On Feb. 14, 2020, the same day that Justin Bieber's new album was released, YouTube — the platform on which he'd famously been discovered — celebrated its 15th birthday. A cherubic, shaggy-haired Bieber was even a few years younger than that when he started uploading videos to the streaming site. These digital time capsules still exist in their original forms: covers of songs by Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake, and Ne-Yo, all marked with the not-quite-hashtag-catchy description "Justin singing." The videos' descriptions link to his Myspace page, and some of them clarify that his last name "sounds like Beeber." In the clip for his cover of "Cry Me a River," the body of his acoustic guitar looks bigger than he is.
Some YouTube rabbit hole or another led Scooter Braun, a manager and one-time executive at So So Def Records, to one of Bieber's videos. You know the rest of the story: By age 13, Bieber was recording demos with his eventual mentor, Usher; by 16, he was a global icon who admittedly had to sing some of his earliest hits in a lower key when he performed them live, because his voice was changing. The first true superstar of the YouTube era, Bieber's career nonetheless took a traditional shape, familiar to anyone who's ever watched an episode of Behind the Music. He started partying too hard. He got in trouble with the law. He fell from grace and then, thanks to a megachurch, a team of doctors, and eventually the love of his wife Hailey Baldwin Bieber, he announced to the world, on the same platform that had helped him get his voice out in the first place, that he was ready for his comeback.
In the days leading up to the release of Changes, Bieber gradually rolled out episodes of his self-produced documentary series, Seasons. After all these years, he was still the boy-king of YouTube: The first episode racked up a record-setting 32.65 million views in its first week. (With over 50 million subscribers, Bieber remains the most-followed person on YouTube.) Seasons is only as candid and impartial as a documentary that someone has executive-produced about themselves can be expected to be, but it does finally bring some of the darker, unspoken parts of the Bieber story into the clarity of light. "Was there anything that really concerned me?" says his longtime friend and associate Ryan Good. "Maybe the lean, when he was drinking that. Can I say that?" (The executive-producer allowed it.) There's a similarly performative hesitance when Bieber is recalling his earliest experiments with drugs, as though he suddenly remembers that parents who once considered him a role model might be watching. "The first time I smoked weed I was... I don't suggest this, but I was 13," he says. "12 or 13." Later, he admits, "My security and stuff were coming into the room at night to check my pulse. Like, people don't know how serious it got. It was legit crazy scary."
The darkest section of the series begins with a jarring disclaimer: "This episode contains raw and honest discussions about addiction and anxiety. It may be triggering for some." Even just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a Justin Bieber documentary coming with a trigger warning, but something about the tone of Seasons encapsulates a change in how we talk about modern pop stardom and mental health. From Elvis to Amy Winehouse, plenty of musicians have struggled publicly with demons and fame, but few of them ever named and owned their struggles in the way that's now becoming accepted — and in some cases even expected — for celebrities to do. Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish are just a few of the young superstars who have made music about their struggles with anxiety; Zayn Malik and the rising R&B singer Summer Walker, who appears on Bieber's Changes, have both cancelled concerts to take care of their mental health.
In retrospect, that's what Bieber was doing in the summer of 2017 when he cancelled the final leg of his lucrative but listless Purpose Tour, though he and his team weren't quite ready to explicitly reference his mental health; at the time, he just cited "unforeseen circumstances." After catching his somnolent show in New York a summer before, I was frankly shocked he had found the energy to continue for almost a year afterwards. "I am going to call it the Enthusiasm Gap," I wrote at the time. "The fact is that I have never in my life been to a concert where there was such a discernible difference between the energy of the crowd and the energy of the performer. He did not feed off our screams — at times, they actually seemed to be draining the life from him."
