Sunday, July 1, 2012

album review: 'believe' by justin bieber

Short version / opening: I don't know who to blame for Justin Bieber. Or what to do with him. And from his newest album, I can say this definitively: neither does anybody else.

I mean, who do you hold responsible for Justin Bieber at this stage right now? Do you blame the kid himself, a poor but musically talented kid who got unbelievably lucky thanks to YouTube and is now becoming a product of the pop star universe around him? Do you blame Usher, who made him his protege and has cultivated elements of Bieber's image and personality in ways that would come back to haunt him? Do you blame the producers who are desperately trying to pin down what Justin Bieber should become, trying every option they can in a whirlwind of A-list production, guest stars, and half-formed musical ideas? Do you blame Justin Bieber's managers, who haven't provided him nearly enough guidance to prevent the fame from going straight to Bieber's head and turning him into a little entitled shithead with a cockiness he hasn't earned? Do you blame Selena Gomez, his far-more-talented girlfriend who has somehow managed to walk the line between innocence and sluttiness with a deft touch beyond most of her contemporaries and predecessors (Demi Lovato, Lindsey Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff to some extent, Britney Spears, the list goes on), and who clearly hasn't helped Bieber become less of a douche? Do we blame Bieber's protege Carly Rae Jepsen for releasing one of the most irritatingly juvenile and catchy songs of the year with 'Call Me Maybe' (which is now the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 - kill me now), and who has been publically criticized for dressing like a preteen girl, far younger than her age of 26?

No, at this point, while I am going to place blame on all of these people for this album and what Bieber's become in the past few years, the real blame needs to be placed on Justin Bieber's rabid, preteen-to-teenage female fanbase, the girls who create mobs who throng Justin Bieber and spur the paparazzi to chase him with unparalleled fury outside of Brangelina and allegations that John Travolta might be gay. The girls that buy tons of Bieber merchandise to replace their Hannah Montana fixations and call themselves Beliebers (ugh, that word hurts to write). And the girls who have tastes so nebulous and fleeting that in the desire to appeal to them, the producers and writers of this album have completely abandoned any thematic conceits to create an album so unfocused and schizophrenic that I half-expected guest starring spots from Tony Bennett, Andrew W.K., and Eminem.  Sadly, none of those guest stars showed up, because Tony Bennett was too busy working on some new jazz album, Eminem was working double-time between helping push Slaughterhouse and finish his eighth album, and Andrew W.K. was going to a My Little Pony convention to speak on a panel of 'In The Flesh: What Would Pinkie Pie Do?' (this is totally true, by the way, look it up - you can't invent shit like that).

So yeah, Believe, Justin Bieber's newest album, is a catastrophe I haven't seen the likes of for a long, long time. This isn't the kind of bad that's repellent or nauseating either, the kind of bad that makes you want to hate the artist and their family and their pets and their friends and their favourite restaurants. No, this is the kind of bad that's not just bad, but it's strange. It's bad in the same way that The Room or Birdemic or 'Drive By' by Train are bad - they seem to come from a different reality where the axis of good and evil is replaced with the axis of bacon and necktie (it's from TVTropes, look it up). It's the kind of album you have to listen to just to see how the hell so many talented people could collectively shit themselves inside out in their desperation to craft something that could sell in a pop universe in a rapid state of flux.

The funny thing is, this could have worked, because believe it or not, this album actually goes a decent way in solving some of the big problems with Bieber's music. Instead of sloppy, High School Musical - level production, we have some pretty decent instrumentation from a wide variety of top-range producers, including a sample from Michael Jackson of all people! And where Bieber's painful contra-tenor was intolerable on previous songs like 'One Time' and 'Baby', his new tenor, courtesy of that wonderful thing called puberty, has made some of the love songs on this album a bit more tolerable. And where guest stars like Usher and Ludacris have embarrassed themselves working with Bieber in the past, this time they seem to fit a little better into the album's style, and it helps that Bieber's increased age makes the collaborations seem more adult and less creepy (although I still don't know why Ludacris calls his partnership with Bieber the 'Dynamic Duo' - is he trying to increase his street cred by pretending to be Batman and casting Bieber as Robin? That's Eminem and Dr. Dre's thing, and further proof that Batman is getting overexposed).

But oh god, the lyrics... look, I've had big issues with Justin Bieber's use of the word 'shawty' before. It's an awful word and nobody should use it, but Bieber's far too white and Canadian to use it well. But using words like 'swaggie' and making Buzz Lightyear puns? A whole song called 'Catching Feelings' (which instrumentally rips off early Backstreet Boys to a rather horrifying degree) in which Bieber incoherently communicates his feelings about a girl through the use of metaphors comparing her to a disease? A song called 'Die In Your Arms' where Bieber's so in love with a girl that he just wants to 'die in her arms' (you'd think he'd want to spend time with her, but what do I know)? A song called 'Fall' (ripping off Chris Brown's horrible song 'Fallen Angel') where Bieber's message is even more confusing because he wants to make the girl fall for him but also fly with him and dear god this metaphor is getting brutally tortured! This album has dozens of writers, and boy does it show - it's abundantly clear nobody has the slightest damn idea how to write songs for Bieber, because unlike other prominent male pop singers, he doesn't have a unique style, and not enough confidence to carry songs on arrogance alone (see: Beyonce).

