It’s hard to remember now, but in 2014 Justin Bieber wasn’t doing so well. Over the last few years, his often ridiculous pranks and run-ins with the cops had lowered public opinion of the teen star, and it was at an all-time low. Even his boundary-pushing release Journals failed to make the impact it might have. Plus, his on-again-off-again relationship with Selena Gomez kept winding down until it seemed to be officially off.
In other words, Bieber was entering the point in his career where he’d have to transition from his success as a teen heartthrob into an adult pop star. But that meant cleaning up his act a little. No more peeing in mop buckets. No more run-ins with his neighbors. No more unfortunate pets. (Although we still miss you, OG Mally.)
But most importantly, he needed a new sound, a new song, and a new rallying cry. His fans were ready and waiting to feel proud of their hero again, and when 2015’s wave of media appearances began, there was a sense of anticipation: What about the music?
A lot of artists reach this point in their career and don’t find that song — they fade into the shadows and crop back up on The Voice or in movie cameos and commercials. That’s all well and good, but this is Justin Bieber we’re talking about, there’s no way he was at that stage already, was there? We never should’ve worried. Of course there wasn’t. Justin Bieber was just getting started.
The new sounds came trickling in during the beginning of 2015 via several collaborations with super-producer-duo Jack Ü (aka Skrillex and Diplo). Their initial collaboration, “Where Are U Now,” wasn’t technically a Justin Bieber song (like this summer’s Major Lazer track “Cold Water” isn’t, natch) but it hit in February and quickly sparked new interest.
He followed that up in August with the official lead single off his long-awaited fourth studio album Purpose, “What Do You Mean?” which also featured the Jack Ü sound. These two tracks felt brilliant, new and exciting, but they were just like a long fuse leading to the real dynamite: “Sorry.”
“Sorry” hit in late October and it was like watching a wave approach a shore — beautiful, powerful, inevitable. Listening to the song is sort of like submerging yourself in water; it wraps itself around you, all viscous-blue-sparkle, the synths stick to your skin like droplets and each chorus-flip feels more familiar than the next, until the song is an unexpectedly welcome guest in your heart. There is no try, no choice, no thought — you love “Sorry” without thinking. Your body will begin to move without your permission.
Even so, it was the “Sorry” video that clinched the deal — instead of leaning into the lyrics and emphasizing the sad-boy apology, we got to watch an army of neon-clad, self-empowered women dance in anything but an apologetic way.
It might be the most brilliant bait-and-switch in the history of music videos: Justin Bieber, possibly the most famous pop star in the world, doesn’t even appear in the clip. By putting his words literally in the mouths of babes, Bieber dodged his own bullet, and earned our forgiveness to boot.
Though the whole narrative didn’t totally ring true for me last fall, there are plenty of other likable songs on Purpose, too. Even if they’re not dripping in contrition like this one is, they’re powerful enough earworms that they’ve persisted in winning hearts over anyway.
Nothing could be more indicative of that than the slew of AMA awards that Bieber has been nominated for: Favorite Song – Pop/Rock for another Purpose track “Love Yourself,” Favorite Album – Pop/Rock for Purpose as a whole, Favorite Male Artist – Pop/Rock, and even the coveted Artist of the Year.
But, I’d argue that none of those four nominations would’ve come to be if it wasn’t for the fifth one: A Video of the Year nomination for “Sorry.” That video and song were the capstone of a pivotal choice, one that began Bieber’s next chapter and kickstarted his current era. Sometimes, nothing rings truer than an apology, and the best way to do it is take yourself out of it completely.
Let’s hope that is the lesson that Bieber takes with him through the rest of his career — oh, uh, and that girl in the green shirt from the “Sorry” video. Congrats on the five AMA nominations Bieber, we’ll always be rooting for you.