It’s hard to think of a 21st century male pop star subject to more naysaying, unkind mockery and unjustified hatred than Justin Bieber. As the international pop idol’s music output slowed down and adolescent antics increased over the last few years, haters predicting an unceremonious fall into obscurity for the once-omnipresent pop star were given plenty of fuel for their fire.
But all was not lost. Those who still belieb’d had reason to hope when Bieber’s Skrillex/Diplo collaboration, “Where Are U Now,” became a bonafide 2015 summer jam with cross-genre and generational appeal. And now, after the historic straight-to-No. 1 arrival of Bieber’s solo track “What Do You Mean?”, it’s clear that Bieber is back. And anyone predicting his comeback success won’t last just isn’t paying close enough attention.
As we’ve detailed separately, “What Do You Mean?” has already earned Bieber an impressive list of chart accolades. It makes him the youngest male to debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100 (he’s 21; previously record holder was Baauer at age 23); It’s just the 23rd song in the Hot 100’s 57-year history to debut at No. 1; and perhaps most important for his future, it’s his first co-producing and co-writing credit on a No. 1 hit.
Not surprisingly, the buzz behind “What Do You Mean?” helped “Where Are U Now” jump 13-10 on the chart dated Sept. 19. That means not only does Bieber have two concurrent top 10 hits — he has two concurrent top 10 hits that he co-wrote.
And no, Bieber’s co-writing credit on the Jack U track isn’t just a courtesy. Actually, Bieber wrote the song as a moody piano ballad before sending it to Skrillex and Diplo, who defied expectations by taking the former teen pop singer into their decidedly grown-up musical realm. Although they pitch-shifted his voice to create the instantly memorable hook — you know, the part that sounds like a dolphin playing a flute — they both readily acknowledged how surprised they were at Bieber’s natural talent. Skrillex even called him a “fucking virtuoso,” a sentiment echoed by recent Bieber collaborator Travi$ Scott, too.
“Where Are U Now” was key to Bieber’s success with “What Do You Mean?” Sure, the month-long campaign of celebrity endorsements (from Britney Spears to Comedy Central Roast pal Martha Stewart) didn’t hurt. And obviously, that VMAs stint — complete with post-performance tears — helped get the new single some more headlines.
But the real reason “What Do You Mean?” entered the world as a success is that people wanted more Bieber after “Where Are U Now.” Unlike so many pop stars’ efforts to grow up in the studio, Bieber actually charted new territory (at least within the realm of top 40 sounds) with his Diplo/Skrillex collabo. While One Direction nabbed a successful big boy hit with “Story of My Life,” it was unmistakably Mumford & Sons — and clearly, playing authentic folk-rock is not 1D’s future. The adult contemporary tone they adopted on “Drag Me Down” is a more likely direction for their future (together or separately), but again, there’s no denying it sounds like something we’ve heard before — in this case, Maroon 5.
“Where Are U Now,” however, is as inventive as it is catchy — it earned Bieber fans beyond those who use his pretty face as the background on their cell. So when “What Do You Mean?” — the first single from his upcoming Nov. 13 album — arrived, even non Beliebers were curious for more of the new sound.
And fortunately for Bieber, he’s proven with “What Do You Mean?” that he doesn’t need Skrillex and Diplo to push ahead into his brave new world. Working with Jason Boyd and Mason Levy, Bieber (who once again co-wrote and co-produced) has created an appealing pop/EDM song that brings the burgeoning tropical house genre to its highest chart position yet. But aside from being catchy, it’s also convincing: Bieber sounds at home with sad, searching lyrics that are counterbalanced by airy, jaunty music.
Not to belabor the One Direction comparison, but it’s worth noting that despite a comparatively young, intense fanbase devoted to YouTube views and Vevo refreshes, Directioners’ system-gaming efforts never gave 1D a No. 1. And when 1D singles did manage high Hot 100 debuts, the next week would almost always see those songs slide out of the top 10 after the initial rush of fan downloads and streams.
Time will tell, of course, if “What Do You Mean?” will suffer the same swift chart descent — but based on its No. 28 debut on the Radio Songs chart, the future is hopeful for the melancholy tune. Plus, the ongoing radio success of “Where Are U Now” bodes well for Bieber.
In short, it’s a great time for Justin Bieber to ask questions in song form — and a bad time for those questioning Justin Bieber’s pop longevity.