At a mere 22 years old, Justin Bieber has become a force of nature beyond his own control. A ubiquitous figure like Bieber commands so many differing perspectives that it causes a journalistic dilemma; the ways one could attempt to examine his place in the cultural zeitgeist are innumerable. It wouldn't feel right to simply write a by-the-numbers, song-titles-and-chart-positions profile. And if you analyze him in a vacuum, that assessment will only hold true temporarily – how can you accurately write about who someone is if that person doesn't even know who he is? The last thing I would want to do is portray Justin as something he's not. He deals with that enough as it is.
From the onset, Purpose (Bieber's fourth studio album, released November 2015) isn't too ground-breaking from a pop point of view. It's solid, catchy, effective and easily consumable. That's everything you want pop to be. But underneath that fine-tuned 2016 aesthetic lies an artist trying to find his niche. The album's production (Diplo, Skrillex, Axident, Soundz and Ian Kirkpatrick are just a few of the heavy hitters with producer credits on Purpose) is an amalgamation of all the popular sounds of today, thrown in a stew and synthesized into pop casserole.
The efficiency with which producers at the top of the game are able to encapsulate and emulate an artist while simultaneously keeping the work distinctive is astonishing. It's a machine worthy of respect. But underneath that top layer of sheen lies an artist – a person – trying to find which lane works best for him. Songs on Purpose are played safe, not taken to their full progression, almost like rough drafts: Throw ideas into the sea and see what floats.
But even in the core of a machine, there's a human being that must be the face and soul of it. The heart of a record cannot be automated. That's still something that comes from within the centerpiece, and Bieber has found a way to express that in a way that's digestible to millions.
Our friend Justin has had a rough few years. Bar fights, arrests for drag racing, drinking Henny straight from the bottle at Rae Sremmurd shows (for those not in the know: Taking your Henny straight from the bottle in the club is the ultimate "I'm a man now, mama" move). Now, none of these things are truly out of the ordinary for someone his age, but because of his ... unique position in pop culture, a magnifying glass is put on his every move. To his detriment, and to ours. A growing teen budding his wings under the harsh Hollywood lights? That pressure has crumbled many, and will continue to do so as long as the industry of celebrity voyeurism is a major player in the game. (Just ask Britney.)
Bieber is a vestige of a foregone era. Bieber would have been much better off fronting some Y2K-era boyband, in oversized denim overalls and frosted tips, in a time when images were created (and meticulously protected) by professionals. The weight of being real was lifted. A pop star could put himself on voicemail.
The original Justin (Timberlake) (aka the inspiration behind a lot of readers' frosted-tip phases) had a similar career path to Bieber, yet was somehow able to navigate his way through puberty in public fairly unscathed (with the exception of a certain hideous denim suit). Timberlake was never caught passed out with hookers in Brazil, or pissing into a janitor's mop bucket while dead drunk. Maybe Timberlake was just a choir boy. Maybe he was a young Keith Richards. We'll never know.
The reality of pop music in 2016 is that it is now basically impossible to maintain any sort of persona that is not at least somewhat based on who you actually are. Eventually any constructed facade will fall. (Just ask Iggy Azalea.) You can't just sell whatever image you want without people cross-checking its authenticity anymore. That's what happens when every person on earth has the wealth of all human knowledge at their fingertips; people start checking the receipts.
Once upon a time, any emotional outbursts or range outside that of a QVC pitchman mildly excited about a blender were covered up or downplayed. But in the age of social media, when people have instant and constant access to every aspect of your life, the piety and perfection that were once en vogue among celebrities no longer exist. In the new pop-star paradigm, sharing personal feelings and exposing your vulnerabilities on the national stage is practically a requirement.
No longer are pop stars shuffled away behind closed doors into rehab centers and mental health facilities under the guise of "fatigue" (at least, not convincingly), but that honesty also erases any vestige of privacy. The modern pop star must have some balance of humanity. If they're cold, corporate plastics, they won't be able to make meaningful human connections with fans.
The pop stars that seem to exist in the highest echelon of longevity and relevancy seem to be the ones that break out of the PR mold in spectacular fashion, the ones that break the rules: Frown when told to smile. Speak when told to be quiet. Get crazier when told to tone it down. There are numerous ways to achieve this – the options are limitless – but the overall goal is to destroy your adolescent image while simultaneously creating a new adult persona, so your career can continue on an upward trend. Sometimes you gotta get wasted and drag race down South Beach at 3 a.m. if you don't want to end up in the bargain bin. Sometimes you gotta buy a monkey, and abandon it, just to keep your name ringing out.
Every mistake, every vulnerability, every fear, every want, hope or need, is public record. Think of a reality in which every stupid thing you did when you were 19 has its own Wikipedia page. That is not a reality many, if any, of us can imagine dealing with. In the glare of the lights, how's Bieber supposed to actually find his purpose? We'll let him try to answer that on Thursday night.