Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Justin Bieber- Believe (2012): 52%

RE: Concerns about selling out and succumbing to ‘Bieber fever’

Every music critic loves his job when he is asked to review a great album from a respectable renowned artist. Not a popular album, mind you, but a great album. These are the albums that only a certain number of people seek out, and critics love to draw attention to. For the last 5 years or more, I have been on a hot pursuit of the greatest albums of all time, and dissecting them to determine and learn what makes them great. In this pursuit, I have enjoyed music of outstanding aesthetic quality and danceable grooves that bring out the manic and more positive parts of my personality. And I have also been graced with songs that I consider being pure medicine to the human eardrum. But what makes a great music critic is the willingness to subject him/herself to music that is renowned for being terrible, yet providing the reader with an unbiased perspective of the artist and his/her work.

This basically applies to any popular artists who frequently occupy the single digit spots of the Top 40, have legions of dangerously obsessed fans, and incorporate a relentlessly ubiquitous display of ultimately disposable merchandise. In other words, the corporate-controlled artists. This music tends to act as a tractor beam for scorn, ridicule and contempt from people who appreciate good and classic music. As much as ‘Bieber fever’ is now renowned for being more contagious than the measles, many people treat this kid’s music exactly like an undesirable disease, because to them, that’s what it is. I myself had remained immune to ‘Bieber fever,’ that is until I made the decision to hear exactly what is acting as its own cultural force. My personal choices in music have always been dictated by my own respect for any artists who simply exist, rather than the artists who are constantly being shoved and dangled in front of my face via just about everywhere in any media outlet. These kinds of artists instill in me a sense of cultural claustrophobia where everybody everywhere only likes these select few artists and maybe just one or two relatively obscure artists they came across possibly by accident. I often have this fantasy where a DJ, hired by the high school administration to provide safe and popular dance music to the annual prom, is lured outside by me, and bribed with a couple thousand dollars to let me take control of the music. I sure as hell wouldn’t be playing any Lady Gaga, Beyoncé or fucking “Sandstorm” for the umpteenth time.

As much apprehension I felt about reviewing this album, I had to ask myself the question why. Am I really that self-conscious about my reputation and image that refusing to listen to Justin Bieber is a requisite? And of course, the proverbial questions of: what will other people think of me when they see that I have decided to review a Justin Bieber album? Will they think lower of me? Will my reputation be tarnished forever? Will they think me queer, or even worse: a sell-out? Given these negative connotations associated with Bieber’s name, I guess the biggest reason why I was apprehensive about reviewing this album is because I might actually enjoy it. That’s quite a stretch, but hey, weirder shit has happened. Say what you will of me, all I know is that I love music enough to be interested in everything, even this bubblegum pop bullshit, to the extent that I want to know exactly why so many people across the world deem Justin Bieber obsession-worthy.

RE: Believe

As the saying goes, “curiosity killed the cat,” but I only believe that curiosity only kills stupid people with no common sense. That said, I don’t believe there’s anything physically or mentally dangerous about Bieber’s music, therefore, I shall allow my curiosity to throw caution to the wind and try to dive into this album with an open mind. Mind you, the only previous exposure to Justin Bieber I have had before Believe was what I read on his IMDb and Wikipedia page, along with the music video for “Baby.”

Supposedly, this album showcases Justin Bieber growing up and developing from My World 2.0, where he was just another young and fresh pop star with iconic hair and a boyish charm that has made girls all around the world scream like their grandmothers did in the throes of Beatlemania. Based solely on what I had read about him prior to Believe, I had come to the conclusion that he is, in fact, a talented musician who can play a great many instruments well, but utilizing them to create a halfway decent song is an entirely different story. Even at gunpoint, I had doubted that he would be able to come up with a respectable riff or lick on his own for the sake of his own life.

He’s not exactly well-spoken or incredibly thoughtful either. When asked about controversial topics such as sex and abortion, he said regarding sex, “I don’t believe you should have sex with anyone unless you love them.” And my personal favorite quote for abortion ever, “It’s like killing a baby.” Nor is he well-versed in Christianity either. On his torso he has a tattoo of Jesus’ name written in Hebrew. The problem is that I doubt he is aware that Leviticus 19:28 preaches against getting a tattoo at all. And I doubt even tattoos expressing love of religion is a special exception. So at best, my former opinion of Justin Bieber was of a naïve hypocrite who is a puppet for the faceless corporate personas who sign his massive checks and secure his legacy.

To quote Keith Richards: “Accountants have terrible tastes in music.” When he said that, some decades ago, he was also talking about the people in society who take music for granted, and listen to only what’s being pushed through the pop radio airwaves. Perhaps my pessimistic paradigm of most people in society is possibly inaccurate, but I’m basing my comments solely on what I see in places like, say, the mall. Seeing as though almost a month has passed since its release date, I’d say that anybody who wants to buy a copy Believe already has it. As of now, it is #3 on the Billboard 200 since Linkin Park’s Living Things knocked it off the #1 spot. Perhaps this is the first sign that his popularity is indeed starting to wane if even Linkin Park can accomplish such a feat.

