His World: My Week of Listening to Justin Bieber

Categories: The Upsetter

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Bieber Fever? Beliebf? Hepatitis Bieb? Whatever folks called it a couple years ago when Justin Bieber's fame spread like a liver infection, it completely passed me by. What I remember most about that time was a colleague telling me the teen sensation was "the real deal." Having never valued authenticity in pop music, I didn't know how to interpret their praise.

From a G-Chat transcript, December 8, 2008:

10:41AM ME: So you're saying I should check out his single?

[COLLEAGUE]: Oh, he doesn't have a single yet. Just a really adorable YouTube avatar.

10:42AM ME: Gotcha!

Four years deeper into our strange century, Bieber is back with a new album cover and some music to go along with it. I doubt this news has escaped you. What I didn't know is, in this short stretch of time since my colleague tipped him as "the real deal," Bieber has put out a lot of real product: five albums (including one Christmas release, a remix disc, and an acoustic version of his debut), nine singles, a blockbuster concert film, and two colognes.

To put this in perspective, as of June 15, Bieber's oeuvre towers above groups as legendary as MC5 and the Stone Roses -- in quantity, at least. Now seems as good a time as any to weigh the quality of Bieber's output. This is just what I endeavored to do over the course of a week. I listened to his albums and watched his movie. I immersed myself in his world, stopping just short of wearing his bottled scents.

From a G-Chat transcript, June 18, 2012:

12:07AM ME: Alison! What's happenin', Cap'n?

ALISON: Credit card abuse! Just bought tix to the Jesus and Mary Chain in Boston.

12:08AM ME: Awesome! Hey! I've been listening to Justin Bieber this week. Any thoughts about him?

12:12AM ME: Alison?

12:19AM ME: It's for an assignment.

12:24AM ME: Promise.

I entered into Bieber's discography not as a Belieber but as a skeptic. It seemed I had subjected myself to a week-long slog through personality-less pop. First, I dialed up Bieber's debut album, 2010's My World 2.0. The album's lead track "Baby" immediately quieted my foreboding.

"Baby" is classic major-key bubblegum pop. As my introduction to Bieber, I immediately discovered in this track a voice that, even counting for the usual auto-pruning, knows how to interpret a song. Bieber has the invaluable gift of melodic gab. He sings directly to us, his accenting and word-emphasis cuts through his technique in a way the pyromaniacs on The Voice fail to do. The result is conversational and comfortably expressive. It's the kind of quality that can't be added in post-production, and My World 2.0 boasts enough of these moments to justify my colleague's praise.

But what My World 2.0 lacks is stylistic distinction. It wouldn't surprise me to find out I'd heard the entire album before, while shopping for a pique polo, say, or while eating sushi off a conveyor belt, and that the songs had entered one ear and evaporated before reaching my temporal lobe, permanently staining a few brain cells in the process.

The basic sound of Bieber's first album blends with a sonic landscape I barely notice anymore as it passes by in cars and leaks through earbuds at crosswalks. This is the white noise of our times, a mode pop has more or less stuck to since 1999: the ubiquity of 808s, bright vocals, piano accents, and no fewer than five electronic snare drum sounds per reverberated hit. The "ever-pubescent" sound, I call it.

I wondered if Believe, Bieber's new album, had something new to offer. From the longview of history, the answer is: no, it doesn't. But in that more ephemeral sonic landscape peeking out from wherever tweens and iPhones mingle, the answer is open to debate. More than just a mish-mash of hooks, Bieber's new songs (most of which he's credited with having co-written) are structural beasts, with inviting verses that invariably open up into decorous banquet halls of choruses.

The closest the new album comes to pushing the envelope is "Right Here," a collaboration with Drake and Hit-Boy. This sumptuous, midtempo song is a standout among the relative slow-burners on Believe -- and its aural palette is borrowed, wittingly or not, from such Berlin School acts as Tangerine Dream and Ashra. If Bieber ever gets around to making music for grown-ups -- if he's ever to break out of this post-historical era of pop we live in and make music for the ages -- the seed of that subtle crop is going to have to come from the patient tilling found in "Right Here." It's a cool shape-shifter of a record.

More than any of the several dozen tracks I lived with this past week, "Right Here" is what turned me into a Belieber -- albeit one whose prayers remain unanswered. There aren't any new sounds to thrill over on Believe. It seems a squandered opportunity for an artist who presently has a lot of the world's attention. For his next album I have only one wish: that Bieber push a little harder to drive pop out of its 21st Century rut. Why shouldn't beliebing come with such high expectations?

From a G-Chat transcript, June 23, 2012:

2:17AM ME: Alison! You're still up?

ALISON: Oh, man. I am so out of it!

2:18AM ME: Sounds fun! Hey, so I finished that Justin Bieber story.

2:23AM ME: I think it went pretty well.

2:37AM ME: I'll link you when it publishes!

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