How does the existence of Justin Bieber—who was just arrested for drag racing under the influence on a blocked-off street in Miami—benefit the world? We all know why Beyoncé matters: She wakes up embodying female “perfection,” then subversively toys with that very notion. (Also, she made “***Flawless.”) It’s obvious what we need for Bruno Mars for: He’s music’s utility player, a sensualist built for the Superbowl halftime. (And he made “Gorilla.”)
But for some time now, Bieber has hardly even fulfilled the pop purpose that so many dismissed him for in the first place: Giving shape to teen girl fantasies. (And making songs like “Favorite Girl.”) Instead, he’s been ordering up $75,000 in ones at Miami nudie bars, pissing his name into the snow in Colorado, and finally getting arrested for the first time this morning. And that’s not even getting into last year’s “scandals,” or the recent egging-related police raid on his house.
Of course, you have to wonder whether a society that gets feverish over a roadside leak and hates what teen girls love should be determining anyone’s worth. JB has obviously been downgraded: His movie Justin Bieber’s Believe bombed over Christmas, and Journals, the December compilation of all his Music Mondays singles, sank with even less notice. Beyoncé did surprise-release her album a week before, but as much oxygen as she sucked up, Bieber’s brand was already wheezing. Rather than making the leap to a Justin Timber-like adulthood, with a 20/20 Experience-style ascension to gilded detachment glimmering in the distance, the little man seemed to have curdled into King Joffrey with drop-crotch pants and a shadow of a mustache.
Bieber’s worst behavior could still very well be a rite of passage. And while he may be the unruly bro to Miley’s audacious young woman, keep in mind that he doesn’t need to blow up a too-perfect Disney or Nickelodeon image: Usher was and forever will be his mentor, whereas Miley needed to run away from Hannah Montana (and Timberlake needed to abandon ‘N Sync). His challenge is to fashion a real boy out of what everyone assumed was a puppet.
But … he already has! Just listen to Journals: It’s a toned, turned-down, confident, tender breakup album that never trifles with empty career-correction experiments. (Like, say, EDM—which Usher himself loves.) Justin sings with a muted, husky ache that you can more easily imagine him delivering sprawled in the back of a limo than on one knee in front of a squealing fan. He’s got hip guests like Chance the Rapper and Future, but he also pays some dues inviting faded but hugely important stars like R. Kelly and Lil Wayne. (And of course, Big Sean makes an apearance.) There’s no “Cry Me a River,” but that’s one of the millenium’s greatest songs. “Heartbreaker” and “Recovery,” though? Great. “All That Matters,” “All Bad”: straight soul. And the track with Chance the Rapper, “Confident,” sounds like a hit, not a sop to the hipsters.
So is it simply that the real boy’s got an image problem? Not exactly. Unlike Miley, say, his controversies don’t connect to his music. When people accuse her of racism, it’s (mainly) because she’s twerking. When people accuse Justin of racism, it’s because of his awful graffiti. Justin—and Scooter Braun—missed a crucial opportunity to bring his music into the forefront when they launched Music Mondays and let these new songs dribble out every week, then focused on the Believe movie, the format of which is designed to prop up an image, not transform it.
There are a few reasons why we need Justin Bieber, beyond Kate McKinnon’s eerily hilarious SNL impersonation. The ranks of teen male pop stars are thin (as the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica has commented). Austin Mahone’s at the head of the line, and his music is terrible. If Bieber simply keeps making songs like “Heartbreaker” and “Boyfriend” that’s enough to hope he’s not headed for even greater troubles. (And read The Love Song of Johnny Valentine if you’re mystified by what might be so tough about boy superstardom.) But as Journals shows, he can laser-focus on new targets. He may well have a “Cry Me a River” or a “***Flawless” in him. Either way, it’s clear that the fantasies he fulfills now belong to him.