One of the stranger elements of being a celebrity must be the realization that every aspect of your life – from your clothes, to who you date, to the dumb shit you say off-handedly to friends, colleagues, or strangers – is under intense public scrutiny. Moral hangovers are bad enough for regular citizens; I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have hundreds of thousands of people voicing their opinion on your every move. There’s something rather Faustian to this: a lifetime (ideally) of untold riches in exchange for your sanity and privacy.
The American entertainment industry is particularly good at stirring this maelstrom of intense emotions and opinions into vehicles to sell whatever it is they want us to buy. It’s more insidious in certain cases than others – the popular public perception of Kanye West having its fair share of racist undertones, for example – but it’s clear that our idolatry of public figures burns brightly and quickly in this country. We love them intensely and dearly, until we don’t, and then it’s onto the next one. However, the only thing we love more than knocking someone down is a comeback story.
Justin Bieber has been in the public eye for so long that I doubt there are many people in the United States who don’t know his name. At least, the few who don’t know much about him can surely use his name as an effigy for all that’s wrong with Millennials. In many ways, this is normal: Bieber said and did some pretty stupid shit over the years, and sort of skated by on his good looks and army of Beliebers, until he couldn’t do that any longer. He went from adorably harmless tween crooner to delusional supernova within a couple years, becoming a punchline for espousing absurd beliefs after the well of talent had apparently run dry – the only true cardinal sin. Sadly, this transition is all too common and almost tragically relatable when it happens to a kid exposed to so many riches and fame at such a young age, all while living in the fishbowl of 24/7 media coverage.
By mid 2015, casual listeners and music critics alike had dismissed Bieber as washed up, pre-fabricated, and out of touch – a harsh and premature label on a then 21-year old artist, but one that fit with the narrative of him reaching stratospheric fame mainly thanks to Usher and Scooter Braun’s guiding hands. Bieber the public figure was at his most charming when played by (Emmy-winner) Kate McKinnon on SNL, a pitch-perfect parody. Even when Bieber released “What Do You Mean?” the first single off of Purpose, reactions were firmly placed in the realm of unexpected and welcome surprise, like finding $20 in your jeans pocket, or getting into Dodge City without waiting in line.
All of this changed on October 22, 2015, when the song and video for “Sorry” premiered on YouTube.
In the matter of three minutes and twenty one seconds Justin Bieber was able to upend the entire conversation about his “waning” career. The song was fucking good, and catchy as all hell: from the pulsing moombahton beat, to the warm fuzzy synths and horns producer Skrillex placed throughout as garlands, to the oh-my-god-he’s-actually-asking-for-forgiveness lyrics, there was simply no way to avoid cracking a smile any time this played on the radio, or at a bar, or out of the car sitting next to you in traffic.
The video starred the ReQuest Dance Crew and the Royal Family Dance Crew, and was directed by New Zealander Parris Goebel, herself a choreographer. The best part? Bieber himself was nowhere to be seen in the video, which featured an all-female cast of incredible dancers, explosions of color, and throwback 90s style. Bieber, the all consuming ego, placed women front and center of his biggest career gamble. And he nailed the landing.
As someone who is (occasionally) paid to have “very deep thoughts” and strong opinions on the state of music (makes jerking-off motion), this was extremely confusing, welcome, and delightful. It was almost impossible not to start dancing anytime that song was played – hell, I STILL start shaking my ass and crack a smile when I hear that intro. As of September 2016, “Sorry” is the 4th most viewed video on YouTube, with over 1.8 billion plays. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not in 2015.
We all know how it went after that: “Sorry” was followed up by a couple more hits and some goodwill-generating appearances on Ellen and James Corden’s shows. Admitting to liking Justin Bieber was no longer a guilty pleasure, and by early 2016, the pendulum swing was complete. Bieber was back to being a media darling, even if we grumbled about it the whole time.