One of the immutable realities of the music industry is this: Teen pop stars grow up. Given that fact, there remains the looming question of how they handle the always-tricky transition to courting older listeners while seeking to maintain the young fan base that propelled them into the stratosphere.
Enter Justin Bieber. The now 18-year-old singer from Stratford, Ontario, has been nothing short of a musical phenomenon since manager Scooter Braun discovered him on YouTube in 2008. Justin's story reads like a Hollywood script: Vaulting from obscurity to superstardom, he's become the teen icon for a generation of (mostly) young girls who idolize him.
Braun recently talked with Billboard about his charge's fame. When the magazine suggested Bieber is an adult now that he's 18, Braun responded, "Adult artist? Just because he's legal now doesn't mean he's an adult. … He still needs guidance; he's still finding his way. He's no longer a boy, but he's definitely not yet a man."
That's how Bieber's manager sees him. But more important is how Bieber sees himself—and how he represents himself—on his third album, Believe. Or maybe how fans will see him when they listen to it.
On the 16-song deluxe edition of Believe (which we review here), the title track stands out by praising someone who believed in Justin, most likely his mother. "I don't know how I got here," he sings. "I knew it wouldn't be easy/But your faith in me was so clear/It didn't matter how many times I got knocked on the floor/But you knew one day I would be standing tall/ … Where would I be if you, if you/If you didn't believe?" And guest contributor Ludacris counsels steadfast determination in the face of criticism on "All Around the World."
"As Long as You Love Me" hyperbolically insists love will help a couple overcome any lack of material provision ("As long as you love me/We could be starving, we could be homeless, we could be broke/ … I'll be your soldier/Fighting every second of the day for your dreams, girl"). Likewise, on "Right Here," Justin sings, "I won't leave you, baby."
"Catching Feelings" is an innocent, Michael Jackson-esque reflection on the fast-beating heart of a young man falling in love with a longtime friend. "Fall" finds Bieber trying to coax a reluctant girlfriend into trusting him: "We got such an amazing friendship/And that you don't want to lose/Well, I don't want to lose it either/ … You can't fly unless you let yourself fall/I will catch you if you fall." More reassurances fill "Be Alright," in which this heartthrob tells his girl that they'll overcome the obstacles they face, including distance, sorrow and conflict.
Justin has built his career on innocent, saccharine-drenched love songs. There's plenty of that on Believe. But as part of his transition into adulthood, he's now flirting more than he has on past efforts. He's also including more allusions to physical relationships and sexuality—material that, while not graphic or explicit, can no longer be classified as innocent.
On "Take You," Bieber croons, "I could take you up, I could take you home/I could take you, oh, where you wanna go." On "Die in Your Arms," we hear, "If I could just die in your arms/I wouldn't mind/'Cause every time you touch me/I just die in your arms/Ooh, it feels so right/So, baby, baby please don't stop, girl." "Beauty and the Beat" includes these lines: "Body rock, girl, I can feel your body rock/Take a bow, you on the hottest ticket now." It's a song that features guest Nicki Minaj, who spits out an uncensored "b‑‑ch." Elsewhere, Bieber blurts out "d‑‑n" twice.
"One Love" is unambiguously focused on the physical as Bieber informs his honey, "All I need is you by my side/All I wanna do is lay down next to you/'Cause all I need is one love, one love, one heart/ … Baby give it to me/'Cause I don't want, want nobody when I got, got your body." Infatuation leads to a dismissal of future consequences on "Thought of You." We hear, "Why should we fight the feeling/Let's just live in the moment/though it's infatuation/I'm good with that/'Cause I'm in love with the thought of you." "Boyfriend" boasts a husky vocal style that makes the otherwise innocuous activity of "Chillin' by the fire while we eatin' fondue" feel ever so slightly … dangerous.
And speaking of dangerous, "Out of Town Girl" describes Bieber casually picking up a girl at a concert: "Hey, baby girl, I love your accent/ … What I gotta do just to show you that I want you near, near, near, near, near/All you gotta do is read the signs/The exit is to the right/I don't know your name/But I love your smile." Two tracks later, "Maria" finds him berating the woman who wrongly accused him of fathering her child ("Why you wanna do me like that?/That ain't my baby, that ain't my girl"). He doesn't use her real name, but his sentiments sound sincere … and a tad sleazy. So I couldn't help but wonder if anyone on Team Bieber noticed the proximity of these two songs, one on which he suggestively sweet-talks an unnamed groupie into a rendezvous, and another in which he berates a different groupie who made up a nasty story about him allegedly after a rendezvous.
I had two contrasting thoughts after listening to Believe.
1) It's a relief that this pop icon doesn't seem as determined to torch his nice-guy reputation as, say, Miley Cyrus was to blow up Hannah Montana's goody-goody image with her 2010 "adult" album Can't Be Tamed. And compared to much if not most pop music dealing with romance and love, Bieber's latest effort is itself still relatively tame.
2) I suspect many parents of young Bieber fans won't be pleased with the concessions he has made to "adulthood" here. A peppering of profanity. A smattering of sensuality. An obsession with falling head over heels in infatuation.
Neither perspective, though, takes into account the deeper worldview that Believe represents: the utter romanticization of budding relationships. On "Right Here," for instance, Justin tells a girl, "I promise to be all that you need." It's a sweet sentiment … that falls short of the truth. But it's the whole truth and nothing but the truth in the context of these songs.