Bieber comes out of 'hiding' after 3 years

With 127 million followers, Justin Bieber (above) is the most popular male musician on Instagram, which means he has a waiting audience, even if he is not terribly interested in courting it.
With 127 million followers, Justin Bieber (above) is the most popular male musician on Instagram, which means he has a waiting audience, even if he is not terribly interested in courting it. PHOTO: REUTERS

Now 25 and married, Justin Bieber is inching his way back to the floodlights with a new album and documentary series

NEW YORK • The last time Justin Bieber released an album - Purpose, in 2015 - he was penitent and regretful.

Coming on the heels of a few years of public disintegration, he had been humbled, or wished to appear that way.

He was also, it turned out, a prisoner of that regret.

When he went on tour the following year, he dangled above screaming arena crowds in a Lucite box, an actual captive enacting his trauma in real time.

He abandoned the tour before it was over, his battery fully drained.

Though this was just five years ago, the ecosystem for a burgeoning pop star was much different.

Nowadays, stars and trends bubble up from the Internet on their own terms and arrive in unexpected shapes.

But not that long ago, fame was top-down and claustrophobic, and there was no apparent way out.

Bieber was damned when he gave in to the system, and damned when he rebelled against it.

 
 
 

So he made the only reasonable decision: disappear.

No small thing, given that he had lived in the hungry maw of tabloid hysteria and teen-pop obsession since he was 12.

In the past three years, Bieber has released 12 or so songs and has not toured. Pop music never really replaced him, but it absorbed new inputs and kept moving forward.

Even though Bieber had abandoned the limelight, he did not get any less famous.

With 127 million followers, he is the most popular male musician on Instagram.

Which means that the singer, who has been inching back into public life in recent months, has a waiting audience, even if he is not terribly interested in courting it.

He is now 25 and married. The ubiquity of his early years has been replaced by something much more temperate. Can you be a superstar and also in hiding?

That is what he is trying on Changes, his meditative and largely impressive fifth studio album, and also with Justin Bieber: Seasons, a YouTube Originals documentary series devoted to capturing the behind the scenes of his return.

In both projects, he is reluctant, quiet even.

 
 
 

He cannot control the Bieber-sized reception he is met with whenever he does anything. He is, however, safe in the knowledge that whatever gets poured into the bottle labelled "new Bieber album" will be rapturously consumed.

Since the very beginning of his career, when he was a pre-teen squealing out covers on YouTube, Bieber has been partial to R&B.

He has flirted with making something approaching straight-ahead R&B throughout his career, particularly around 2013, in the Journals era.

But during his last stretch in the limelight, it seemed like he was abandoning it for of-that-moment EDM-pop, kinetic songs that did not ask much of his voice, or him.

On Changes, he finally stakes his claim, honing a vocal approach that is soothing, tender, although maybe slightly tentative, a middle ground between comfort and reluctance.

It is an effective album and also a deliberately unflashy one - Bieber is consistent and confident, and also not drawing too much attention to himself.

That modesty is a hallmark of the album's first single, Yummy, a lithe sensual incantation that (despite occasionally ridiculous lyrics) never breaks a sweat.

 
 
 

By choosing to make R&B, and a muted version of that, Bieber is recusing himself from a centrist pop rat race and aligning himself with a style that is personal to him and not always widely embraced.

Much like the other big Justin in pop music - Timberlake - Bieber embraces R&B as a totem of good taste and awareness of it as a symbol of cross-racial comfort.

But unlike Timberlake, Bieber is not working with pioneering sonic architects such as Timbaland or the Neptunes.

His approach is more mass-market paperback than literary fiction.

Bieber's desire to avoid scrutiny could be construed as a kind of weakness, but it is also a logical conclusion for someone who, in his teenage years and beyond, was one of the most scrutinised, judged and often derided celebrities in the world. He has been famous for half his 25 years.

The effects are made clear in the 10-episode Seasons - in some parts directly, and in others, implicitly.

The first few episodes are about, loosely, how the sausage gets made.

But the subsequent ones are something else altogether - a picture of how the sausage almost does not get made.

"It might not seem that hard to some people to just get out of bed in the morning," Bieber says, "but it's been really hard for me to just get out of my bed and I know a lot of people feel that same way.

"So I just want to say that you're not alone in that. There are people who are going through it with you."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2020, with the headline 'Bieber comes out of 'hiding' after 3 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe