“Is it too late now to say sorry?” Justin Bieber croons, tropical drums and an EDM bassline throbbing behind his voice. It’s hard to say who he’s apologizing to because Bieber’s antics over the last few years have earned him his fair share of detractors. From driving recklessly and committing petty vandalism to numerous counts of assault, Bieber has always been a figure for public scorn.
Bieber and his co-songwriters have confirmed that thematically, “Purpose” is meant to be a coming-of-age album. Songs like “Sorry” and “Love Yourself” confirm this change of direction for the artist, and the sonic maturation of his music — from pop, boyish love tunes to tropical house, club-friendly EDM — mirrors his own personal maturation as a person.
But Bieber and his writers are sharper and more coy than this surface level interpretation of the album, a fact they hint at in “Sorry.”
“I’ll take every single piece of the blame if you want me to,” Bieber begins, during one of the quieter moments of the song. “But you know that there is no innocent one in this game for two.”
And in the “game for two” that is celebrity worship, Bieber is right. What do we expect to happen when pop culture throws a 15-year-old artist into a level of fame and super-stardom that only increases for the rest of his teenage years? I think back to the kind of person I was as a freshman in high school, and the thought of that person being broadcast to the entire world is utterly terrifying.
The ugly truth is that we owe Bieber an apology too. The machine-like way the music industry chews up and processes young talent is both soulless in its efficiency and heartless in the way it publicizes and worsens the mistakes children make. Reckless driving and assault are a bit above the sort of trouble we usually expect young people to get in, but they’re outgrowths of very normal teenage woes; a lack of concern for safety, and a lack of self-control.
But when the cameras are always on you, and any publicity you get means more attention and name recognition (and thus more album sales), regular teenage hijinks are transformed into very adult crimes. Luckily for Bieber, his history with alcohol and prescription drugs seems to be a closed chapter; indeed, closing that chapter was a major theme of the album.
For many young child stars, a lifetime of debt and rehab is what they have to look forward to after the general public loses interest with their legal run-ins.
Bieber is still, of course, responsible for his actions. His past actions were reprehensible and he seems, at least in the public eye, very aware and apologetic toward them. But it’s not as simple as Bieber saying “I know that I let you down.” He’s partially the product of an entertainment industry that doesn’t respect or take care of the artists who keep it alive. And while he’s genuinely apologetic for his actions in “Sorry,” he’s not afraid to levy some of the responsibility back on us.
Usher, one of Bieber’s mentors during his formative years as a musician, once commented: “I had the chance to ramp up my success, where this has happened to Bieber abruptly.”
As stylists and coaches trained Bieber to adopt an edgier, sexier look to better push his appeal to young girls, it seems like his own needs and personal growth were often disregarded and left behind. And for that, Justin, I’m sorry.
Reach columnist Alex Bruell at email@example.com. Twitter: @BruellAlex