the belieber’s journey

If I’m not mistaken, I referred to myself in a prior post as a “pattern-matching ape.”

This is about as simian as it gets, folks.

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If you have the “right” sort of “friends” on social media, you periodically run into these wild, fantastically detailed, obsessively sourced theories about the hidden structure of beloved fandoms — e.g., all the Pixar movies are set in the same universe, Tarzan is Elsa and Anna’s brother, &c. In the car today, I had my own version of such an epiphany, although the fandom in question is not nearly so universally beloved.

If, like me, you’ve spent the odd few hours in a gasoline-powered conveyance every day, and you’ve listened to the radio once or twice, you’ll have chanced upon a few new singles by an old hand. I’m referring, of course, to Justin Bieber, who appears to have been revived, Lazarus- or Frankenstein-style, to tickle our cochleae anew. I first started giving this any thought when I noticed that his first new single, “What Do You Mean”, is essentially one long bout of gaslighting:

What do you mean? Oh, oh
When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no
What do you mean? Hey-ey
When you don’t want me to move
But you tell me to go
What do you mean?

… and it goes on like this, it’s astonishingly awful, which makes its catchiness really problematic. (Surprisingly, BTW, I seem to be the first person on the Internet to have made the gaslighting connection, or possibly second after this woman, who I hope has since found some more uplifting things to make lists of.)

But Bieber seemed to have gone some distance toward redemption with “Sorry”, released next. It’s not what you’d call a textbook apology — whoever he’s singing to is stipulated to be angry at “all of his honesty,” like he’s Edward Snowden or something, and “I’m missing more than just your body” may fall squarely in the “doth protest too much” category — but the balance of the song seems to be a genuine, or at least repetitious, admission of fault. So he is perhaps not entirely without empathy.

At least until you listen once or twice to “Love Yourself.”

Just to be excruciatingly clear, “Love Yourself” means “Fuck Yourself.” And, much as we might dearly wish it were addressed to, say, Ted Cruz, or manspreaders, it is yet another relationship song:

And I didn’t wanna write a song
‘Cause I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care. I don’t,
But you still hit my phone up…

… and it’s at this point I realize that he’s singing to the same woman. (Or else Ted Cruz.)

The three songs in their release order describe the arc of a Bieberian relationship. First, he explains very reasonably to a woman that he has trouble understanding her reasoning. Then, his own reason having failed, he resorts to placating her with apologies. Finally, having realized his error in pursuing this woman, he sings a righteous breakup anthem.

Or at least that’s how it would appear to have gone in the Bieberian imagination. For the rest of us: First, he psychologically tortures a woman to the limit of her endurance. Then, realizing he’s gone too far, he backs up with a torrent of apologies. Then, having failed to save the relationship, he lashes out in bitterness.

As fan theories go, this clearly belongs in the rarefied echelon of the Passion Play theory of “Seven American Nights”. My only residual question is: How did Bieber actually intend the lyrics to be taken? Considered individually, there’s not much to suggest that he intended them to be questioned or the lines read between. As an arc… well, maybe not much either. To me, the interpretation less favorable to Bieber seems more salient when you consider the songs in order, but I’m not sure I could say why. Maybe because the breakup that’s occurred before “Love Yourself” is now invested with some history, which invites the listener to interrogate whether that breakup is good or bad for either party? Or maybe because the construction of the arc itself just implies a bit more thoughtfulness and intention on Bieber’s part than any of the songs themselves imply.

All right, I’ll stop short of 1000 words. If you got this far and don’t hate me for it, great. If you do hate me for it, please keep in mind that I’ll almost certainly never write about Justin Bieber again. At least not unless/until he starts writing science fiction.

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