Justin Bieber’s career thrives off change. It feels predictable, then, for an artist that has always had good marketing to capitalize on such a theme. After more than a decade in the industry and near the 10-year anniversary of his debut, Bieber has released his fourth album (excluding his Christmas project), Changes. Building up to its release, Bieber has also put together a documentary series called Seasons, which vaguely dips into his background, his struggles with drugs and mental health, and why Hailey Bieber is a saint. And although the series forces intimacy for fans, it’s still curious how things have evolved over the years with the Biebs.

At the beginning, the crux of Justin Bieber was his hair; it was not his voice, but his bangs. Justin Bieber had bangs, the crème de la crème of fringe. Before his public image was tainted by fits of brattish behavior and Disney Channel romance drama, Justin Bieber was a kid with a good voice and great hair (for the time). In early 2010, Bieber was coronated as the new teenage boy talking about love as if he knew it all — capturing the teen narcissism we all experience. His voice soared effortlessly; it was syrupy and glossy, pairing nicely with the silky sashay of his hair flip.

His debut album My World 2.0 (his first release My World is considered an EP) would cement Bieber as pure and squeaky clean, even when singing about love’s turmoil. The 10 tracks dissolved bits of euro-dance synths, hip-hop drums, and R&B balladry into a sappy fondue. Still, the adrenaline-laced drumbeats and cotton-candy vocal runs were endearing for young hearts — mine included. Retrospectively, these tracks are cheesy and shallow, but in adolescence, it felt like Bieber was ready to rip his heart out for you.

Every generation has a teen obsession, where executives plot to make a select few stars, fueled by hormone-soaked infatuation and fantasy. Bieber was entering pop culture right when the golden age of Disney Channel shows was about to end. His mentor Usher called him the “antithesis of Disney and Nickelodeon,” telling Vanity Fair that he was obviously a “hip kid.” Antithesis might have been a better description for the Bieber we know now, but in 2010, JB was anodyne in many ways. He was even slightly androgynous, from the long hair to his favorite color purple; he was the coverstar for 2011’s Love Magazine "Androgyny" issue. That February, Bieber would cut his hair, and everything would change.

By the time he got co-signs from Usher and Ludacris the following year, he was a viral hit across generations, drawing in the older crowd with pungent nostalgia for the prior decade and reminiscing on first loves. Yes, the same man who brought you “What’s Your Fantasy” also rapped: “At school on the playground / but I really want to see her on the weekend,” on Bieber’s hit single, “Baby.” At first, Bieleberism seemed innocent, his appropriation of black culture seemingly harmless, his laments of love adorable jests. As he entered his late teens, Bieber’s image transformed from lovable chipmunk-baby-angel to the guy that sweats swag and says things like “say hello to falsetto” and “swaggy.” The cheesiness seemed overly manufactured and arrogant, the bravado poisonous, but the Top 100 hits kept coming.

On top of his boyish charm and honeycomb vocals, Justin Bieber also wrote a version of the millennial American Dream. He went from busking on the streets of Ontario to being scouted by Scooter Braun via YouTube and performing in front of Usher a week later. Bieber’s come-up was quick to be mythologized, coming to stardom three years after the foundation of Twitter and one year before Instagram. He had the vocal cords, the budding “swagger,” and the timing was just right. His emergence came at an opportune time — a tragic one, nonetheless — when Chris Brown’s abusive actions led to his demise. Five months before Bieber was about to release his debut single, the admiration for the talented falsetto and moves of Brown were tarnished. A fallen moon-walking star makes room for another one. Soon, the swagger JB would be co-opting moves and croons akin to Brown.