And this inconsistency definitely spreads to the tracks on this album, which range from painfully awful Backstreet Boys ripoffs (it's kind of amazing how many people want to recapture the depraved and pedophilic brain of Lou Pearlman, even despite the fact that the Backstreet Boys are still around and are still halfway decent!) to post-N'Sync Justin Timberlake R&B (a comparison I've seen made a lot, but one I don't agree with - while Bieber seems to fit the mold that Justin created and Usher helped him towards, Bieber doesn't nearly have the confidence that made Timberlake a star willing to make a diss verse on Timbaland's 'Give It To Me' against Prince) to Jack Johnson-esque garbage that he attempted on his Christmas album. Some could say that the inconsistency is showing Bieber trying a wide variety of styles before he drops into a niche, but I don't buy that either: between the huge number of writers and the general lack of focus on the tracks, this album strikes me more as the sort of thing derived by Bieber's handlers desperately trying to pin down what makes Bieber popular before he's usurped by One Direction.

And you know what the absolute worst part of all this is? There are actually moments of brilliance in the inconsistency, moments mostly contributed by the guest stars and that do come off as completely accidental. Ludacris is great as always, redeeming 'Around The World' as an opening track, Mike Posner's production work on 'Boyfriend' is completely wasted on Bieber's awful lyrics and complete lack of presence, and Big Sean gets a few funny quips into the otherwise-awful 'As Long As You Love Me' (yeah, somebody from the Backstreet Boys really needs to start suing people by now). Of course, Drake contributes jack shit to his collaboration with Bieber and continues to disappoint me, but Nicki Minaj, his fellow Young Money collaborator, she, ah...

Okay, I've said before I wasn't going to print show lyrics here, but I have to, because while I normally hate hashtag rap, this is great:

Justin.. Bieber, you know Imma hit 'em with the ether/ Buns out, weiner, but I gotta keep my eye out for Selena!

You see, that's the sort of hilariously silly lunacy you don't get enough in pop music: Nicki Minaj made a horrible hot dog / penis reference and rhymed Bieber with ether, then with wiener, and then with Selena. That's so horribly bad and ridiculous it's kind of amazing.

And I will be completely fair here: if you find the deluxe edition of this album, look up the last track called 'Maria' - because it's not bad. In fact, it's fucking incredible, potentially one of the best pop songs I'll hear this year. I'm not making this up either - do you understand how humiliating this is, having to admit I actually really fucking like a goddamn Justin Bieber song? But really, it's amazing how well this track works - it draws inspiration from Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean', but while that song doesn't have a real person behind the iconic character, 'Maria' is, in the Taylor Swift tradition, inspired by a real person, namely the woman who claimed she was the mother of Justin Bieber's baby. That very real fact, plus the great instrumentation and the fact that Bieber brings more legitimate emotion to this track than everything he's ever done combined, makes it a standout track that does a bucketload for giving Bieber any sort of artistic credibility.

So yeah, outside of humiliating myself in the paragraphs above, I can't recommend this album. Nobody in their right minds could recommend this album as a coherent piece of work, but unlike Usher's collection of singles for sex about sex, there's no structure or driving aesthetic that makes Believe worth a damn to anyone besides Bieber's preteen audience. A lot of critics are being uncharitably kind to this album, namely drawing on the inspiration from artists Bieber is trying to emulate, but this time, I can't buy into the hype. As much as I'd find it nice if Bieber took all that musical talent and went in interesting directions like Lady Gaga did, with his handlers and insane fanbase, I don't see it happening any time soon.

But being bad doesn't mean this album isn't interesting, at least in the same sort of way that watching a trainwreck is interesting. I mean, how often do you get to see a whole group of very talented and famous people (including Bieber, who I will admit is talented musically, if not from a songwriting point-of-view) struggle with incredibly desperation to create something that will appease a notoriously fickle demographic? I can say this, it's not a lazy or boring album - you can tell there was a lot of effort here, and I guess that's admirable in their own way.

But just because there is effort here does not mean that it doesn't stop the album from being an incoherent mess from an artist on the horrible road from teenage stardom to adult superstardom, and drawing way too much attention to the fact that Bieber's fame isn't nearly as secure as everyone who makes money off him deludes themselves into believing. It's almost as if the title of the album is a desperate plea to fans everywhere to keep financing and cheering for their favourite even as he scrabbles against the morphing tide.

Justin Bieber's quest, whatever it is, stands on the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and he will fail.

1 comment:

  1. I honestly doubt this kid will pull a Timberlake and stick around. He may be a bit talented, but that ego will drag him down quicker than if he used a bag of bricks for a parachute.
    Of course he'll never really go away though, and in fact I doubt anyone can since we have the internet.