Justin Bieber’s comeback performance at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards culminated in an emotional outpour. After running through his latest singles back-to-back to rapturous applause, the 21-year-old musician was seen gasping, hands on his knees, holding back tears. “It was so overwhelming”, Bieber recounted in an interview with Jimmy Fallon, “I wasn’t expecting [everyone] to support me. The last time I was at an awards show I was booed.”
Two years earlier, when the then-teenage star received the Billboard Music Awards' first Milestone Award, the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas was replete with an underlying cacophony of disgust that lasted for at least fifty-seven seconds before Bieber took to the microphone. When he finally spoke, he stammered, visibly upset at his reception. “From my heart,” he said, pausing through a cascade of boos, “It should be about the music. The craft. I’m an artist and I should be taken seriously. All this other bullshit should not be spoken of.”
Earlier that year, Bieber had broken up with his girlfriend of three years, Selena Gomez, and began a well-publicized downward spiral that led to him being arrested for a DUI and charged with vandalism and reckless driving. In that time he also adopted and subsequently abandoned a capuchin monkey. Bieber has since referred to the time period as hanging out with a “bunch of knuckleheads” and going through “a place of trying to figure it out.” Since then he’s cleaned up his act, publicly apologized for his actions, and appears to be in a good place mentally, physically, and artistically. So it’s not surprising that the VMAs were emotional for him. They were an exercise in personal release—a new leaf that positively bloomed out in internationally televised public.
The performance isn’t the first time Bieber has tried to leave his past behind. Over the last couple of years he’s made a number of attempts to shake off his manufactured pop reputation. His 2012 single “Boyfriend” felt like the moment he started to break beyond the commercial, teeny-bop tag and move into the upper echelon of pop music. The following year’s Journals featured big name collaborations (R. Kelly, Lil Wayne, Chance the Rapper) and some of the most accomplished songs he’d released to date (“P.Y.T,” “Confident”). Yet both releases were overshadowed by an ingrained resentment toward Bieber: When “Boyfriend” was released, he’d been accused of fathering a child with a fan and Journals arrived just weeks before his arrest. In the end, those years will be remembered for Bieber’s recurrent presence on TMZ rather than his maturing output.
“We knew that the only way this was going to work was if we made it about the music again,” Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, told Billboard earlier this year, recounting the struggles they had faced over the past year or so. “No more sensationalism - if you enjoy the music, thank you, and if you don’t, there’s nothing more to talk about.”
They made it work. Since being quietly released in January, Bieber’s Skrillex and Diplo collaboration “Where Are Ü Now” has been streamed 236 million times on Spotify alone. More importantly, it’s marked the first time Bieber’s music has been taken seriously. By largely avoiding the mainstream media for the last year—save for an appearance on Comedy Central’s "Roast of Justin Bieber," where he represented himself in the court of public opinion, and an ad campaign—Bieber’s been given what feels like a fresh start.
Since age 15, the Canadian pop star has been subjected to more vitriol than any renowned celebrity. One I Hate Justin Bieber Facebook page, of which there are many, has over 380,000 likes. On two occasions, 4Chan users have created a hash-tagged smear campaign encouraging teens to #Cut4Bieber and concocting a #Jail4Bieber hoax, claiming he molested a 13-year-old girl. There are “Keep Calm and Hate Justin Bieber” t-shirts, tip jars in bars that state “every time you tip, Justin Bieber dies a little,” and a Tumblr page dedicated to “lesbians who look like Justin Bieber”. There’s even an ad-on for the Firefox web browser that promises to erase any mention of the teen idol from your online experience.
The Billboard Music Awards are not the only time Bieber’s been booed in public either. When his face appeared on the jumbotron at a New York Knicks game in 2011, when he was only 17, a torrent of jeering cascaded into Madison Square Garden. While watching an LA Clippers game with his mom on Mother’s Day in 2011, he was catcalled by “the entire crowd”. And as recently as 2014, he was heckled at a New York Fashion Week event.
Transitioning from being a child to a teenager and then a young adult is universally challenging and, along the way, most people fuck up. Referencing the trouble he ran into over the last few years, Bieber playfully addressed the audience at Jimmy Fallon with a rhetorical question: “You guys saying you didn’t have those moments?” We all did. The difference, though, is that, alongside the cocktail of hormones derived from being a growing teen, Bieber was simultaneously the world’s biggest and most-hated pop star. “Baby” is the most disliked and second most viewed video on YouTube. So it’s hardly surprising that, two years earlier, he was struggling to pull himself toward himself. And at times, at least before he started pissing in mop buckets and deserting pet monkeys, the hate vehemently leveled at him in both the virtual and real public arena often felt unjustified.
As a child, Bieber would busk on the street. He would play his guitar, or his drums, and sing. People would throw money in his case. At one point he raised enough cash from busking to take his mother—who raised him single-handedly on a low-income office job—and himself from Canada to Disney World in Orlando. Watch any video of a pre-fame Justin Bieber playing and singing and it’s clear he’s talented.
Despite possessing a natural finesse for music, Bieber became an emblem for music’s downfall. Hate all the shit on the radio? Blame Bieber. Dislike the proliferation of manufactured pop? It was Bieber’s fault. Because he was a young and unquestionably famous pop star, Bieber—who, all things considered, rose to fame in a reasonably organic fashion (his manager, Scooter Braun, found him on YouTube)—was soon enough seen as untalented and undeserving of the legions of fans he had amassed.
Having released a public apology and spent some time out of the spotlight, it seems like now is the first time Bieber’s been emancipated from the baggage he’s carried around. He told the New York Times that “Where Are Û Now” opened his “eyes to a whole new audience, a whole new platform”—and it shows. Earlier this month he guested on a track with Travis Scott and Young Thug called “Maria, I’m Drunk,” on which he outshines both artists. His latest track “What Do You Mean”—undoubtedly a sequel to “Where Are Ü Now”—broke Spotify’s one week streaming record and, according to Billboard, has “unlocked the secret to sustained success as an adult star.” The track distills the various sounds he’s experimented with throughout his career—R&B, teen pop, EDM—into something bold and precise.
If “Baby” was Bieber’s N*Sync phase and “Boyfriend” was his Justified era, then it feels like his upcoming record could be his FutureSex/LoveSounds: a defiant career-changing moment that feels like everything he’s been building toward. He’s Drake before he released “Hold On, We’re Going Home”; Taylor Swift before she released 1989; Kanye before he dropped My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Bieber is teetering at the point where negativity turns to critical and public acclaim.
In the two years that have passed since Bieber took to the stage at the Billboard Music Awards, asking to “be taken seriously as an artist,” he’s armed himself with the music to back that claim up. Speaking to Jimmy Kimmel, Bieber said, “I’ve worked so hard at this album. I’ve worked so hard at becoming the man I want to become.”
So it’s no wonder he broke down at the VMAs. Making it through a dark, depressing, challenging time and out the other side is cathartic. But to make it through with such bold defiance is majestic.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil