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Sorry Not 'Sorry': Is a Dude Named Justin Tranter Pop Music's Next Go-To Songwriter?

Meet the man behind some of the year's biggest pop hits, from "Sorry" to "Love Myself."

Justin Tranter with his clients Selena Gomex and Haille Steinfeld

Pop hitmaker Justin Tranter has to cancel our interview—he’s been asked to speak at Cyndi Lauper’s charity for homeless LGBTQ teenagers. Aside from his lifelong commitment to gay rights and and a career as an underground glam rocker, Tranter churns out super-hits for the world’s biggest pop stars like Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, and Gwen Stefani. His glam band Semi Precious Weapons opened for Lady Gaga all throughout her game-changing Monster Ball tour and now, Tranter's found himself back in the throes of the pop music at yet another transitional moment: It's considered "cool" to like Justin Bieber, Gwen Stefani divorced Gavin Rossdale, Miley's in the Flaming Lips, and a Jonas Brothers is attempting dance rock. What happened?

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More and more, pop stars are embracing a new normal by relying on songwriters like Justin Tranter to help express themselves in a shameless and vulernerable way. Justin Bieber dominated the charts with "Sorry," written in part by Justin Tranter and his frequent co-writer Julia Michaels. The power duo of Tranter and Michaels are also responsible for half of Selena Gomez's transformation into a grown-up pop singer with her confidant new record Revival. Finally moving on from Bieber and starting fresh, the former Disney starlet released the album right after revealing her with private struggle with autoimmune disease Lupus. Even Gwen Stefani enlisted Tranter and Michaels to help her write "Used to Love You," the singer's deeply personal response to her highly publicized break-up.

The sweeping cliche anthems of the past few years like "What Makes You Beautiful" by One Direction—a song so ridiculous even the band hates it—just don't cut it anymore. Social media has drastically changed the way we connect to pop stars and it's given us new expectations of truth. Instead, when these hugely famous singers appear to strip away the artifice and get intimate, the listener can connect the dots between what's going on in their personal lives and their lyrics (i.e. Bieber's "redemption," Stefani's divorce, Selena Gomez's kissing off haters. It makes them less like pop culture products and more like real people. Tranter understands this implicit desire completely.

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Over the phone from LA, he explains: "With 'Sorry,' we're letting the biggest male pop star in the world be vulnerable. With 'Love Myself,' [by Haillee Steinfield] we're letting a smart beautiful young girl be independent and sexual on her own. Even in 'Good for You' that we wrote for Selena Gomez, she knows how fucking fly she is. She's 'a 14 karat diamond,' who can still have ownership in her sexuality by wanting to make someone else feel good."

By making fans feel good and let in on what's going on behind these songs, pop is growing up and getting real. But of course, it still has to be fun. And that's where Tranter comes in. We talked to the breakout songwriter about pop's new direction, gender in music, and what to expect in 2016.

Noisey: Hi Justin! You’ve been such a player behind this year’s pop singles, but let’s talk about next year. Where do you see pop moving in 2016?
Justin Tranter: That's always such a tough question because pop is just what is popular. But in 2015, almost more than ever, the genre-crossing, and the genre-blending has been so beautifully extreme. Everything kind of falls into this massive category of pop, but I do think what's kind of cool is that it seems to be getting a little more lyrically honest and heartfelt. Also, production-wise things, seem to be getting a lot more “chill,” but in a good way.

So you think pop songs are getting more personal?
I do. Like with "Good For You" which I co-wrote for Selena Gomez with Julia Michaels and Nick Monsoon, we never in a million years thought that that was going to be a single, let alone a number one song on the radio for three weeks. Just because it's so vibey, and it's so chill. I felt like this could be an amazing album track for somebody, like a really special song to define their sound. When Selena fell in love with it and sang it, we thought it could be such a cool vibe track for her to really set the tone of the album. Not, oh this is going to be a smash hit, you know? So I think it's a really good sign for where pop is going, that the stars are labels are willing to take chances. Honestly, the fans are responding to that honesty and that sort of indie vibe on mainstream platforms.

