September 10, 2015


How Did Justin Bieber Stage Such a Successful Comeback?

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

You might have noticed, but Justin Bieber dropped his new single "What Do You Mean?" last week and everybody loves it—in fact, it's the No. 1 song in the country right now. From high-brow culture blogs to J-14, people are giving rave reviews and full-on supporting the tropical-yet-melancholy dance tune, amounting to the best press the once-troubled pop star has gotten in a hot minute. So, how did the biggest teen idol get to a point where the hipsters and the kids are giving the dude his props?

Flashback to January 2014, when Bieber essentially stripped away the last of his pure image when he was arrested for drunk driving in Miami. It wasn't his first run-in with the law (he had legal drama for reckless driving and vandalism in the previous two years), but it was the beginning of a slew of slip-ups and stumbles. It began overshadowing his actual career.

Months before the arrest, Bieber embarked on the ambitious one-song-a-week Journals project that showcased his sentimental, R&B tendencies and produced some of the best tracks of his career. His music video for the Chance the Rapper collaboration "Confident" came out that same month, but few could tell you about it. The year didn't get better for him as more legal issuescelebrity feudspublic stripping, and nasty old videos came his way—no one was really digging Biebs, but no one really had a reason to be digging him either. 

Later in 2014, something happened. Er, actually nothing happened. 

Bieber headlines started trickling out slower than ever and it seemed like the guy had finally found his chill. When stories did start coming again at the top of 2015, they were über feel-good things that played to people's sweet human side—Watch Justin Bieber Visit a 16-Year-Old Burn VictimJustin Bieber & Ellen DeGeneres Scare Fans in Bathroom; he even agreed to a Comedy Central Roast. A Justin Bieber news story in 2015 was already drastically different than 2014.

Music and culture snobs were frustrated at how they could possibly be into a Justin Bieber song.

Post-Journals, Bieber hadn't put out any music officially until he popped up on the debut album by Skrillex and Diplo's Jack Ü, which was being promoted with the Kiesza-featuring "Take Ü There." There wasn't huge hype or promotion around the fact that Justin Bieber was featured on the record, despite his being the biggest name by far, and his tune was revealed only alongside the other tracks only upon the collection's surprise release. A Justin Bieber single release in 2015 was also already drastically different than past years.

"Where Are Ü Now" caught people's attention for its melancholy lyrics and risky, tribal-inspired dance production, making a lot of music and culture snobs frustrated at how they could possibly be into a Justin Bieber song. Two months later the track was announced as a proper single, and eventually became a Top 10 hit.

Some might have been quick to equate Bieber's cool factor to Diplo and Skrillex, and that wouldn't have been totally wrong—if he hadn't followed up with the equally brilliant and melancholy "What Do You Mean?"

When a great tune like "What Do You Mean?" drops under the Bieber banner, it's tough to classify him as anything else, especially when the superstar cowrote and coproduced the cut.

What's most important is how Bieber found a way to change the narrative about himself to be viewed in a better light. Teen stars have the ability to make stellar music—Zendaya's "Replay" was one of the slickest joints of 2013 and essentially a new-age Cassie track, but went mostly unnoticed on Top 40 and with music critics—but it's hard to get due props when your core audience is fixated on how they see you on Disney Channel. Biebs defused the controversy about himself, was able to remind people he's done more than egg houses and, most importantly, made his art unmissable.

"What Do You Mean?" could have easily been "Beauty and a Beat Pt. 2," a sequel to his last Top 10 single. "Boyfriend," the lead single from Biebs' 2012 album Believe, was considered dangerously similar to Justin Timberlake's sound; if "What Do You Mean?" played off Bieber's past successes, it wouldn't have gotten the praise it's alreadfy garnered. It's fresh, it's exciting, it's different and, like "Where Are Ü Now," feels like an actual, relatable human singing to you.

With "What Do You Mean?"—which is already a win if just for the positivity it's accumulated to date, never mind the charts—Bieber has proven that while good headlines don't hurt, an emphasis on quality, individualistic art will make anyone, even your haters, give their approval.