Justin Bieber may be one of the most successful pop singers of recent years, but he does a fine job of obscuring his musical talent with some questionable off-stage behaviour. From driving under the influence to accusations of assault, it seems easy to paint Bieber as a troublesome and troubled figure swayed by the trappings of pop stardom.
Yet the excessive media focus on this behaviour diverts attention away from his music and artistry, which have become more sophisticated and mature in recent years. As such, we think it’s time to come to the defence of Bieber as a serious creative artist.
The pop music world is ephemeral at best, and tricky to navigate for even the most successful artists. It becomes even harder when you’re associated with a teen fan base. When your audience grows up and moves on, how do you grow up and move on with them?
For every pop star that has successfully made that transition from teen idol to serious pop artist (Madonna, George Michael, Alanis Morissette, Justin Timberlake), there are countless boy bands and girl groups who have stumbled into a career void after a select few stellar pop hits, at best getting gigs on package tours in two-sevenths of their original incarnation.
Bieber’s attempts to negotiate this are clearly evident on his most recent album Purpose. (His Purpose World Tour starts in Australia tonight in Perth.) With its beats, vocals and overall glistening pop aesthetic, it represents a truly contemporary pop album, yet it also reaches beyond the moment and trends of the day.
Over a year since its release on music label Def Jam, the album still sounds fresh, relevant and like something that will stand up 20 years from now. Some may argue the extensive list of producers and writers on Purpose indicates Bieber can’t do it alone, but no album is ever the work of one sole genius.
Purpose shows that Bieber’s genius lies in his ability to surround himself with producers who can extract the very best from him. And even if it partly reflects a commercial marketing ploy to re-position Bieber as an adult pop star, it’s ultimately his vision and artistry that drives the album.
The purpose of Purpose
Def Jam’s quest to propel Bieber into the realms of serious artist status with the release of Purpose was comprehensive and well executed. The conceptualisation, construction and delivery of Purpose showcases the formidable depth and scope of talent Def Jam has at its disposal.
Purpose shows a deliberately modern approach to contemporary pop music. It juxtaposes multiple textures and genres - electro, pop and dance - that aren’t solely driven by the presets of recording technology.
Take the album’s first single What Do You Mean? - a simplistic and stripped back approach to record production that contrasts to some of the more densely layered work of Bieber’s pop contemporaries such as Katy Perry and Calvin Harris. It uses far less musical texture and instrumentation, with a greater emphasis placed on the vocal.
It uses purposefully-crafted instrumentation, Bieber and his co-producers combining and manipulating multiple synthesizer lines to create bespoke instrumental sounds.
The tick-tock, bouncing tempo is set at 125 beats per minute. This allows the song to cross over into the dance music scene, dipping into tropical house, electro and pop flavours. But it also sits comfortably in the tempo range of soulful house or chillout.
Often overlooked is Bieber’s actual musicianship. He’s a guitarist and drummer. He’s not just a pop singer.
Being able to play multiple instruments doesn’t automatically make him a serious artist, but it provides ammunition for those of us who want to argue that Bieber’s musicianship deserves more credit, obscured as it often is by his trouble-making, rebellious behaviour.
Following the release of What Do You Mean? came the highly anticipated second single Sorry. The track features an electrifying Jamaican dembow rhythmic approach with additional elements of reggaeton.
It uses a similar minimalistic approach to harmony as in What Do You Mean? With a flawless vocal performance from Bieber and the production of Skrillex and Blood, it’s no wonder Sorry became an overnight anthem with currently over two billion YouTube views thanks to its dance choreographed by Parris Goebel.
Ultimately, by dismissing the work of teen pop artists, we deprive those artists of their rightful place in the pop canon. Some of the best pop music has come from artists who at one point were marketed or framed as teen idols.
It certainly helps the credibility police if there’s some kind of transition to serious artist territory, but it’s worth remembering that some of pop music’s true visionaries often lie in places where we look least for them.
There is a steady list of quality recordings that delineate the entirety of Purpose. However, one of the best, if not the best song to showcase Bieber’s step into the world of serious artistry, is Company, which hits all of the hallmark traits of a timeless classic pop tune.
A place in the pop pantheon?
It’s perhaps a bit too early to cast Bieber as a pop visionary, but Purpose certainly shows him heading in that direction. And for that reason alone, it’s time to re-evaluate Bieber as a serious creative artist as he brings his Purpose Tour to Australia.
Authors: Ed Montano, Senior Lecturer, Music Industry, RMIT University