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How Social Media Broke and Birthed the Biggest Pop Star of Our Age: Justin Bieber

A combination of blitzkrieg Internet and robust A&R cemented the ascent of one of the world’s most successful artists of all time

Rolling Stone India Oct 06, 2021

Justin Bieber's journey is a testament to the endurance and power of social media; an array of platforms that have both broken and built him for over a decade.

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Like social media, Justin Bieber is ubiquitous. If you’re aren’t streaming or listening to his music on the radio, chances are you’re on familiar terms with his tracks through Instagram Reels, where his 2021 summer hits “Peaches” and “STAY” form the catchy backdrop to millions of lifestyle and dance videos. That coupled with a series of documentary films — like the upcoming Our World — delve into Bieber’s tradition of providing an illuminatory look into his life; the social media magnate and the searing portrait of a 21CE artist. He’s easily one of the most captivating artists of the century.

For a former teenage pop sensation, who found his big break on YouTube, Justin Bieber’s meteoric trajectory has often coincided with the boom in social media that birthed some of its biggest names (The Weeknd, Psy, Shawn Mendes, Halsey, Charlie Puth). But it just might be Bieber’s trappings of trends coupled with his A&R leanings that have catapulted him to an unofficial G.O.A.T. status — despite a new generation of social media-fueled stars ruling the charts alongside him (such as the indelible Lil Nas X and Doja Cat). 

His journey is ultimately a testament to the endurance and power of social media; an array of platforms that have both broken and built Bieber for over a decade.

“Social media helped launch my career,” Bieber told Forbes in 2012. “Without the Internet and YouTube, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to put my music out there and have people hear it.” Bieber was discovered on the video giant YouTube in 2007 when the ex-So So Def Recordings marketing executive Scooter Braun clicked on a clip of 12-year-old Bieber belting Ne-Yo’s “So Sick.” Within a year, Braun brought Bieber — who had been steadily satiating the appetite of his subscribers by releasing engineered homespun videos (much like digital creators today who post content daily to their social media) — from Stratford to Atlanta where he recorded demos and eventually signed to Island Def Jam Records. 12 months later, his fame had reached a fevered pitch with Bieber selling out shows at Madison Square Garden and performing for the former President of the United States Barack Obama. His teenage years heralded a boy on the edge of glory. Bieber’s never been one to let the curtain fall; he documents his process of existence and artistry, sharing vulnerable and powerful moments with his fans through films. The forthcoming documentary, Our World (slated to release on October 8th), is the third film released by the pop star; a visual entity that’ll further demystify the man behind the name as it reveals how Bieber prepared for his massive 2020 New Year’s Eve concert. It’s a good bet that Our World, like its predecessors Never Say Never and Believe, will be as endearing as it will be inspiring.

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A decade on, we’ve witnessed Bieber go from teenager to leader; a boy making his mark on the world to a man asserting his role in it. “Baby” catapulted Bieber to the highest ranks of teenage pop stardom, while the run-up to the faith-centered Justice cemented the artist as a pop icon. 

One of the key strategies to Bieber’s growth is undoubtedly the heady mixture of social media, evolution and collaboration. The artist has explored various genres including country, pop, EDM and R&B, and released music with the likes of Diplo, Skrillex, Chance The Rapper, Ed Sheeran and more, pushing the musical ante with every release. What particularly stands out in his discography is his tapping into electronica (“What Do You Mean?”), Latin pop (“Despacito”) and hip-hop (“We Are”) — three musical genres that broke out and captured the masses over the last decade. All this points to Bieber’s impeccable sense of A&R that’s particularly apparent in his last two records (Changes, Justice) which included handpicked features by Khalid, Travi$ Scott, Giveon and more.

His six studio albums have also paralleled his rise in the spotlight, capturing his uneasy (his history with substance abuse and racism have been well documented and apologized for) yet vital relationship with social media where he’s both musician and ‘prophet’ (his black and white text creatives spell one religious affirmation after the other.) One could say that the artist has grown up in the eye of the storm; in a 2015 Billboard cover story, Bieber delved into the pitfalls of becoming famous young: “It’s the toughest thing in the world. Look at the statistics on how many child stars have crumbled and turned out to be wack jobs. It’s because — it’s fucked, bro, this lifestyle,” he said.

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Now, the Grammy-Award-winning 27-year-old artist and entrepreneur is perhaps in the best phase of his life. Taking a year-long break in 2019, he found faith and balance, broke records (notably, becoming the youngest soloist to have seven U.S. number-one albums on the Billboard charts with Changes) and released two albums between 2020 and 2021. Today, Bieber is perhaps at the peak of his artistry and influence; a man who has seen what the world has to offer and sought to offer what’s solely within. He’s part of a crop of artists reintroducing themselves to the world; setting the narrative straight so to speak. “It’s just rewarding to be all that you were designed to be. And I believe that, at this point in my life, I’m right where I’m supposed to be, doing what I believe that God wants me to do. And there’s nothing more fulfilling,” he said in a recent GQ interview. Maybe he’ll give in to the allure of influence again, or maybe he’ll reconfigure the word to impact true change in the world as we know it. When it comes to Justin Bieber, the intention ultimately lies in and becomes apparent when you finally hear the music. Godspeed; we won’t be waiting for long.

Justin Bieber: Our World will stream on Amazon Prime Video on October 8th.

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