Move over Sam Smith and tell Ed Sheeran the news: Justin Bieber is the biggest male popstar in the world. Late last year the Canadian youngster’s comeback album Purpose entered the UK charts at number two, while its three lead singles have all been number ones in Britain and America. What Do You Mean?, Sorry and Love Yourself are the sound of Right Now, and their videos have garnered two billion YouTube views. In only six months.
The muscled-but-still-boyish kid from Ontario, Canada is, quite frankly, everywhere. That Bieber has achieved it without becoming, well, annoying is testament to the quality of his new, electronic-flavoured music. It also speaks to how far he’s travelled in his short time on this planet – and his ability to defy the cliché of teenage pop stars. It’s a turnaround I wouldn’t have bet on, based on my own experiences with him.
The first time I was set to meet Justin Bieber, I didn’t meet him. It was 2011 and he was in London on a whistle-stop promotional tour: an ITV special concert here, a daytime Radio 1 session there, two Christmas lights switch-ons. He’d released a debut album, completed a 130-date world tour, published his first autobiography, starred in his first film (the best-selling concert movie ever), and squeezed out a celebrity scent. Bieber was 17.
The angelic-faced youngster had been discovered four years earlier via YouTube clips of his covers of hip hop and R&B songs. Scooter Braun (now his manager) stumbled across them and tracked down his school. Bieber was singing in front of US record label producer Usher within a week and had a recording contract soon after.
At the first of the Christmas lights events, at the Westfield mall in Shepherd’s Bush, our rendezvous was blocked by the small matter of his fans – thousands of “Beliebers”. Mostly girls, mostly teen, all emotional. A month later, we came face to face in LA. A morning of schoolwork behind him, an evening concert ahead, the afternoon was booked solid with TV appointments. I was to shadow him throughout. Even then, as I sat next to him in the back of a car, Bieber was hardly present. He was more interested in messages on his iPhone. Still, when you’re a teenager with (as he had then) 21 million Twitter followers, distraction was understandable.
But over the ensuing five months, as I trailed him for a magazine article, Bieber warmed up. I grew to like the sweet lad from smalltown Ontario – not least because he seemed to have decent people behind him, both in terms of his management and family.
Bieber is the only son of a God-fearing single mother who’d posted those early YouTube videos. In the absence of his father (whose relationship with his son has now improved), his grandparents were also actively involved in his upbringing. “I pray when I go to sleep,” he told me in his gentle voice. “I pray during the day – when I have a problem or when I just wanna thank Him for all He’s done for me. Without God I wouldn’t be in this position. He’s blessed me with the talent and opportunity. And I feel like there’s also a reason I’m here.” ￼￼￼￼￼
But then, after my time following him ended, Bieber went over to the dark side. ￼￼￼￼￼In the wake of the release of 2012’s Believe, he had run-ins with the police ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼(for speeding in a Lamborghini, for egging a neighbour’s house); there ￼￼were rumours of drug use and he disrespected Anne Frank ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼(“Hopefully, she would’ve been a Belieber,” he wrote in the visitors’ book at Amsterdam’s Anne Frank Museum). Some of this bratty behaviour could be ascribed to romantic turmoil. Throughout his late-teens, Bieber’s girlfriend was Selena Gomez, the Disney child-star-turned-singer, but their relationship expired around 2012/2013.
Here was a youngster who’d been a byword for precociously gifted musical talent – a singer/writer/ player/dancer, he was being shaped as a new generation’s Michael Jackson. But now, already, he was shorthand for that other showbiz trope: the child star flame-out.
Then Bieber came back in the best possible way. In the singles he released in 2015 feather-weight pop gave way to songs that were smarter and sharper. Written not with the usual top-drawer industry hit-makers but more discerning DJs, producers and singers (“edgy” artists going by names like Skrillex, Diplo and Halsey), they evidenced a maturing desire to take chances
It worked. The irresistibly catchy singles mean that, commercially, Bieber’s on fire all over again. He’s managed to gain the approval of boys and hit a new teenage audience, while also appealing to a more adult one. It’s now OK – cool, even – to like Justin Bieber.
Equally tellingly, he’s been insisting he’s here to make amends. All that naughty stuff? He was an idiot, the fame and hype went to his head, as did the millions of dollars. He’s truly sorry. Don’t believe him? Here’s an earworm single called Sorry. And here’s a well-reviewed album. “It’s called Purpose just because I felt like I lost my purpose for a while,” he told me in LA a couple of months ago. “But now I’ve found my purpose… Because I do have a platform,” he added, warming to a Christianity-leaning theme, “and there’s so much I can do for the world and use my music to bring that hope and light.”
To his credit, in December he put his social media power where his mouth is. He urged his fans – he now has a brain-scrambling 75 million Twitter followers – to buy the single by the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir in preference to his own Love Yourself to ensure the charity song was the UK Christmas number one. And so it came to pass. That said: Bieber still had three singles in the UK festive Top Five.
But old perceptions die hard. As Rod Stewart – granddaddy of bad-boy rock stars – harrumphed last year: “Justin Bieber wants so much to be a bad, bad rock star. But you either are or you’re not – you can’t fake it. He tries too hard.” I put that to Bieber, a young man with more tattoos than the US Navy: does he want to be a bad-boy rock star?
“No!” he replied, suddenly roused. “I’m not a bad guy. People might have misconceptions. And hopefully those walls start to come down and they see the real me. But I’m not that guy. I was in a bad place… It wasn’t fake. I just was in a… I don’t know, dude,” he sighed heavily. “I just want to get to a place where I can stop apologising. We all go through trial and error. We all go through moments of downfall. Let’s talk about our success now. Let’s focus on me now. And I think we’re getting there.”
With an album as strong as Purpose, he is indeed getting there. He seems well on his way to doing what Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake did and go from teen sensation to credible grown-up star. Time will tell. Let’s not forget, Justin Bieber is still only 21.