What's clear from Seasons (not to mention years of Instagram videos) is that Bieber's happy place is not the stage but the studio. Ensconced in oversized hoodies and munching on takeout, he seems at home in the vocal booth, perfecting his pitch one minute and goofing off with his collaborators the next. Given the modern, digital-era context of Bieber's celebrity, it sometimes seems incongruous that he is expected to follow the same script that has always been de rigueur for pop musicians: Do the same dance every night, grind it out on the road until you're sick of your old material, self-medicate when your exhaustion inevitably starts to catch up with you.
On Changes, his first album in five years, Bieber sounds reinvigorated. With beats as colorful and infectiously cheery as a game of Candy Crush, this album is basically an extended, 50-minute serenade to his wife, and a vivid depiction of their newlywed bliss. "Shoutout to your mom and dad for making you," he sings on the sprightly single "Intentions," making this — at least to my knowledge — the first-ever pop album to feature a direct address to Stephen Baldwin. On the equally upbeat "Second Emotion," which features the Houston rapper Travis Scott, Bieber trills in a playful falsetto, "Got me feeling giddy, like la-la-la-la!" He sounds lighter on his feet than he did on his 2015 release Purpose, an album marked by the tension between Bieber's melancholic vocals and the bright, splashy sounds of EDM beats. Loose and vibey, Changes is more of a throwback to Bieber's 2013 album, Journals, a collection of digitally released R&B songs that felt liberated from the precision engineering of big radio hits. While Changes lacks an obvious, world-beating pop smash like "Sorry," it also avoids the obligatory ballads of atonement and vaguely defined social change that bogged Purpose down. Changes flows more seamlessly than any other Justin Bieber record, which makes it feel like a relatively unmediated expression of the kinds of songs he feels like singing right now, regardless of industry pressures.
Since his 2009 debut EP, My World, Bieber's music has sometimes evoked the cadences and the passion of worship songs. (Throughout his career he has been vocal about his evangelical Christianity, and for a time he was involved with the New York City megachurch Hillsong.) At least, on the least-carnal moments of Changes it is sometimes difficult to discern if he's singing about his love of God or his love of his wife. Maybe that's the point. "I need you all around me," he pleads on the understated opening track, while the poignant, piano-driven closer "At Least for Now" has the yearning sheen of a praise song. Elsewhere, on tracks like "E.T.A." and "That's What Love Is," Changes calls back to another aesthetic from Bieber's past: The precocious young crooner busking on street corners, playing a guitar almost twice his size.
When I first saw the cover of the album — a tattooed, lanky, bleach-blonded Bieber bathed in red light, most of his famous face turned away from the camera — I was struck by how much he looked like Lil Peep, the inventive and influential emo-rapper who died of an overdose in 2017, at the age of 21. If young Bieber was the quintessential star of the YouTube age, Peep was perhaps the same for the SoundCloud era, which in keeping with our accelerating technology, provides an even faster track to disorienting success. Just after the December 2019 overdose of yet another young star, Juice WRLD, New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica declared that the deaths of Juice, Peep and the controversial rapper XXXTentacion had brought about the end of the SoundCloud era's reign. "It's awful to watch a promising scene crumble into nothingness," he wrote. "It's more awful to know that there are systems in place to quickly extract maximum value from the art produced by its creators, but essentially none designed to protect them from the challenges that quick success can bring."
Under these circumstances, it's easy to see why artists like Bieber — and even his ex, Selena Gomez, whose latest album Rare provides an admirably unvarnished look at her emotional struggles — feel the need to be more open about their mental health and the toll that sudden fame can take on a young person. Digital platforms may have dangerously accelerated the cycles of fame, but they've also allowed artists to be more candid than ever about their basic human struggles. Perhaps it is not too optimistic to hope that the future might bring a new, more empathic kind of fandom, in which we neither expect too much from our mortal pop stars nor experience schadenfreude when they, inevitably, fall from grace. "I'm not feeling his look but I really couldn't care less," goes the highest-rated YouTube comment on a video of Bieber's recent performance on SNL. "If he is happy, that's the only thing that matters."
Lindsay Zoladz is a writer living in New York.