3:03 pm Jun. 19, 2012
The line on Justin Bieber’s Believe, his second proper album (we’re not counting Under the Mistletoe), is that it’s his “coming-of-age” album by dint of his having turned U.S. voting age.
That's what Time magazine said, among many others. GQ went the other direction, running Drew Magary’s ridiculous chronicle of the 18-year-old star, aptly characterized by Jody Rosen on Popdust as “a kind of hack anti-masterpiece—an unbroken sequence of rockist clichés, padded out with lame jokes, frat-dude machismo, and lots of dull-witted swipes at Justin Bieber’s hair, cars, and jewelry.” Still, those are the two critical poles: the artist emerges or the child endures.
As that list of mocking-points suggests, Bieber’s fascination comes in large part from what we project onto him, from the year-old Tumblr site Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber to the eight-hundred-percent-slowed-down “U Smile” that popped up around the same time. But that’s also partly because he’s a showbiz kid who never seems to leave his bubble—which has been central to even the good profiles written about him, such as Vanessa Grigoriadis’s in Rolling Stone piece from last year. Partly that’s overwhelming fame and serious overwork, but it’s also that, you know, he’s an 18-year-old kid with a lot of creature comforts. Why should he alter anything? Why, for instance, grow up, mature as a musician, or get particularly serious about anything?
But tensing against the straitjacket of perception is what makes the greatest pop go. It’s Prince wanting to enact his most ribald fantasies on wax. It’s Michael Jackson thumbing his nose at the brothers he knew damn well he was carrying on his back—not to mention hiring Quincy Jones to outdo everything they’d done since their early singles—or wearing white socks on the cover of Off the Wall. It’s Andre 3000 listening to Photek and writing “B.O.B.,” and then listening to the Smiths and the Buzzcocks and writing “Hey Ya!” It’s (damn right) Justin Timberlake making Justified.
Believe, on the other hand, isn’t the album where Justin Bieber grows up any more than The Vow is the movie where Channing Tatum really acts. The album reaches that particular apex with “Right Here,” in which he sounds entirely like a whiny 12-year-old. (I realize that’s default mode for plenty of R&B singers, and it’s annoying then, too.) The scenarios elsewhere on the album, by and large, are spun sugar, from “Boyfriend,” with its Buzz Lightyear lyrical reference, to the “They say we’re too young for love” and “In my head we’re already together” of “Catching Feelings,” to “Die in Your Arms,” with its requisite “Gonna make you believe, girl!” shout. Love remains magical, sweet, and rather chaste on Believe, without any of the heat or complication of the real thing, the kinds of things you get from Timberlake, to say nothing of Prince.
Plenty of this is expert bubblegum, and some of it goes a lot further. “Boyfriend” gets its friction from the fact that it sounds like the Ying Yang Twinz’ notorious “Wait (The Whisper Song),” from 2005, only with decidedly PG lyrics. And while Bieber doesn’t sound especially different from anybody else singing over fluffy trance synths these days—they’re behind the lamest points of another new blockbuster-pop album, Usher’s Looking 4 Myself, too, among much, much else—the production is occasionally superb. Ariel Rechtshaid and pop’s hottest hand, Diplo, juice the Euro-blare of “Thought of You” with some looped James Brown squeals and just enough vocal highlighters to turn the singer’s voice appealingly cartoony, while still eschewing anything kid-like. The soFLY & Nius-produced “Take You” has stuttering, blipping Timbaland verses that lead to a zippy electro-house chorus.
Still, all that Molly going around is starting to infect things. Take the opener, “All Around the World.” It’s worrisome, mainly thanks to Ludacris’s verse: “I love everything about you/ You’re imperfectly perfect/ Everyone’s itching for beauty/ But just scratching the surface.” What the hell is Ludacris doing reciting a 1991 Shamen B-side, or its equivalent, on anybody’s record?
But behind such pleasant thinking is the usual triumphalism of the rich. Hence “One Love,” with its chorus of, yep, “All I need is one love, and one heart”—and a copyright lawyer, no doubt. (A Google search for “Marley family lawsuit” yielded about 1,290,000 results in 0.29 seconds.) “Fall” is an acoustic-guitar shuffle that sounds like it’s waiting to be adapted to country—an uplifting duet with Tim McGraw, just imagine. “You can’t fly unless you let yourself fall,” Bieber sings—and of course, he’ll catch you if you do.
The subtext, of course, is that if an ordinary person like Bieber—you know: gifted, hungering for showbiz, and pretty, but ordinary—can make it by going for his dreams, then so can everybody. Anything you say, kid—just like it’s a complete coincidence that this album’s most resonant chorus goes, “I’m in love with the thought of you,” leaving the reality an afterthought.