(Not So) Guilty Pleasures – Justin Bieber’s What Do You Mean?
Can one of the world’s most polarising pop stars change his reputation?
Justin Bieber’s short history as a pop star has been a fairly consistent exercise in frustration. Originally teenage fangirl fodder, the lead single from his second album, Girlfriend, hinted not so subtly the sort of stylistic shift Timberlake was taking in the last days of N*Sync. Girlfriend parallels the N*Sync’s Boyfriend (one of their last big hits) in both tone and structure so closely that it was clear the suits in charge were hoping to steer Bieber in that direction and change the narrative to secure a more “credible” fanbase before it was too late. The album itself, Believe, had promising hints of future decentness in tracks like the Drake featuring Right Here. But it was mostly all still untapped potential, rather than genuinely engaging pop.
He proceeded to fuck this slowly shifting perception of him up by acting like the pop world’s King Joffery at every possible opportunity; crashing sports cars, getting arrested, just generally proving to everyone he didn’t have the smarts or the charisma to make the Timberlake-esque leap to the big time. This behaviour, combined with a series of lackluster singles released online, resulted in a general feeling of apathy towards Bieber that looked set to sink his chances of being more than just a flash in the pan success.
Then came Where Are Ü Now, the Diplo and Skrillex collaboration that pushed Bieber from a generally despised teen sensation to the frontman of one of the year’s biggest “surprise” hits. How anyone was shocked that a collaboration between two of the world’s biggest producers resulted in a hit is beyond me, but hey, it’s what people keep saying. Bieber, scrambling for a direction and a sound to shift his fortunes in the second act of his career, finally struck gold.
With the people in charge seeing the massive opportunity for what it was, they teamed Bieber up with Skrillex once again for his new single, What Do You Mean? The song’s soft-spoken 90s/00s R&B leanings combined with an almost Kygo-esque divergence into tropical house is a pretty low barrier of entry for those who want more of that same Where Are Ü Now magic. But some interesting percussive elements (the clock tick beat for example) and the jittery “expensive sounds” (see the video above for his explanation of that one) melody create some genuinely interesting instrumentation for Bieber’s vocals to play off. It doesn’t really have a nut-grabbing moment like the pitch shifted melodic drop Where Are Ü Now set the world on fire with, but it’s a solid step towards Bieber redefining his sound and capturing a more varied audience. The boy blunder might just make something of himself yet. And giving John Leguizamo something to do in the otherwise awful clip below is alright too.
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