By Fergus Ewbank
Few performers over the past decade have polarised the public quite as much as Justin Bieber. For many, his talent as an entertainer is unsurpassable. For them, the pitch-perfect harmonies, flawless drum solos and painlessly choreographed dance routines are the building blocks upon which he has constructed his plinth.
Atop this towering pantheon Bieber resides – his angelic good looks and rigorously maintained body image only serving to embellish his swoonish superstar image. Of course, for every Belieber, there’s a dis-Belieber, and just as many people in this world see the star as nothing more than a petulant miscreant, a role model for youthful belligerence.
Last year was a fruitful time for the singer; not only did his sixth album Purpose receive huge global success but he also bagged his first number one single on the Billboard Hot 100. His music appealed to a wider demographic: less teeny pop and more dancefloor-driven, his sound had evolved towards an older audience – and in doing so, reflecting the singer’s own coming of age.
Undergoing the transition from teen pop star to independent adult proved a testing time. It was, however, one that would ultimately lead him to reassess, to realign his priorities and take a fresh outlook on life, and faith. Keen to shun any misconceived notions of ‘Belieber’ God complexes, Bieber now finds increasing solace in his own Christianity. For him, the time has come to level out, to slow the trajectory and begin trying to rebuild a public image warped by stardom. Had Bieber once sold his soul to a tight-jeaned devil on the pop chart crossroads, this would be his moment of redemption.
“I just want people to know I’m human,” says the 21-year-old. “I would like people to understand that when you have so much going on, and you’re constantly under scrutiny, it’s a very tough place to be. I started feeling very cynical and wanting to do my own thing and not listen to anyone. It was a hard time for me, and I needed to rebel against everything. That’s when I started making a lot of mistakes, but I think when you’re 19 or 20 you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. It’s just that in my case I have cameras following me around everywhere.”
On his recent press tour in support of Purpose, Bieber appeared keen to recast himself as a serious adult and positive role model. Evidently he recognises he fell victim to the pressures of fame and constant attention. “I’m more at ease, calmer, more collected, relaxed, and more in tune with myself,” he says. “I would love to be able to walk to the grocery store and hang out and not be bothered, but I can’t do that. But of course, a lot of people would also love to be able to perform on stage.”
Contrary to what many think, Bieber wasn’t born into his moneyed life as a performer. The son of a single and deeply religious mother, Pattie Mallette, who fell pregnant when she was 18, Justin showed a strong interest in music as a child, teaching himself to play many instruments. At the age of 12, he entered a local talent competition and was placed second. His mother posted his performance on YouTube and continued to post other clips of Bieber singing, which eventually started her son down the road of pop superstardom.
Signing a major record deal at a very young age, Bieber’s contract came about following a long period of hype within the industry, still just the product of those early YouTube uploads. Ultimately, his fate came down to a bidding war between two giants. Of the many heavy hitters involved in that formative period, it was Justin Timberlake and Usher who emerged as the key figures. Offers for a record deal came in from both camps, with Bieber and his young mother largely clueless on any of the small print.
Deciding between two artists the young star had always looked up to didn’t come easily. “I really could have gone wrong either way, signing to either label,” Bieber muses. “Usher and Justin were both great guys and the situations were both unique and really good, but it came down to having L.A. Reid backing me up as part of the deal with Usher’s side. It’s been great ever since.”
The star is quick to eschew any suggestion that career decisions were, or still are, financially driven. “I was just trying to enjoy the experience and enjoying performing for people who love my music,” he explains. “I was never the kid that was, like, ‘oh, I want to be famous’ or ‘I want to be out there’. Music was something I loved and knew I was good at, and that was what it was all about for me. That’s what I still want it to be all about.”
As he points out, it can be all too easy to envy the life of superstardom without knowing all that it entails. While other teenagers were enjoying normal teenage things, his youth unfolded in front of the world. It’s in those years that we all come to understand ourselves, and mistakes are all part of that learning process.
At an age when many teenagers are hiding away from the world behind slammed doors and long fringes, Bieber was thrust out into the open. It didn’t do him much good either. In the years following that record contract, he went through his fair share of knocks and scrapes – a bad break-up, multiple run-ins with the law, a night behind bars for drunk driving and drag racing, as well as the unfortunate emergence of some wincingly belligerent police videos.
