Like many millennials, I have grown up parallel to Justin Bieber. And it has been exhausting. For both of us.
He appeared, suddenly, in the public eye while we were both in middle school: a tiny muppet with a bowl cut, singing about loneliness. I think for a lot of people who are the same age as me and Justin, this felt instantly objectionable. Why is our ambassador to the world acting like a little kid? And why do people love it? Though JBiebs is a ‘90s kid, he was always marketed to a demographic younger than his own peer group. It is one of the great ironic tragedies of life: If you are Justin Bieber’s peer, you probably have never Beliebed.
As I went through high school, Justin Bieber became the biggest star in the world. At college parties, “Baby” was played as a throwback; meanwhile, its singer descended into years of legal issues and controversies, including evidence of making racist statements as a teenager. Eventually we graduated, together—I got an apartment and a job; he became a born-again Christian, dropped “Despacito,” and married Hailey Baldwin. In teen pop-star years, he’s kind of a grandpa.
On Friday, he’ll release his sixth studio album, Justice. And in his debut Tiny Desk Concert—NPR’s stripped-down performance series—one thing is clear: Justin Bieber’s still got it. In fact, with less of his overproduced, glittery, stadium sound, his star power is a lot more enjoyable. He has always been undeniably talented, even if you found him unbelievably annoying. Now, after 12 years in the business, he’s actually…quite pleasant to listen to.
After his Tiny Desk performance was released on Wednesday, Twitter lit up with something Justin Bieber is probably not used to from those outside his core fanbase: praise for his musical talent.
Bieber’s voice has always been shiny and flexible, perfectly suited to the ear worm tracks he puts out. Here, it gets to stretch out comfortably over a beat, express real emotion, not canned, sugar-sweet sincerity. Instead of the irritatingly perfect tone of hardcore pop music, he shows off real, resonant vocals. For maybe the first time, he sounds his age.