Back in 2009, to the delight of pop-obsessed teens, a young new artist hit the scene.
Justin Bieber — with his fresh face, perfected hair swoop and soulful dance moves — released his debut album “My World,” which immediately stole the hearts of fans who were proud to call themselves Beliebers.
The Canadian singer rode that success until around 2014 when he began to have several run-ins with the law. He'd later go on to say he was struggling with his mental health and drug use.
Now the 27 year old is back with his sixth studio album called "Justice" — a record that reveals a much more mature version of himself.
Zach Baron, senior staff writer for GQ, wrote its May issue cover story "The Redemption of Justin Bieber." The interview left Baron stunned. The image he conjured of Bieber was completely different than the person sitting before him.
Unprompted by Baron, Bieber voiced what seemed to be a stream of consciousness, similar to a confessional, for an uninterrupted 10 minutes. Historically, the child star wasn’t willing to explain himself to anyone, Baron says.
But in the room with Baron sat an “incredibly thoughtful, inquisitive, honest, gentle person,” he says. The writer says it felt right to open his article with an honest reflection of this interaction with a celebrity who he assumed would be unhappy and distracted.
Throughout the early 2010s, Bieber dominated the headlines as a young star who had fallen from grace. He was accused of punching a paparazzi and acting inappropriately in some instances. In 2014, he was charged with driving under the influence and resisting arrest in Miami Beach.
This dark period in his life was fueled by self-loathing, Bieber expressed to Baron in the interview. The singer, who became internationally famous at 13 years old, grew up in a system that applauded his talent but really valued him for the money he could bring in.
“Fame breaks your brain a little bit,” Baron says.
That’s not an excuse for the musician’s behavior, Baron says, but rather an insight into what Bieber was going through at the peak of his struggles — both publicly and behind closed doors. His young parents, while loving and caring, couldn’t always provide enough support to combat the toll of child stardom, Baron says.
“These are the things that happen when you get a lot of money and a lot of fame at a young age,” he says. “Your brain is not ready for it, especially if you don't have a great support system around you, which Justin didn't.”
As Baron writes, there are two things that transformed Bieber — his marriage and his faith. Both are “delicate to discuss,” he says.
The system Bieber was operating in before he met his now wife, Hailey Bieber, was “incentivized to some extent to keep this machine going no matter what,” the writer says.
But Hailey Bieber turned that around, encouraging her partner to take breaks from constant touring and late-night studio sessions and to reassess his values.
His Christian faith had a similar effect. Bieber started to internalize the church’s message that he was valued no matter who he was, Baron says.
Bieber worked 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on his Billboard-topping album “Justice.” While that might seem normal to the average worker, his work schedule “dispels the myth of, man, you really have to suffer or act like a rock star to make these big pop albums,” Baron says.
“Justice,” while loaded with feel-good tracks, hits on the heartstrings. Bieber is vulnerable throughout, especially in the song “Lonely,” where the somber lyrics communicate the isolation of growing up in the spotlight.
“Everybody knows my past now, like my house was always made of glass,” he sings. “And maybe that's the price you pay for the money and fame at an early age.”
Bieber wasn’t always this honest with himself or with his admirers.
The healing process began when he canceled the final dates of his massive and extremely lucrative 2017 world tour. He told Baron that he was sitting in a castle in Ireland and couldn’t feel any emotions — just complete emptiness.
That’s the moment the artist began a journey into truly examining who he was and who aspires to become, Baron says. It’s a path many people go down in their teenage years, but because of his early stardom, these internal reflections were “held at bay infinitely,” Baron says.
Stepping away from the tour proved to be a huge step for Bieber.
“I think there are a lot of people who have been through what he's been through who never took that final step,” Baron says.
Celebrity downfalls — specifically for childhood stars — have been witnessed time and time again. But what Bieber did was evolve. Whether a fan of his or not, his actions to better himself are viewed as admirable and are relatable for many. Plus, Americans love a good comeback story.
That’s the big takeaway in analyzing Bieber’s growth.
An “instinctive” part of our culture that rejects doling out sympathy to rich and famous people, Baron says. But he argues everyone can empathize with suddenly realizing you don’t like the person you’ve become and taking actionable steps to change.
“That work is hard. A lot of people never do it,” Barons says. “He did.”
At 27, Bieber has many more chapters to write in his life journey. Baron’s article only took a “snapshot of a moment” of Bieber’s life at a place when the star is content, the writer says.
“We can cross our fingers that that's him at 30 or 35,” Baron says. “But he is in a wild, tough world and is sort of running without a bunch of the tools that the rest of us had to develop — and we'll see.”
This segment aired on April 22, 2021.
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