“I was close to letting [fame] completely destroy me,” he frowns. “I wouldn’t suggest being a child star. It’s the toughest thing in the world. Look at the statistics on how many child stars have crumbled and turned out to be whack-jobs.”
Widely pored over in the media, Bieber said he felt “invincible” during that rebellious period. He’s grown a lot since then, and things have changed – now, he seeks to find strength in God rather than the false idolatry of fame. “Nothing is bigger than God,” he says. “If God’s for me, who can be against me? That’s helped me in a lot of situations where I feel judged. It gives you confidence and you can carry yourself in a cool way, but it’s not cocky.”
Clearly intent on rehabilitating himself as a chastened and more responsible figure, the maturing Bieber seems to be well on the road to redemption. The question is, are we seeing a true manifestation of faith in the star or simply a strategic PR move?
Bieber argues the former with a level of conviction that makes it difficult to see it any other way. “I’m a Christian. I believe in God. I believe that Jesus died on a cross for my sins. I believe that I have a relationship, and I’m able to talk to him and really, he’s the reason I’m here, so I have to remember that.”
Whichever camp you fall into with the star, and there appear to be very few on the fence, his attribution of success to faith is certainly admirable. “At this point, my faith has gotten me to where I am,” he continues. “My faith has brought me to a whole other level. I love talking about my faith.”
And clearly he does. Ask Bieber about Christianity and a tap opens up somewhere inside of him. Truthfully, the way he discusses his faith sometimes comes across as flighty and inconsistent but, then again, while many his age seem outwardly apathetic towards religion, can there be anything to dislike about his outspokenness?
“I just wanna honestly live like Jesus,” he says. “Not be Jesus – I could never… I don’t want that to come across weird! He created a pretty awesome template of how to love people and how to be gracious and kind. If you believe it, he died for our sins. Sometimes when I don’t feel like doing something, but I know it’s right, I remember: I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t feel like going to the cross and dying so that we don’t have to feel what we should have to feel.”
It’s a faith for the millennial generation, practical and unfussy. Perhaps the consequences of a challenging life on the road, Bieber creates his personal understanding of faith, something that works for him. Beyond that, though, there’s clearly a dislike for stricter modes of Christianity. While he enjoys a following that exists within most corners of society – be that straight, gay, transgender, Jewish, Islamic and so on – it would be wrong for him to align with any notion that those people are in some way opposed to what he believes. In one sense, it’s very easy to place doubt on the star’s level of commitment to his religion but, at the same time, for welcoming in a more inclusive mode of Christianity, he has to be admired.
“Some people are bad communicators,” he explains, speaking of his dislike for the evangelism he often comes across in the States. “They find something that works so well for them, and they wanna share it, but they don’t know how to share it, so they’re kind of pushy. There’s a lot of really weird stuff going on at churches. You ever flicked on a channel, and a late-night church show is on? Sometimes it’s like, ‘You better do this or you gon’ die and you gon’ burn in hell!’ And you’re like, I don’t want anything to do with this!”
In a world where people should be free to believe whatever they want, Bieber’s faith both shapes and is shaped by the diversity of his huge following. It shows how anybody can adopt religion in a way that suits them and Bieber is, as a reformed adult, providing a positive example to a younger generation. In a world where Jesus Christ has 5 million likes on Facebook and Bieber 72 million, he serves to deliver the message of faith to a portion of society with which the Church lost touch a long time ago.
Instagram images of a body adorned with tattoos of religious imagery could well be as close as many of his followers will (or want to) get to classic iconography. As long as the original meaning is not lost, can that necessarily be a bad thing? A post from last year in which Justin uploaded an image from a passage in the Bible received 752,000 Likes, a level of engagement that even the strictest sects of Christianity would admit is nothing less than impressive, and positive.
It’s with great ease and much willingness that we can laugh at one of Bieber’s most quotable interview moments. In last year’s big cover story for Complex magazine, he famously said, “You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.” It’s hilarious on several levels – a laugh with as much as laugh at moment. However, for all of the contradiction that admittedly does exist in Bieber’s Christianity, this succeeds in summing up why none of that matters.
Faith should be a positive thing; personal beliefs shouldn’t be a cause for dissociation from anybody else. Bieber’s defence of his faith was found funny by everybody and offended no one. As with his music, it’s a message designed for the masses – it’s the encouragement to do your own thing in a world where doctrine has sadly so often divided us, and in spite of people’s prior commitment to dis-Beleibing, they can hardly argue with that.