All photography by Laura Palmer
Those opening chords; that drop; the bit where he sounds like a dolphin – April 2015 was the moment where everything we ever hated about Justin Bieber melted away like snow on a hot day. "Where Are Ü Now" is arguably the biggest song to ever make 20-something guys swap out their prized Julio Bashmore-heavy mixes for a boy-band-esque-pop-star, relieving Bieber of his teenage-girls-only fan clubs and basically wiping any memory of his previous releases. In short: Madonna ain't got shit on this reinvention.
Since then, Bieber fans have gradually become less Twitter militia teen girls and more diamond-earring-clad dudes wearing a deep neck Swedish House Mafia tee, and blasting Biebz from their Ford Escort. It's no surprise that the term Belieber is becoming less and less omnipresent, as the traditional Belieber profile is split like an atom by his newfound followings. Could these bro-dudes vibing "Where R U Now" in Fitness First changing rooms around the country be here to take the reins as prime Beliebers? And what does our nation's new found love of Bieber mean in a world riddled with terrorism and student grant abolishments? There was only one way to find out: I ventured down to a Bieber-themed club night in a British student town.
The venue for the night's proceedings was Thekla – a Bristol-docked boat, known for its student-focused nights and heavy-on-the-edgy gigs. The Justin Bieber Appreciation Society – or JBAS as they call themselves, which sounds a little like a pharmaceutical company you should be signing e-petitions against – are tonight's hosts and after selling out in under 6 minutes (really), they're hosting not one but two parties this evening. Not only that, but the JBAS success has spawned a 14 date tour across the UK – most of which have already sold out. Britain's fever for Bieber is officially a thing.
From the outset, the JBAS nights are unaccommodating to your standard Beliebers, in that tonight's Bristol events were 18+ only, giving the whole thing a sort of strange and millennial French resistance vibe – like the Purpose fans are meeting to conspire about how to landgrab Justin once and for all.
In the build up, the JBAS Facebook page promises a "Selena Gomez piñata" and the ticket link guaranteed a "Selena Gomez dartboard". While I'm down with waving a baseball bat around in anticipation of sweet relief, there's something a little sinister about beating or chucking darts at a fake-woman just to get to her goodies. Someone on Twitter messaged the team a few weeks prior to the event, highlighting what could be deemed misogynistic or, in the case of the pinata, racist aspects of the joke. They replied with a lengthy shrug.
I arrived at the venue as early as possible to gauge the crowd as they filtered in. It was adorned with life-size Bieber cut-outs, which were ripe for the smooching – yes, I got off with one – and every early attendee was gifted with a Bieber mask and "I'm a Belieber" stickers. But were these folks die-hard fans or just opportunistic nu-lads on the Purpose presidential campaign?
"He's got a fresh attitude," explains Jeff, 26, who's here with his pal John, 28. "He's coming out of some interviews with a real cool vibe, he's down to Earth now. He was a wild kid and he's sorted his life out now, which is wicked."
It's strange that Bieber's transformation from bratty teen to slick mister has won so many new admirers. Despite hanging out with Ludacris at a bowling alley, throwing parties at Usher's pad, and working with Kanye West as part of the rapper's infamous 2010 G.O.O.D Friday's campaign, Bieber was never really welcomed into the minds of the music consuming masses – well, anyone over the age of 15 – until 2015. In fact, most set out to passionately hate the little guy, which was a little weird given that he was one of the only teen popstars to actually act like a real teen while under the glare of fame. Pissing in a restaurant's mop bucket? Getting into a scuffle while rocking some sort of LMFAO-crossed-with-Michael-Jackson look? It could not have been more atypical. Maybe his chill new vibe is inspiring lads-about-town to stop with the stag-do vomming and instead, find their ~purpose~ in life.
"I've liked him ever since he came out, when no one else liked him," says Sam (below), 26, eyes-bright with fervent excitement. "All music is good to someone, right? People would say they hate a song just because it's Justin Bieber, but now everyone likes him because his new stuff ticks a certain set of boxes. Really, he's been good from a pop standpoint forever."
Pointing out his Bieber-focused outfit of skinny jeans, jumper-down-to-the-knees, and hi-top trainers, Sam is an impassioned young man whose love of Bieber and sick breakdancing moves will certainly help him in his quest to bang a first year.
He does have a point though; Bieber had chops way before Purpose. Yeah, whispering the word "swag" and chatting about fondue isn't exactly on par with "Sorry" but seriously, even before this album he had serious pop credentials. 2012's Minaj-featuring "Beauty and a Beat" was a musical pairing we never knew we needed, a hint of the Skrillex-inspired drops that would come later. "Confident" would have easily appeared on a B2K record and, let's be real, "Baby" captured the kind of heartbreak only Drake can match: "…She had me star struck, she woke me daily, don't need no Starbucks". Only Bieber could essentially just say, "You're better than coffee", and make it sound like a million hearts crashing in flames.
