Do you remember the exact moment at which you found yourself overwhelmed by the character of Justin Bieber, Prodigal Son at last night's MTV Video Music Awards? Was it the second where Bieber disappeared into a dark crowd, letting a canned voice-over about his "journey" wash over the audience like some redemptive wave? Did it happen when he reappeared and was hoisted into the air to finish singing his new single "What Do You Mean?" like a finely coiffed little angel? What about the lingering shot of Bieber sobbing post-performance, trying to find his composure while host / glittery hellion Miley Cyrus yammered on about defiling his person? I'm still trying to pinpoint the instant at which the forgiveness of Bieber's sins, real or imagined, provoked my eyes into rolling so hard it gave me a headache.
Bieber's performance of "Where Are Ü Now" and "What Do You Mean?" was designed with a transition in mind, namely his move from a vague commercial purgatory into legitimate adult pop stardom. It was successful in that regard: he sounded strong, danced capably, and demonstrated his ability to fill a niche wherein the sound and style of contemporary dance music is translated into mass-market pop. But the performance also marked the moment where the seams on Bieber's year of public penitence began to show, and it found him crossing the thin line separating genuine apology and robotic, unfeeling appeasement. Bieber's interest in personal salvation is the most interesting thing about his career in 2015 — but it's his music that's going to determine his fate.
At this point, the rise, fall, and myth of Justin Bieber are part of pop history: a baby-faced teen is plucked from the wilds of southwestern Ontario thanks to a series of adorable YouTube cover videos, and he becomes a star. The new idol is poisoned by his rapid ascent: he becomes bratty, arrogant, and toxic. He's arrested for DUIs and sued by angry neighbors every few months; he's punched out by Orlando Bloom in Ibiza, a sentence no entertainment professional will ever tire of writing. His descent into villainy climaxes with the greatest deposition video ever recorded. By the end of 2014, he's universally viewed as an entitled, unrepentant shithead. This year, something changed: Bieber decided to convince the world he's become a good person. That's the mode in which he's spent the entirety of 2015.
From all angles, Bieber's redemptive arc is unnecessary
I'm willing to hear a number of arguments surrounding Bieber's motivations. He might have undergone some true change, one driven by his faith and a few years as the butt of every joke. He may have been cajoled into a rebrand by handlers and friends worried about his behavior's ultimate impact on their bank accounts. (I think it's probably a bit of both.) But from both a musical and commercial perspective, Bieber's redemptive arc — the one that climaxed last night with that bit of post-show sobbing — was unnecessary. The most important part of his impending return to pop respectability is his music, not his personality: it needs to be good, and it needs to make use of the tremendous institutional force Bieber has at his disposal. His "return to form" is that simple, and it has nothing to do with his personal "journey," his miscreant past, or his conspicuous displays of emotion.
It's not like Bieber hasn't made top-tier pop music in the past. The singles cut from 2012's Believe — "Boyfriend," "As Long As You Love Me," and the Nicki Minaj feature "Beauty and a Beat" — all peaked within Billboard's top 10, and deserved to do so; three years later, they encapsulate a specific moment in pop where a specific subgenre, dubstep, was exerting undue influence on the sound of music. Journals, a compilation of free singles released at the end of 2013, was even more compelling — a tight and focused vision of wispy, overtly sexual alt-R&B. It would've been a worthy listen from some Brooklyn-based indie darling; from one of the world's most prominent musicians, it was a fascinating and surprising move. The album wasn't a victim of commercial marginalization, either: almost every song from Journals charted without a formal release or much promotion, getting there on the pure strength of Bieber's fanbase and some word-of-mouth among pleasantly surprised, open listeners. Subscribing to a narrative that Bieber was creatively and commercially destitute before begging Ellen DeGeneres for forgiveness means pretending Journals doesn't exist; talking about "What Do You Mean?" like it's his first "grown and sexy" moment ignores his last three years of work.
If you stripped all of the nicety from Bieber c. 2015, nothing would change
If you stripped away every bit of penitence and nicety from the Bieber of 2015, nothing would change. He'd still be charting highly, and he'd still be earning tons of positive press, but they'd be framed around some perceived difference in musical quality rather than a personal transformation. "Where Are Ü Now" still sounds like a transmission from the near future after months of constant radio play, and it's being dissected by no less a publication than The New York Times. "What Do You Mean?" hops onto the wave of tropical house just as it's commercially cresting. They're good songs, and Bieber is using the immense infrastructural might he's accrued over the last near-decade to ensure they reach their potential.
With that said, Bieber's naked, calculated plays for everyone's adoration are actually endangering his blooming "comeback." The music industry is fickle and volatile, and it wouldn't take much for Bieber to tip from redemption into commercially-motivated insincerity — one more tearful moment, maybe, or a particularly saccharine talk show appearance. At this point, the smartest thing he can do is step back from all of his choreographed personal talking points in order to focus on the quality and refinement of his upcoming album.
And if he needs evidence that a re-emergence need not be apologetic, he doesn't have to look far: his countryman and fellow VMA performer Abel Tesfaye — better known as The Weeknd — proved that point about half an hour before Bieber took the stage himself. Tesfaye's never been as prominent as Bieber, but he's spent much of this year making a comeback of his own, one necessitated by the anemic reception bestowed upon his 2013 full-length debut Kiss Land. His struggles didn't have to do with antics — antics are half the point when it comes to The Weeknd, who inhabits a world of drug-fueled orgies and regrettable decisions — but they took place all the same. His road to pop superstardom didn't involve a promise to change or a departure from his trademark lechery: he brought in some of the best songwriters in the world, used them to amplify his existing gifts, and ended up becoming a star on his own terms.
Bieber needs to stop atoning for his sins
His rendition of "Can't Feel My Face" was the performance of the night thanks to an incredible vocal take and a surprising degree of showmanship. It had everyone in the audience dancing — even Kanye. You can argue that Bieber's fans are more invested in qualities like purity and honesty than people who listen to The Weeknd, but fans can grow up, and you can always find new ones. (I'm also sure that Beliebers would still be swearing fealty and running social media campaigns even if their Justin wasn't trying to become an angel reborn.) If Bieber really wants to cement his status as a pop force, he needs to worry less about atoning for his sins and more about maintaining his musical momentum.