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The secret of Justin Bieber’s longevity

As Justin Bieber’s Justice Tour resumes – with an India date in October – we recap the pop star’s infamous 2017 concert, and muse on the key to his enduring relevance in a world of diminishing attention spans.

August 28, 2022 / 10:45 AM IST
Fourteen years after he first broke out with “One Time”, Justin Bieber is still ruling the charts, triggering style trends, and minting new audiences. (Images by Nokia 621 and Jennifer Lopaiz via Wikimedia Commons)

Fourteen years after he first broke out with “One Time”, Justin Bieber is still ruling the charts, triggering style trends, and minting new audiences. (Images by Nokia 621 and Jennifer Lopaiz via Wikimedia Commons)

The joke went that Justin Bieber put Navi Mumbai on the map – at least for residents of South Bombay, who quipped about a “visa on arrival” – with his maiden performance in India in 2017. That May evening, over 50,000 people from all parts of the country congregated at the DY Patil Stadium to watch the new prince of pop bust a few moves and croon a few bars in the way only the Canadian pop supernova knew how to do.

2017 was the year Justin Bieber had been freshly resurrected, largely on the back of his fourth studio album. The utterly stunning Purpose came through as something of a juggernaut – buoyed by a series of well-strategised public apologies for a few years of extremely bad behaviour; a succulent, sizzling roast of Justin Bieber on Comedy Central; and perfectly placed luxury magazine profiles that spoke at great length of his quest for meaning and Jesus. Purpose debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 in 2015.

Burnished with dancehall rhythms and collaborations with Skrillex, Big Sean and Halsey, Purpose remains a career best for Justin Bieber, who has put out two more albums since. Even the musical cognoscenti with their lofty standards approved of the ‘growth’ in Justin Bieber’s craft. The hype was real, and it was not short-lived. A lot had been forgiven. In the summer of 2017, it was cool to be a Belieber.

At DY Patil Stadium, the city’s own swish set came in droves – rolling up in their Hummers and dropping out of choppers (as Jacqueline Fernandes did). While the VVIP section looked like it was VT station at 6 pm, and the sushi sat ignored and drying; outside, the real fans of Justin Bieber who’d given away Rs 75,000 to stand next to the stage took position under a brutal afternoon sun. Fans of all ages, their legal guardians, and the people who know where to be at all times: We had all made it. And we had all wondered: Who holds an outdoor concert of this scale in India in the sweltering month of May?

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By the end of the evening, it appeared that Justin Bieber may have been wondering the same thing. Infamously, he lip-synced to more than a few of his songs, and badly enough for the front row to notice he’d forgotten his own lyrics. When he tried to go acoustic, it turned out his guitar was out of tune because of “the humidity”. For that, he duly apologised, but he also took many water breaks and seemed a bit too relieved to skip off stage as the clock neared 10 pm.

Those who hadn’t noticed things were remiss floated out of the stadium in a haze of dopamine. Those who weren’t preoccupied with immediate concerns such as finding dinner, a ride back home, or basic hydration, were busy drafting nasty tweets. The verdict was out: Justin Bieber’s India debut was “disappointing”.

It’s telling that Justin Bieber cancelled the last few gigs of the Purpose tour in 2017 and chose to return home at the cost of a “huge sum of money – money that people would never turn down,” as he told a magazine in a 2021 cover story, timed with the release of his last album Justice. He was sick, unhappy, depressed, he said. He craved a hint of normalcy, he wanted to feel like someone cared, he wanted to not feel as numb as he did. He could find none of it.

In the long arc of Bieber’s life in full public view – from being the fresh-faced YouTube discovery, the prodigy with safe sex appeal, the teen idol with the golden voice who grew too famous and rich to know what to do with it all, the out-of-control teenager who lashed out and got on the wrong side of the law (and the Internet) – this was possibly the darkest phase.

A lesser star than Justin Bieber would likely have been ‘cancelled’ under these circumstances. And yet, here he is, at 28, 14 years after he first broke out with “One Time”: Still ruling the charts, still triggering style trends, still minting new audiences, still the most streamed artist in the world (occasionally second to BTS) and always a trending subject. His fandom grows deeper, more invested, more rabidly supportive with every new twist – except for the moustache moment, presumably.

When Justin Bieber turned to Jesus, they sent up an amen. He got married to Hailey, they screamed hallelujah. He talked about his condition, the Ramsay Hunt syndrome, and 44 million people listened keenly. He launched his own label, Drew House, and wallets were emptied. He’s the first to acknowledge that he has grown up in front of the world. There’s something poignant and compelling about being able to witness that process of “growing up”. When the arc of that maturation has been as dramatic as Bieber’s, it’s a little difficult to feign disinterest.

But the truth is that none of that would matter if the music didn’t genuinely, consistently grab at you. In Justin Bieber’s case, the music hasn’t only often been superlative, it has also been constantly surprising. “Baby” announced the arrival of a sparkling new talent whose vocal pipes (like Michael Jackson’s) were second to none in his generation. “Where Are You Now”, Bieber’s Diplo collab marked a turn to EDM for the R&B-influenced artist. Purpose brought the world out on to the dancefloor with its riddims. His 2020 album Changes marked yet another shift to more introspective lyrics, and trap-pop production.

Bieber has pretty much never been a critic favourite: for them, he’s too aimless, easily bored or quick to move on from genres. Tricks such as sprinkling Dr Martin Luther King Jr monologues as interludes in Justice don’t do much to endear him either. But to be able to resonate with whatever sound, mood, vibe is trending: This may be the reason for his mainstream success. He was among the first to defeat the stereotype of how a musician must have a sound. He has also been particularly inventive with finding the right collaborators at the right time: From serial x’s with Travis Scott, the quirky number with Lil Dicky, the big gesture remix for Billie Eilish, the opportune “STAY” with The Kid Laroi.

Longevity is possibly a tougher nut to crack for musicians than any other kind of artist. A 2016 Vox piece analysed the Billboard Hot 100 charts and found that only the most popular musicians in history – Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Prince – were able to stay relevant in popular culture for as long as 24 years. The pop musician’s average shelf life, according to this analysis, is 22 odd years; an R&B musician’s is closer to 30. Safe to say that the Biebs has a few more years to try and beat those odds.

For those of you still invested in the “how is Justin Bieber still relevant” debate, here’s a great Reddit thread that parses his career for clues to his enduring popularity. For those who don’t need it, we’ll wait for your live updates from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in October – where Bieber will perform on the (slightly delayed but not denied) Justice Tour. I have one word of advice: Hydrate.
Nidhi Gupta is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and editor.
first published: Aug 28, 2022 10:04 am
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