Even before multitudes of controversy would hit Bieber after he shaved his mop-top, the teen was destined to be a symbol of white male privilege. His YouTube success story seemed destined for only beautiful white men: A year later, Rebecca Black would try for the same viral success, only to be publicly and critically ridiculed. And his love and adoption of black culture was acknowledged and even validated over the years. He wasn’t cancelled when the old racist tweets arose. He wasn’t dismissed when he wore dreadlocks. When he posted a strange Instagram about Chris Brown, Tupac, and Michael Jackson, everyone seemed to shrug or roll their eyes. He wasn’t even questioned when he duetted with R. Kelly. Again, it seems that Bieber’s celebrity thrived off of opportune timing, dodging the potential for being an immortal meme or perpetually cancelled.

Catchy melodies aside, it’s hard to understand Bieber as a pop monolith. Ten years of tabloid fodder have made him seem like a villain we want to root for that never quite reaches redemption. He was set up to grow right before our eyes like no other young celebrity before him. Even when his voice dropped, he had an endearing gentle (and seductive) quality. He then turned from supposed sweet child to a bratty demon, a maturation of toxic masculinity in the making. The James Dean-leather jacket pomposity wasn’t just an act, but a self-fulfilling prophecy of DUIs, drug abuse, and assholery enforced by the media. All this led to his apology phase, with a hit song, “Sorry,” multiple Ellen appearances, and public displays of forced humility. His celebrity has consistently shined even in the scrutiny, but still it seemed important — either to Bieber himself or his PR team — to have aired repentance.

Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder what the case would be if Bieber wasn’t a pop star. Would he still be considered a diva under a different genre? Maybe people would have shrugged off his mistakes if he were a rockstar; recklessness seems to be more afforded in the masculinized genre rather than pop. Maybe we would have just considered him a badass rather than a bad apple. Would he still be as popular if he were pegged a Christian singer? Secular music wasn’t the initial path foreseen by his guardians; in a 2009 profile for the NYT, his mother Pattie Mallette was confused why God wouldn’t send them to a Christian label, or even a manager of the same beliefs (Scooter Braun is Jewish).

Across his albums, Bieber has let God shine a light. Most of them banal — “I was on my knees when nobody else was prayin’” — and some of them cringey, “Like Adam and Eve / tragedy was our destiny.” But lately, his embrace of God has been another form of religion based on reinforcement. “I wanted to re-dedicate myself to God in that way because I really felt it was better for the condition of my soul,” he explained in a recent cover issue for Vogue. He believes his celibacy stint graced him with Hailey’s love: “There are perks. You get rewarded for good behavior.” It’s an awkward and poignant example of how belief systems can be for the elite’s existential qualms.

Since the beginning of his career, Bieber has been caught between what he was raised to be and what we wanted him to be. He’s become a cultural punching bag — a pop cherub spoiled by fame, exposure, and privilege. There were clear signs of distress: “Just the way my brain works. I'm not normal. I think differently — my mind is always racing,” Bieber described to Vanity Fair about his creative impulses. Mostly, he’s a prime example of a teflon celebrity, putting him away when we don’t want him and then admiring him when we need a hit. His Comedy Central Roast solidified this. Essentially, it was an acceptance of his immaturity, a validation. Maybe this is a strange instillment of antiquated religious repentance. To be publicly shamed to atone for his sins, but really, it was a profitable segment that capitalized on his charm and normalization of fucking up.

For the third episode of his documentary series Seasons, Bieber admits that he can’t speak Spanish, but “singers are good imitators.” Not only is this ignorant, disrespectful, and illustrative of the privilege that is afforded to a white man and his career, but his following statement is nigh sociopathic. "I guess I’m good at imitating,” he says almost cheekily. Yes, the voice has the power to carry emotion, tell stories, resurrect memories. But it’s been recorded that Bieber is hard to read or interview, whether as a mark of bad character or a result of growing up under constant supervision, which suggests that authenticity isn’t what we’re looking for in his music. Where these social platforms might have ostensibly allowed for more personal connection and vulnerability, it’s led to settling for superficial celebrity platitudes.

Looking back at a decade of Bieber, it’s hard to tell if we’re just accustomed to half-baked sincerity or if constant exposure via the Internet has transformed our emotions to an apathy that’s widely accepted.

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