shored me up and made me the person that I am today. There is something very dehumanizing in the way that people talk about these things, these girl-oriented things, oh, young adult fiction is so damaging, it’s so unrealistic, it’s so poorly written, oh, Justin Bieber can’t even sing, it’s all autotune, and like, I’m sorry, but this usually comes from someone who thinks Jeff Mangum has a really good voice. Or rather – maybe it’s not even that he has a good voice but that his message transcends things like “having a good voice”. Like – I am not dismissing Jeff Mangum as being important – but you have to have noticed that no one says these things about non-pop musicians. What I mean is that Justin Bieber can write a hook like nobody’s business and that is not – categorically not – less important than a song about how sad we all are.
Different things are important to different people, but it’s always pop that gets dismissed because it’s “easy” and “shallow” and “not serious” and a number of other adjectives that are not-coincidentally also used to describe girls. And then there’s the tipping point – the music bros finally admit that they like to dance, or whatever – and all of a sudden it’s okay to like pop. Certain pop, though – no one who’s writing the JB thinkpieces now is going back and listening to My World 2.0; that guy who went to the 1D concert isn’t blasting Up All Night on his way to work. Those things still belong to the girls and the people who don’t appreciate real music. Justin Bieber had an incredible voice when he was twelve and he has an incredible voice now, and I saw Never Say Never in theaters twice and I cried both times, and I could talk to you every day for the rest of my life about individual syllables on each of his albums, the way he has always known exactly how to get at my heart, but I won’t. Either you get it or you don’t. Either you look at this millionaire and you see a fourteen-year-old kid trying to make a basket with his back turned to the hoop, or you don’t. I’m sure it’s harder to do if you weren’t paying attention to him when he was that kid, but I want you to try. Or at the very least – I want you to try this: When I talk about the album next month, when I try to explain to you how talented and incredible and precious this boy is, I want you to think about what you can forgive. I want you to think about your own mistakes, and making them on a stage so large that you can’t see the edges of it. I want you to think about the fact that he cried, openly wept, after his performance at the VMAs this year because he didn’t expect people to cheer. He didn’t expect to be forgiven. But he wants to be, and he is working toward that, and I just want you to think about what that means to you, if anything. I don’t expect anything more from you than that. This is my stupid cross to bear, my stupid hill to die on, the fact that I can’t abandon this kid that I can’t help but see as my little brother, but at least do me this favor when we reconvene: Try not to be an asshole.