Is it time to show Justin Bieber respect? Musically at least, he’s the real deal

Few celebrities inspire as much scrutiny as Justin Bieber, but aside from occasional immature antics, the Canadian pop star has actually matured into a talented musician

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 6:03pm

I never thought I’d write this, but the time has come to give Justin Bieber some respect.

You may think I should turn in my rock-critic card, but Biebs deserves respect because his latest album, Purpose, is a major step forward, an appealing combination of smoky-voiced pop-soul crossed with dance-music beats. At 22, he has made the transition from twerpy teen idol to tattooed adult pop star.

I’m not the only critic to praise Purpose. Entertainment Weekly gave it a B-plus, and those nitpicky hipsters at Pitchfork even gave it props.

When Bieb’s hits Sorry and Love Yourself come on the radio, I pay attention. Who knew that Usher’s protégé with the boyish voice and baby face could possibly be the real deal and not just some poseur?

Yet, nothing ever seems easy with Bieber. Nearly every time you mention his name nowadays, you must start the second half of the sentence with “but” and then say something unflattering about Canada’s biggest pop star. That’s because for every two steps he takes forward, he seems to take one giant step back.

For every Purpose, Sorry and Where Are U Now, there is Biebs messing up. He jumps on Instagram to say no more autographs, disses Prince after he dies and gets into a fight with a 195cm man outside an NBA Finals game.

Biebs, a bestselling artist since 2009, has enough clout to get Grammy-grabbing EDM superstar Skrillex to produce most of Purpose, get Drake to ask him to remix the rapper’s song-of-the-summer One Dance and get Ed Sheeran to co-write the kiss-off Love Yourself with the cutting if clever line, “My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone.”

Then Biebs sticks his proverbial foot (sporting some US$1,500 sneaker) into his mouth. Backstage at the Billboard Awards, he dissed “fake celebrities” and the whole motivation of appearing on award shows. On Instagram, he called himself a douche for setting boundaries with fans. He makes it hard to be a Belieber.

I wondered if the true Beliebers felt the same way. So I found one who’s followed him since Day 1. Greta Guldseth, 20, a hairstylist from the US state of Minnesota, has been a Belieber since he started posting home-made videos on YouTube in 2007.

“He’s a real genuine guy,” she says. “It’s humbling to know that. He’s not afraid to admit his faults. I like how sweet he is with kids.”

Guldseth knows that many fans have turned their backs on Biebs as they aged (and he continued to mess up). “People gave me a second chance,” she says. “No one’s perfect. I tell everyone that he’s a normal guy. He went through puberty and he’s figuring out his life like the rest of us.”

Guldseth has taken her share of razzing about Bieber. “My boyfriend sometimes makes fun of me for it,” she said. “I think men have a hard time watching girls watch Justin Bieber. There might be a little bit of jealousy.”

At least Guldseth converted her older sister. “She started out not liking him, but she heard the new album, and now my sister is a big fan,” Guldseth says.

Bieber a normal guy? That might be hard to believe, so I asked someone who knows him. Well, at least interviewed him. Caity Weaver, 27, a staff writer for GQ, spent about five hours with the Biebs over two days to pen a recent cover story.

“He’s one of the most self-aware people I’ve met – famous or not,” says Weaver, who’s just finished a cover story on the quite self-aware Kim Kardashian. “He’s guarded but eventually warmed up to talking. He’s aware of how people see him. He’s insanely coordinated. He was good at all the arcade games and bowling. The most surprising thing was how often he brought up religion. He talked about God a lot.”

Playing the spirituality card was not part of the rebranding of Bieber. He had experienced a year-and-a-half run that could’ve been featured on a nightly TMZ show called “Biebs Gone Bad”, in which he, among other incidents, egged his neighbour’s house and tried to smuggle his pet monkey into Germany.

In 2015, the bad boy sought redemption. He apologised on Ellen, subjected himself to a roasting on Comedy Central and doubled over crying at the end of his performance on MTV’s Video Music Awards.

Then he dropped Purpose, filled with more apologies. “You know I try, but I don’t do too well with apologies,” the new Biebs croons at the start of the arresting ballad Sorry. “I hope I don’t run out of time; could someone call the referee? ‘Cause I just need one more shot at forgiveness.”

We want our celebs to be good people, don’t we? To be sure, Biebs does good deeds. He’s appeared in promotional ads for Peta, and at a recent concert dedicated Purpose to The Voice singer Christina Grimmie, who was fatally shot this month at a fan meet-and-greet in Orlando.

But – there’s that but again – we sure like to see celeb train wrecks, don’t we? That’s why we look at the headlines while in line at the grocery store. That’s why we sneak a peek at TMZ. That’s why you’re sniggering right now.

Since Purpose was released and Bieber hit the road on his 58-concert world tour this spring, he has had his share of missteps. Did you hear he wanted to buy a lion as a pet? Did you see photos of him walking shoeless in a Boston park?

And, of course, you heard about his Instagram post saying he’ll no longer take photos with fans backstage even though some paid US$2,000 for the opportunity.

“I want to keep my sanity,” he wrote. “I realise people will be disappointed, but I don’t owe anybody a picture.”

Just maybe an apology.