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Why do you think that is?
Music always ebbs and flows. There was a big bubblegum pop era, which takes just as much detail and intelligence to create. But I think with social media, in some ways it's a lot easier to explain what you're doing, and so for artists, they can have a direct connection to their massive, massive fanbases to explain their thought processes and their point of view. I think that allows things to be a little riskier, because you can go, "OK, I can in two seconds tell 45 million people with one Instagram picture and caption why I chose this visual and this song and this sound. It might be freeing things up to be a little more daring.

You frequently co-write with your songwriting partner Julia Michaels, who is not only much younger than you but comes from a completely different musical background.
I write so many songs with Julia Michaels, and it's such a cool collaboration together because I'm 35 and come from a glam punk band, and she is 22 and comes from being obsessed with every indie singer/songwriter that she can get her hands on. And so together, we're both coming from alternative places, but very different alternative places. I'm coming from 70s glam, and she's coming from like what's happening right now in the indie singer/songwriter underground.

That's so interesting that people from distinctly alternative backgrounds are making the chart-topping pop singles. Do you see that representing a shift in the industry?
Yeah, and also I've only been writing for other people for just a couple of years now. In Semi Precious Weapons, we had record deals and this and that, but you only meet like one or two people and those are the people that you're directly working with. But now as a writer you meet everybody. There's always these crazy horror stories about the big bad record executives who doesn't like anything that's too cool, but I've been so happy, pleasantly surprised with everyone that I've worked with recently. All they want is things that are next and ahead. And that's really really freeing for us writers and producers to be able to create stuff that we believe is pushing the envelope and that is amazing, because it's the executives are letting us do so.

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You're writing songs for stars with big personalities that other people know a lot about. Do you ever play into what we as fans know is going on with their personal lives? When you were writing "Used to Love You" with Gwen Stefani, did you intend for it to be a song about her divorce?
Well with Gwen, that's a very easy answer because we wrote it with Gwen. Gwen has such a history as an amazing personal writer. Gwen doesn't allow one syllable into a song if it isn't exactly her story and her truth. So for her, the answer is easy. We're writing there for her to help her write her life, and write her truth. And then for everybody else, like with Selena, we were very much involved in the album process with her. She brought us to Mexico. We wanted to write her truth, and if you're writing a song and the artist isn't there, you can sometimes really mess up trying to think too specifically about what they might want sonically and lyrically. If they aren't there, you're probably writing something that they wanted a year ago, what they wanted on their last album. So in some instances you just write something because you think it's amazing. And then in some instances when you have the direct contact with the artist, then you are making it a little more tailor-made for them, or you're actually writing with them so then it's even easier to nail it.

Is that what happened while writing "Sorry" for Justin Bieber? Did his camp make it clear that this was supposed to be his big apology?
No, not at all. Definitely not. Me and Julia just wrote a song that we thought we would want to hear. So Julia and I just wrote what we love. Josh Goodwin, Bieber's vocal producer and A&R on the album, played us some tracks to chose from. Obviously Bieber heard what we did with it, tweaked it to make it his own, and now we have "Sorry," which has been an honor and a life-changing moment.

Do you see this trend towards vulnerability having anything to do with rising pop artists like Miley, Halsey, Sam Smith, and Shamir being more open and public about their sexuality and gender identities?
Yes. See, I'm in this place where I'm very proudly openly queer, very proudly feminine, because there's a big odd thing even in the gay community about fem shaming! The more masculine the better. I feel so blessed to be able to make music that is so mainstream, and still be able to be exactly the person that I am, and the person that I want to be.

Activism is very performance based in the LGBTQ community. How cool to see it go from the true underground to the biggest platform possible.
Right! So when opportunities come up like singing with Cyndi Lauper to raise money for LGBT experiencing homelessness, I of course am beyond honored and excited and my head explodes, and I call my parents crying that I get to do this. That we can do this through popular music.

Bryn Lovitt is a contributing editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.