It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times for Justin Bieber.
On one hand, the 16-year-old pop phenom took home four American Music Awards on Nov. 21, including Artist of the Year. On the other, the AMA telecast pulled in its lowest ratings in four years, which many blamed on “Bieber fatigue.” On one hand, Bieber’s videos have garnered a mind-popping 1 billion collective views, his first two albums were certified platinum and his 2010 earnings probably top the GNP of North Korea. On the other, an Internet fad was spawned when bloggers began sarcastically suggesting Bieber add North Korea to his My World tour—hoping, presumably, the mop-haired one wouldn’t come back.
It would be difficult and confusing for anyone to be so loved and so hated simultaneously—much less a boy who, by virtue of his age, is likely prone to feel such massive swings of social status with a particular bite. When I was 16, I’d get extraordinarily upset if someone joked about my mother. Imagine being 16 and having the Internet universe all atwitter about the prospect of your mother being paid $50,000 to pose for Playboy.
“My mum is a moral woman,” Bieber tweeted in response to that online rumor. “Let’s just leave that one for what it is … because that rumour just grossed and weirded me out.”
So much attention, both positive and negative, might be enough to send anyone to their knees. And that, hints Bieber’s new acoustic song “Pray,” is where Bieber may be spending some of his evenings.
The tune—the only new song on Bieber’s My Worlds Accoustic album—suggests that the pop star does pray. And not, apparently about his own celebrity weirdness. Rather, he prays “for the brokenhearted … for the life not started … for all the ones not breathing … for all the souls in need.”
“I just can’t sleep tonight,” he sings, “knowing that things ain’t right/It’s in the papers/It’s on the TV/It’s everywhere that I go/Children are crying/Soldiers are dying/Some people don’t have a home.”
At times, “Pray” sounds less like a prayer and more like wishful thinking: “I know there’s sunshine behind that rain,” Bieber claims. “I know there’s good times behind that pain.” But he also asks, “Heaven, tell me how I can make a change.” And he envisions a better tomorrow, a world that just maybe prayer can help make possible. “I close my eyes and I can see a better day/I close my eyes and pray.” Not only does he spend some time praying for change himself, he suggests listeners might try doing so as well (“I pray/Can you give ’em one today?”).
It’s tempting to treat this song as just another bit of pop fluff from the prince of pop fluff—an innocuous slice of pseudo-spiritual milquetoast for fans always eager to believe the best of him even as adults worry that the boy is becoming ever more a part of (and perhaps a leader of) the cynical, soulless pop machine. But that isn’t exactly fair. Bieber, we know, was raised by a churchgoing mother. And when secular record labels came calling, she was reportedly wary. “God, I gave him to you,” Pattie Mallette recalled in an interview with The New York Times. “You could send me a Christian man, a Christian label!”
Bieber, of course, did not end up on a Christian label. But “Pray,” more than anything the young Canadian crush has recorded to date, perhaps indicates that his mother’s spiritual convictions and influence have not been completely in vain.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.