BIEBER FEVER, largely dormant these past few years, has resurfaced in recent months, but the virus has mutated into a more vital strain. With his album Purpose, released this past fall, Justin Bieber has cast off the bad-boy affect of his teens, which tended to manifest via such adolescent shenanigans as egging neighbors’ houses, reckless driving, and public urination. He’s now promoting a redemption narrative that conflates performer as repentant sinner (a conceit familiar to fans of new country) with performer as Christ figure (a staple of almost every contemporary music genre besides new country), as intimated by the album’s jacket, which depicts the artist in prayer with an inverted white cross painted on his chest. If Purpose is crafted to resemble a Top Forty Christian youth-group playlist, complete with slow-dance ballads and PG club anthems, it was nonetheless painstakingly produced by a bevy of hip-hop and electronica doyens (most prominently BloodPop, Diplo, Skrillex, and longtime collaborator Poo Bear). The result is a compellingly confounding album. Purpose’s first three singles are masterworks of pop, while distending the genre with startlingly inventive sound design (pan flutes–turned–snake dance, weird plucking, highly syncopated beats)pop writhing in its own skin.
The album was released with an accompanying collection of dance videos, Purpose: The Movement, directed by Parris Goebel. These range stylistically from the pixelated vérité footage of guerrilla break-dancers for “Where Are Ü Now,” shot at a supermarket via handheld camera among ostensibly unaware shoppers; to the charged, Hunger Games–reminiscent mini-epic for “Children,” featuring a horde of plaintive youths alternately dancing and sprinting through a jungle; to the white-cube-situated Steadicam long take of an overwrought pas de deux, performed to the piano ballad “Life Is Worth Living,” the female dancer displaying a bullet hole above her left breast. This duet, performed by Emma Portner and Patrick Cook (both of whom also choreographed the dance), foregrounds its protagonist’s conflicting personae. She can be interpreted, by turns, as the Lamb of God locked in deleterious embrace with mankind or as a mortal sinner saved by grace. She is also a stand-in for the redeemed Bieber himself: At the dance’s close, the miracle of salvation has healed her wound.
The album’s lyrics ask more questions than they answer, as if seeking higher authority: What do you mean? Is it too late now to say sorry? What about the children? “Where are you now that I need you?” sings Bieber in “Where Are Ü Now,” recalling the forsaken Christ on the cross. Even the downbeat acoustic “Love Yourself,” penned with Ed Sheeran, which tells the singer’s ex-girlfriend exactly what she can do with herselfwith love as a coy placeholdertreads the line of righteousness, or, at least, keeps it Christian.
Though some have attributed the singer’s resurgent popularity to the fact that beliebers have hit drinking age, thus creating a market for Bieber Club, this doesn’t quite ring true. Rather, he’s accrued currency among adults because his recent choices run contrary to the prevailing means by which former child stars rebrand themselvesvia either overt sexuality or claims of critical “seriousness.” Bieber’s return to faith and weepy apology, coupled with the suite of emotive dance videos, amounts to about the least probable reinvention the singer could have fashioned. The heartfelt rambling at the end of the album’s title track“It’s, like, God, I’m giving it all I got, sometimes I’m weak and I’m gonna do it, and it’s, like, I’m not giving myself grace, I’m just, like, understanding, that’s just how it is”presents the singer as equally vulnerable and muddled. That the rebranding’s convoluted logic worksdown to the artist’s recent sartorial oscillations between sagging basketball shorts and T-shirt dressesspeaks to the current pluralist moment. We’re drawn in by Bieber’s mélange of guilelessness and douchiness, sensitivity and remarkably unself-aware lyrics, tabloid contretemps and emotional meltdowns.
Justin Biebera pop god made fleshnow wants to be recognized (and, of course, adored) for the complicated person he has become. And that person, an artist who performs his humanity via relatable contradictions, who foregrounds his capacity for sin and earnest struggle to do better, who demands that you put your faith in him while accepting his ambivalence, is the album’s strange and buoyant revelation. Or, to paraphrase BloodPop’s take on “Sorry,” apologizing can be exciting and fun!
Cat Kron is an assistant editor of Artforum.