An average day for Justin Bieber, according to his cover story in Billboard magazine, may end with his “sneaking down from his room to the hotel lounge to play the piano while people drink.” The suggestion is that Biebs is so devoted to his art, he’ll make it for its own sake. But there’s something curious about the idea of a pop superstar happily tickling out aural wallpaper. These days, the best way to be everywhere is to let people forget you’re even there.
As Bieber drops his new album “Purpose,” he’s on the verge of completing a perfect 2015 pop comeback. Most musical returns to the public eye have been about proving continued artistic relevance and making strong statements – from LL Cool J’s “Don’t Call It a Comeback” to “It’s Britney, Bitch.” Missy Elliott does both on her brand-new “WTF (Where They From)”: “Got a new idea, let me switch it / Man, I’m so futuristic.” But if she’s continually looking ahead, Bieber, whose adolescent mishaps — from Anne Frank gaffes to a trail of forgotten exotic pets — went disastrously viral, is now perfectly attuned to our social media-driven present: His new music is engineered to offend precisely no one.
Bieber’s delivery on “Purpose” is meek – androgynous without the sass of a David Bowie or an Annie Lennox – and the production, some of it by former dubstep bad-boy Skrillex, is airy and vaguely international; you’d expect to hear these songs on credit-card commercials or on an airplane’s PA system before takeoff. The lyrics, seemingly intended to portray Bieber’s personal journey to manhood, are oddly generic. The stark, searching opener, “Mark My Words,” promises much, but in the end, Bieber shies away from definitive statements. He prefers asking questions: “What do you mean?” “What about the children?” “Is it too late to say I’m sorry?” and on the title track, “Ask you to forgive me for my sins, oh would you please?”
Forgiveness is certainly a theme for the man who’s been on an apology tour all year, and it’s inevitable his mea culpas should have seeped into his music. In our Taylor Swift/Adele era, pop stars are held up to the same standards of “authenticity” that used to be applied to rockers: They’re supposed to be writing (or co-writing) their own material, which is supposed to reflect who they are as people. There are exceptions to this rule – Bieber’s enigmatic compatriot The Weeknd likes to play the villain – but when you’ve been in the public eye since you were 12, you’re doomed to follow the script. Hence the litany of “nobody’s perfect” songs, themselves shorn of specifics: “People make mistakes,” he sings on “Life Is Worth Living.” For the careful listener, this grows frustrating: Fair enough, Biebs, if you’re not going to sing about abandoning monkeys or egging houses—but couldn’t you make something up to add a little spice? Having had his entire career bolstered, and then buffeted, by social media’s ever-present reality show, Bieber evidently has taken to heart that anything he sings can and will be held against him in the court of public opinion.
So the guy who once felt so entitled he pissed in a mop bucket at a restaurant – on video, no less – is adopting the soft sell. Where he once would plead, “Baby, baby, baby, nooooooo!” he now makes non-threatening suggestions. On “Company,” he croons, “Maybe we can stay in touch? Oh, that ain’t doin’ much.” On the lilting “No Pressure,” a song so polite it should come with a downloadable Canadian flag and a coupon for maple syrup, he tells a potential lover, “You ain’t gotta make your mind up right now / Don’t rush.” His milquetoast strategy seems to be working: His last three singles (including the Jack Ü feature, “Where Are Ü Now?”) have hit the U.S. Top 5, and across the Internet, he’s now the recipient of grudging praise by those who used to decry his obnoxious ubiquity.
Indeed, Bieber is on the verge of a significant transformation, from courting schadenfreude to engendering goodwill. The odd slip-up aside – a Norwegian stage storm-off here, a petulant chair-flip at a French restaurant there – his narrative is holding up. In “Purpose” he has found an ideal response to what Jon Ronson, in his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” sees as a “conformist, conservative age,” created by an atmosphere described to him by a journalist friend: “I suddenly feel with social media like I’m tiptoeing around an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent who might strike out at any moment.” Bieber has learned his lesson. To make yourself impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous forums, you can either withdraw altogether or aspire to blandness.
There are hints of potential and character on “Purpose” — in Bieber’s elastic-voiced R&B workout, “No Sense,” and in the slightly eerie bonus-track collab with Nas (of all people), “We Are.” And the album is catchy and tightly crafted – but also safe, anodyne and as ephemeral as a tweet. Justin Bieber may not be the pop star we need in 2015, but he’s the pop star we deserve.