This weekend, we saw Justin Bieber at his most sincere and his most professional. After performing “Cold Water” at Ariana Grande’s One Love Manchester fundraiser, he stopped to honour the victims of last month’s terrorist attack.
“I just want to take this moment to honour the people that were lost, that were taken,” he said. “We love you so much. To the families, we love you so much.”
And since that moment, Justin hasn’t slowed down. In the wake of his emotional performance and impromptu speech, Bieber played a quick game of hockey with Manchester Storm on Monday before making his way to Denmark to continue the Purpose world tour. Which, for the record, doesn’t wrap up until September, when he’ll take a final bow in Japan. Arguably, dude’s come to embody the popstar version of Hamilton‘s “Non-Stop.” He hasn’t taken a rest in years.
Which seems like a great thing if you’re a Bieber fan. Following 2014’s apology tour, J-Biebs backed up his reformation with the release of Purpose in October 2015 and amped up his presence. From award show appearances to back-to-back tours, dude has come to embody the ethos that defined him since the release of “Baby”: work hard, and never stop stopping.
We know what happens when he does.
As Justin transitioned from prodigy to bona fide teen star, he stumbled down the oh-too-familiar child star road, racking up arrests, DUIs, assault charges, and temper-tantrums, which fortunately led to him reconciling his sins via mean-spirited comedy roast instead of prison (or worse). Ultimately, 2012-2015 showed us what can happen when an artist raised on a strict routine defined by the crushing pressure not to let anybody down is given a chance to enjoy the merits of his success without being schooled in real-world risks and consequences; that a teenager with more money than any of us could ever hope to earn (combined) might act like a total dick.
But the thing is, when Bieber comes up for air next, the outcome could be worse. Over the last few months especially, we’ve seen the way Justin’s shied away from the realities of stardom, asking fans not to take selfies, and full-on telling audiences to stop screaming. He’s broken down onstage and forgotten the words to “Despacito,” embarrassingly replacing the Spanish lyrics with, “blah blah blah.” And yet he continues, marching fearlessly into the next event and/or professional commitment while channeling the energy most of us have had after we’ve given our two weeks’ notice and couldn’t be bothered if our workplaces caught on fire in the meantime. And who can blame him?
The expectations we place on young pop stars are not just unrealistic, but damaging. As if we haven’t learned from the artists of yore (here’s looking at you, Britney Spears), we expect months of touring to follow months of recording, and then expect new music as soon as live shows have wrapped. The top 40 machine has been largely designed to churn out hits and revenue with no regard for the mental, emotional, and physical health of those creating it. And thanks to the likes of the 1D doc This Is Us, the realities have been laid out in front of us: we watched as Zayn woke up after a show to record music in a hotel room, and then we watched as years later, he opened up about the toll One Direction took on his body and mind. But we still don’t seem to care.
Or at least we don’t, provided we’re still benefitting. It’s understandable to want to see your favourite artist IRL, and it’s even more understandable to want a new album to soak up and bask in and celebrate. But our demands have come to eclipse the necessary acknowledgement that by burning our pop stars out, we’re creatively stifling them. While Justin may feel at home performing onstage, there’s no way he can tap into the creative space he needs to write music he feels emotionally connected to—which is obvious when he can’t take the time to learn and remember the words to his own singles. Plus, it creates a precipice between himself and his fanbase: if he can’t be bothered to take his own music seriously, then why should anybody else? And then what kind of a concert experience is that if we can tell he’d rather not be there?
Not that him needing a break is a bad thing, either. While the Belieber in all of us would love to live in a world in which new albums are dropped regularly, we know that Justin not having a chance to grow or spend time outside of his strictly-scheduled lifestyle isn’t conducive to evolving as a person or as an artist. Especially since we’ve seen the way Zayn, Harry, and Niall have grown and changed in the wake of wrapping up (or pressing pause on) One Direction a little over a year ago—time away is a gift.
The thing is, it’s also up to us to let Bieber be a real boy. True, Justin’s last dalliance with proper downtime led to a tryst with street racing. Yes, he peed in a bucket while cursing Bill Clinton. But we’ll never know the type of adult he can be if we don’t let him grow outside of a realm in which we and his schedule and the constant pressure to live for the happiness of other people doesn’t ease up. This weekend, we saw that Biebs is capable of sincerity, earnestness, and empathy; that he is still capable of enthusiastically tapping into his obvious talent. But imagine what he could do if we just let him figure out who he is outside arenas and ticket sales.