"It was as big as anything I’d ever seen."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
At the top of the decade, Justin Bieber was capping a breakthrough 2009 but remained a curiosity. With a series of YouTube covers and an immediately intimate connection with his fans, he sparked teen idol mania reminiscent of the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and The Beatles (#Biebermania quickly took hold). But stylistically, his music often leaned more toward R&B than pure pop, a disciple of Usher and Justified-era Justin Timberlake.
Collecting the fumes from an underwhelmingly received 2009 Jonas Brothers album and the impending end of Hannah Montana, Bieber was the world’s newest promise of a bubblegum-pop phenom. And while no single from the My World EP hit the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, he did land all seven of its tracks on the chart, sending a Bieber-cut-shaped bat-signal that his growing fan base was activating outside the confines of the established 2000s music industry infrastructure.
Then came “Baby.” On January 18, 2010, Bieber followed his debut EP with the lead single for his next project, My World 2.0. The new track featured a verse from guest rapper extraordinaire Ludacris, and writing and producing credits for The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, the Grammy-winning masterminds behind the biggest pop-R&B singles of 2007-08. The song’s schoolyard romance and hypnotic chorus was a hit on impact, immediately becoming Bieber’s biggest hit yet with its No. 5 debut on the Hot 100.
“Baby” effectively transformed Justin Bieber from teen-pop wunderkind to global superstar. But while his top 5 hit broke new ground for Bieber on the charts, it underperformed in comparison to other earth-shaking hits from 2010 by Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Eminem. The song’s Hot 100 performance was fueled mostly by digital sales (it debuted and peaked at No. 3), while radio’s gatekeepers were hesitant to blast “Baby” into power rotation. It peaked at No. 16 on Billboard’s Top 40 Mainstream chart, bypassed by radio-friendly tracks from Taio Cruz, B.o.B., and Iyaz.
Erik Bradley, Music Director at Entercom in Chicago, saw some of this push and pull. It was a hit for him in Chicago, fueled by the genuine fan support he saw on the internet and at early shows. He noted that there was “an undeniable groundswell of support for Justin and his music from fans. It was as big as anything I’d ever seen since I started in radio.” But while he and select other program directors promoted “Baby” to power status, Bieber fell into a trap that had previously haunted the Jonas Brothers and would stall some early One Direction singles at radio. “Teen-oriented acts tend to receive some level of pushback in general.”
As radio continued to chase their demo and older listeners flocked to iTunes, Beliebers assembled on the internet, turning “Baby” and its ascendant performer into the music event of the year. By July, the music video amassed 250 million views, surpassing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” to become the most-watched clip in YouTube’s history. Simultaneously, Bieber’s social media following exploded, as his Facebook engagement tripled from 700,000 interactions in January 2010 to 2.4 million in June. In Twitter’s early days, he was the second person to surpass 10 million followers.
This snowballing momentum, coupled with some savvy artistic choices, ultimately led Bieber beyond the teen-pop walls that made his early years slightly claustrophobic. While his young fan army was loyal, cracks in his armor showed, as early adoration from the press twisted into paparazzi hunting him down to follow the tabloid drama that would consume his career. But out of that mess came peace, and many, many hits. The vocal and stylistic adaptability that Bieber displayed early in his career came in handy, allowing Bieber to thrive in any pop climate, from the trop-house bangers on Purpose, to his featured turn on the most iconic Latin crossover of the century. More than 10 years out from “One Time,” his career and catalog has defined the decade, from his post-genre approach to his direct-to-fan engagement.
In the thick of the iTunes era, the enormity of Bieber’s following and influence may have been underestimated. “Baby” was a hit a year before Spotify crashed the U.S. and months before the launch of Instagram. Billboard spearheaded the Social 50 later in 2010, a chart that Bieber ultimately topped for a record-setting 163 weeks in the years to follow. And later in 2012, the Hot 100 incorporated streaming, turning viral sensations like “Baby” into dominant forces in the industry. But years prior, Justin Bieber ushered in the 2010s with one of the quietest monster hits of the decade, as a rising streaming titan in the pre-streaming era.