Now then, the part you’ve been waiting for: the music and lyrics. Before I listened to the music, I wanted to inspect the lyrics first, just to get an idea of what is on Justin’s mind and what is most important to him. Given his simple and naïve opinions on controversial subjects, it comes as no surprise that his lyrics are not only simple and naïve, but repetitive and sometimes arrogant too. Take, for instance, the lyrics for “Boyfriend,” the lead single, “I got money in my hands that I’d really like to blow/Swag swag swag, on you.” As well as, “If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go,” which in its variations, is repeated about 12 times in a song that’s less than 3 minutes. But that’s not counting about 3 other phrases he repeats to death as well. Now, if Bieber was the sole writer behind both the music and lyrics, this would be slightly less inexcusable. However, since a total of 4 people, including Bieber wrote this song, it reminds me of how lazy modern pop is. Prince barely even needed the Revolution back when he was crafting Purple Rain, and that record was everywhere in the 80’s. But what the hell does ‘swag’ mean as a verb? I’ve heard it as an adjective, and even a noun, but to think of what Bieber wants to ‘swag’ on a girl makes me shudder.

After perusing through lyrics to both My World 2.0 and this album, I have concluded that these lyrics are really not that different from love songs that were written over 50-60 years ago. Down to their fundamental core, all love songs convey the same ideas: that love is something to be had, pursued, treasured, and kept alive for as long as possible. And when a relationship deteriorates, that’s when we get into blues territory. Given song titles like, “Catching Feelings,” “Take You,” “Die in Your Arms,” and “Beauty and a Beat,” we can automatically guess that these are love songs. Come to think of it, there are no other song titles on Believe that suggest Bieber has anything else to talk about other than love, girls, feelings, and all that upbeat poppy schtuff.

Which is acceptable for an 18 year old pop star, and pop music in general, but somehow I feel we’ve heard these exact same songs many, many, many times before. To analyze the lyrics in any deep, political or philosophical context would be absurd and utterly pointless. Though it was particularly amusing to see one user on try to turn “Boyfriend” into a political commentary on the volatile Cold War relationship between the Imperialistic/Capitalist U.S.A. and the Communistic ideologies of the former Soviet Union.

The music reflects the lyrics quite accurately in the same sense that it’s not deep, and while it tries to be intricate, it still comes across as plain and easy to digest. Upon hearing Bieber’s voice this time around, it is apparent that those who vehemently deny he is of the masculine persuasion don’t have much to argue here. There is a difference between who he was as a mop-top babyish-looking kid and what he sounded like on “Baby,” compared to Bieber as a quasi-adult with a grease-ridden haircut on tracks like “All Around the World,” “Boyfriend,” and “Take You.” I also found that he can actually co-exist meaningfully with his collaborators like Drake, Big Sean and Nicki Minaj. Surprisingly, along with viscous and sweet synth lines and dub beats, Bieber’s acoustic guitar abilities shine on “Catching Feelings.” If that guitar riff is indeed Bieber’s, and he actually did perform it, then I now have proof that he can at least create a respectable song all on his own.

While listening to the album, I wanted so much for Bieber to commit commercial suicide by teaming up with Rick Rubin, sitting down in his living room with a microphone and recorder, and churning out whatever amount of songs he could come up with in one lengthy session(much like RR did with Johnny Cash in the American Recordings album). I’d imagine that if the results of such a collaboration would be released, maybe he would garner just a little more respect and credibility. Otherwise, until Bieber breaks out of the realm of corporate bubblegum electronica pop, he will be perpetually stuck on the school playground serenading pre-teens. Sure, he might get older, but his music and fans will stay the same age.  

The title track is far more spiritual and mature sounding, as Bieber professes his love for Jesus without overtly stirring controversy by saying his name repeatedly. “I don't know how I got here/I knew it wouldn't be easy/But your faith in me was so clear…'Cause everything starts from something/But something would be nothing/Nothing if your heart didn't dream with me/Where would I be, if, if you didn't believe/Believe.” Like I’ve been saying all along, it’s nothing deep, but it gets the job done.

Matter of fact, the whole album lives by this motive: getting the job done and satisfying a legion of teenagers, mostly girls and boys. However, just getting the job done is poor grounds for making an album. Then again, this album was not meant for or targeted to people like me who seek out something more meaningful. This album is meant to pander to the lower standards of its intended audience. As a perfunctory pop record, it does exactly what it’s supposed to, but doesn’t explore the boundaries of what Bieber can really do.

Now then, if you’ve read this entire thing, you have read a 2000+ word review on this album and undoubtedly spent a fair amount of time digging into what I have to say about Bieber. That said, either you too are curious about Bieber fever or you came here expecting an absolutely scathing review. Sorry, while it’s not a good record by my standards, it’s not a bad one by the standards of others. Now that I’ve listened to Believe from start to finish, I can honestly say that my opinion of him has improved somewhat, but unless he ditches the chains of corporate pop, he will indeed fade away into pop music obscurity along with boy bands/girl groups of the past, and the many more that are to come in the future. Now I’m going to listen to Pantera in order to sandblast the pop sticky-ickyness that has infested my memory.

Music: 5/10
Lyrics: 4/10
Length: 6/10
Meaning: 5/10
Significance: 6/10
Overall Impression: 5/10

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