Ironically, by the looks of things here, most of the people around me were still very much in their pissing-in-a-restaurant's-mop-bucket phase. By 11pm, the floor is packed full of the kind of dudes that never really grew out of winking at you in the McDonalds car park – Hawaiian-shirts and slicked back, Nick Carter-esque hair. One guy who's desperate to give off the early, Leonardo-as-Romeo vibe is quick to impress the ladies by readying his nipples with Belieber stickers and shoving the mask right down by his dick. I'll admit that his unwavering intensity is impressive, as he dances along and licks the Red Stripe from his chin.
For reasons unbenowst to me, the DJ upstairs decides to embark on a medley of David Bowie, Blink 182, Whigfield, System of a Down and the "Macarena" before scratching-up some Noah and the Whale. It's hard to say how these kids are taking it, as they seem intent on getting their photo taken, re-adjusting their crop tops and furiously licking each other's faces even more. You've gotta hand it to the DJ's balls though, not one Bieber tune yet and everybody's already humping each other.
Through the sea of sweating baby seals, I notice that most of the crowd are the kind of kids that would've been of the age to appreciate baby Bieber but, with a growing need to impress their pals with their hand-poked tatts and bomber jackets, probably gravitated more towards a kind of edginess that'll turn their faces into gurning masterpieces and their hands into tiny guns.
It makes you realise how incredibly clever Bieber, or Bieber's label product manager, was when it came to Purpose. It's one of the great examples of big time mainstream pop siphoning spirit from more indie and less blockbuster pop realms; the likes of The Weeknd or Lorde. Contemporary dancers replace bling-laced close-ups, existential waterfalls replace dance-floors, and graffiti-adorned walls in an abandoned building replace frat house parties. It's the street cred these folks here tonight so crave and with Bieber giving them an easy-ticket, it's no wonder the very concept of the singer has brought so many of them together here tonight.
Outside on the deck, lies the kind of post-hipster gangs that only came to smoke and sneer at the true Beliebers, but lurking at the corner table are a group of friends desperate to talk to me. "I went to see him when I was 14. It's so embarrassing," claims 18-year-old Ava (below). So why is Justin not embarrassing now? "He's not gay any more. He hasn't got that gay hair and stuff," which let's face it, is probably the most succinct answer we'll have the pleasure of witnessing tonight.
By now, the downstairs area was giving off a sort of 6th-form-leavers party vibe, girls owning the dancefloor and guys grabbing their groins, tugging their buns and shooting their fingers in the air. The Bieber cut-outs, covered in regurgitated Jager and smudged lipstick are on their last legs, wilting like dead plants on a window sill, and giving off the same kinda germs as an Oceana smooch-booth, and yet a group of girls violently fight over the last remaining ones. Justin is dramatically gored in half and the tears of 7 vodka-lemonades begin to fall – at least it wasn't the Selena piñata.
Speaking of Selena piñatas, there's none to be found across the whole venue, no matter how hard I search. When I query it with the promoter, he mumbles, "Someone said it was racist or something," shrugs his shoulders and goes back to his drink.
I pop to the loo to be met with an army of 18-year-olds, taking selfies and forgetting to wash their hands. When I ask them what it is about Bieber they enjoy so much, I'm met with overlapping cries of "His hair!" and "His bod!" and "I just wanna see his dick!". The early part of the night may have been dude heavy, but the girls had truly arrived. Two in particular are eager to tell me that they actually prefer Zayn Malik to Bieber – a revelation that makes me realize that this may be the future; an era of squeaky-clean popsters making the transition, like dominos, into forever-furrowed brows, black and white Instagram snaps and tattoos straight out of your year 10 notebook.
By gathering his legion of teenage girls in One Direction, Zayn's already done the groundwork in bagging the biggest fan base; now all he has to do is release a couple of bangers with the backing of a few on-point producers (like Malay of Frank Ocean fame, who he's already working with) and he'll easily slot into Bieber's new found territory. Does this mean 5 Seconds of Summer will become the new XX? Will The Vamps feature on the next Blood Orange cassette? Could Bieber's reinvention actually be the start of you questioning everything you ever beliebed in?
As I look around at the kids dancing along to Craig David and the like, it strikes me that not a lot of Bieber has actually been played tonight. Sure, there was the crowd-crushing moment of "What Do You Mean?" and yeah, I was hoping to witness some butt-grinding along to "One Less Lonely Girl", but to be honest, I don't think anyone here actually really cares. They are too busy having fun.
As I wandered home, past kebab shops with brutal door step scenes of discarded Bieber face cut outs now bloodied with chilli sauce, I realised young men have not ruined Justin Bieber. There is a place for all Beliebers to exist, young and old, new and loyal. In our current state of Donald Trump and Dapper Laughs resurrections, Purpose is an album that has brought us, as a nation, together; it has allowed man-children to truly appreciate the craft of pop in a context they feel comfortable with around their mates; it has allowed teenage girls with killer taste to have their musical opinions finally recognised, and it has allowed hope for all of us – hope for a better future, a superior image, where you can still become relevant and holy, even after all that embarrassing shit you did when you were younger. And I mean, isn't that what we all want?
You can follow Sammy on Twitter.