Remember when Justin Bieber was a precocious pop star, peddling inoffensive hooks and religious-leaning autobiographies, lookalike dolls and tween-friendly fragrances? It really wasn’t that long ago! In 2010, Bieber was the poster child of ubiquitous wholesomeness, but over the past year, the Biebs has piled up L’s with more consistency than the Milwaukee Bucks. Along with the arrest on suspicion of DUI in January, there have been retirement threats, graffiti standoffs, mop bucket desecrations and inexplicable instances of shirtless-ness. The “troubled timeline” has not yet found an endpoint.
The unearthing of two years-old videos over the past week, both of which found a young Bieber spouting the N-word while making obscenely tasteless jokes on camera, comes at the worst possible time, or the best possible time, for Bieber, depending on how you look at it. The videos — which were reportedly held against Bieber’s team for a half-decade — deliver another PR hit to Bieber, but when public opinion on the pop phenom is already this low, why not clear the air with a videotaped artifact that was probably going to reach the public at some point anyway? Make no mistake: it’s only a matter of time until this inexcusable action, along with all his other missteps, gets spun into a comeback story; better for Team Bieber to bust down every closet door and root through the skeletons now.
The first video, in which a young Bieber makes a racist joke with a punchline reliant on the N-word, is stupid and indefensible. The second video, in which Bieber turns his song “One Less Lonely Girl” into a racial slur and makes a crack about being in the KKK, is stupid, indefensible and terrifying. “If I kill you, I’ll be part of the KKK, and there’ll be one less lonely n—–,” Bieber croons in the video, to stifled laughter that comes from off-camera. Teenagers have been known to make racially insensitive jokes, which they often regret down the road. Less common are teenagers who sing songs about killing black people, because by the time you become a teenager, it’s crystal-clear that that’s not an acceptable thing to do.
The queasiness doesn’t just come from the fact that Bieber used the N-word, but from how he used it. As VIBE’s Aliya S. King points out, Bieber was not disarming the hatred at the heart of the N-word in these videos, but instead using the word to revel in it. “Justin Bieber wasn’t referring to himself or greeting a friend,” King writes. “He was making a joke about an entire group of people.” In this way, the level of ignorance on display is practically stupefying. It’s almost fitting that the second video, hidden from the Internet until 2014, parodies one of Bieber’s earliest, most kid-friendly hits — the 30-second clip is like watching the singer unwittingly destroy his innocent persona with blunt force.
Bieber apparently realized how idiotic the videos were soon after they were filmed, and he has undoubtedly regretted making them (and fearing their resurfacing) — especially given that his career was being steered by black musicians. Usher mentored him, Tricky Stewart and The-Dream produced his breakout single “Baby,” and Big Sean and Nicki Minaj have guested on some of his biggest hits. The threat of these videos, and the backlash that they are now inflicting, have likely haunted Bieber for years, as he’s determinedly infiltrated urban culture with his sound, collaborations, evolving appearance and close affiliation with hip-hop artists (a new track with Atlanta rap trio Migos was released days before the first leaked video hit the Web). But there’s no way to spin the fact that he casually cracked jokes about another culture on multiple occasions.
In the midst of this controversy, Bieber cannot do much more than issue a public apology, which he’s already done. “As a kid, I didn’t understand the power of certain words and how they can hurt,” begins a statement that was issued quickly after the first video was leaked; it’s a message that Bieber will repeat whenever this situation is brought up in the future. No petition is going to deport him, and he might serve jail time, but not for this. He’ll get roasted in the media for a few days or weeks, but then the chatter will dissipate, like it always does when someone famous gets caught saying something offensive. Remember when Eminem dropped the N-word in a song? Or when Kobe Bryant shouted a gay slur at a referee during a Lakers game? How about when Jonah Hill got caught using the same slur a few days ago? Celebrities of all kinds say the wrong things, they publicly apologize, and the antagonism slowly fades. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The difference between Bieber, Eminem, Bryant and Hill is that Bieber let those words fly as a kid… but on the other hand, he is the only one whose core audience is still under the legal drinking age, too. Ever been to a Justin Bieber concert? They’re packed with pre-teens and parents, the latter of whom warily watch the action and make sure the dance moves don’t pass the PG-13 rating. In that regard, these videos severely damage Bieber’s brand in the short-term, because Bieber still has to appeal to young pop fans and their guardians. Gleefully singing the N-word in a video, no matter how old the video is, is going to alienate some of those people. One wonders what the attendance numbers would be for his Believe arena shows if the tour was still ongoing, or how a new album would sell if it was being released this summer (the pedestrian sales of last December’s “Journals” project indicated that his personal escapades are indeed negatively impacting his retail performance).
In the long run, however, Bieber’s racist comments won’t really damage his public image — he has to painstakingly remake that anyway, after such a tumultuous run. This latest misstep will surely be folded into several others, which will be tidily packaged as the Series of Screw-Ups necessary to achieve a proper Redemption Story and formally kick-start his adult career (Bieber turns 21 next March). Bieber’s team has been on the absolution hunt for nearly a year, following the various controversies of the Believe tour; “Journals” and “Believe,” the singer’s second 3D movie released last December, were supposed to be the artistic acknowledgements of Bieber’s mistakes and the testaments of his healing.
“He hasn’t had the easiest run, and at times he knows that he hasn’t made it easy on himself,” Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, told Billboard last October. “But I think that music has always been his therapy, and this film [‘Believe’] … means a lot to him, because of how he gets to finally express himself and tell people what it’s like.” “Believe” and his “Journals” songs were indeed more revealing and even quasi-apologetic compared to Bieber’s previous output, but the Redemption Story requires its hero to stop making mistakes. A month after the “Believe” movie hit theaters, Bieber was sporting handcuffs in Miami Beach.
Saying racist jokes in front of a camera is a serious blow for Bieber, but for an artist with five No. 1 albums and 52 million Twitter followers, it’s hardly a knockout punch. Bieber will need hit records to win back the mainstream, but musical artists have stayed relevant while routinely performing heinous acts, thanks in part to their swollen number of diehard supporters. In fact, the sight of a teenaged Bieber in these videos — flashing his winning smile under his perfect moptop, cluelessly spouting deplorable phrases — is a weirdly appropriate image of the now-finished first phase of Bieber’s career. He came, he conquered, he messed up big time. But he’ll grow up, and so will his audience. Bieber may be in full self-destruct mode now, but the pieces can always be put back together.