In a year stacked with the biggest weeks of pop sensation Billie Eilish’s life, this has managed to be the biggest (and, yes, *checks calendar*, it is indeed only Friday). On Tuesday, Billboard announced that the new-ish Justin Bieber remix of Eilish’s WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? cut, “bad guy,” became the Number One song in the world. It’s the 17-year-old goth-pop princess’s first time atop the Hot 100, and it’s historic. Eilish is now the first aughts-born baby to conquer the chart. And what’s more, she did it by toppling Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the longest running Billboard Number 1 ever, a song that has literally ruled for 1.9 percent of Eilish’s life. It was all a very big deal, and yet, you get the sense that—so far as Eilish is concerned—the accolades are all good and dandy, but what’s really fucking out of this world bananas is the very fact of the remix itself: That she made a song with Justin Goddamned Bieber.
On the remix itself, Eilish plays it cool, her voice the same breathy whisper as on the original. But the cover art for the single is another story. If your eyes can flick past adolescent Eilish’s clown wig of a sequined dress, her oversized Minnie Mouse hair bow, and dumbfounded expression, you’ll notice Justin Bieber on Eilish’s bedroom wall… and then Bieber again and again and again. Yes, the girl who recently dripped blue goo-blood out of her eyes was once a Belieber. It’s hard to belieb—er, believe. Though, what’s really hard get your head around is Bieber himself.
Fast forward roughly a decade from the picture, and the hair-swooping Canadian boy wonder is still eliciting freak-outs—from Eilish, and also, apparently, from the wider public. Somehow, despite Bieber’s teen pop past and Eilish’s teen punk present, the former isn’t on the song for nostalgia or irony. Instead, he’s a down-the-middle accessory. He contributes one soft, smooth verse, which moves into an equally satiny chorus, but otherwise he’s around for a stray breath, a Yeah, a Let’s go. Really, if his name wasn’t Justin Bieber, you might not notice him on the song at all. For Eilish, making a song with Bieber is likely one of her biggest—and final—pinch-me moments; for Bieber, the song is, at this point, kind of just what he does.
Bieber’s last full-length album was 2015’s Purpose. It was 19 uneven, unenthused songs about love, mistakes, and repentance. The album was a success in that it helped Bieber flip his narrative; along with a physical makeover and his notorious apology tour, it bent his image mature in a scuzzy, Venice Beach surf bum sort of way. As a cohesive collection of songs, it was less successful. (As a work of art... well, let’s not go there.) For the most part, the album’s best songs are the ones where Bieber has company. His voice is like caramel—burnt sugar with a hint of salt, smoothly gooey, consistent, with little variety. And while alone he can be boring or, worse, treacly (“Live is Worth Living”... hello), when another artist provides the goods, he can be a nice complement (the album’s highlight is the dance hit “The Feeling,” on which Bieber gives way to Halsey).
Whether or not Bieber consciously came to that same assessment, post-Purpose he’s predominantly made himself a topping on other artists’ songs. On the recent DJ Khaled singles “No Brainer” and “I’m the One,” he adds sticky pop hooks that supplement Quavo and/or Chance the Rapper’s light rapping. On Ed Sheeran’s “I Don’t Care,” he’s a slick, though largely unconvincing, echo to Sheeran—another shade of the same color. And on Major Lazer’s “Cold Water,” he performs a brightly tropical, ultimately forgettable, duet with MØ. All of these songs reached the Top 5 on the Hot 100. And it’s likely that none of them would have reached those heights without Bieber.
But it’s Bieber’s name that these songs are trading on more so than his vocal presence. He’s the biggest face on the poster, but time and again he’s playing a fairly generic, low-stakes supporting role. The best glimpse of Bieber’s current function is on remixes. “bad guy” and 2017’s “Despacito” present a before and after sample, where the after is only marginally different—with “bad guy,” better; with “Despacito,” worse—than the before. Bieber adds a streak of pop R&B, a bridge to a mainstream American audience (in the case of “Despacito,” English), a slight blunting. With Bieber, each song became a smash.
Bieber is a bit like the Empire State Building, in that he’s been around so long that it’s easy to lose sight of just how big he is. He’s one of only five or six artists with the power to lift a song to the top of the charts with his name alone. He still has the third most Twitter followers in the world. The tabloids feast on his every haircut, and his every burrito eaten (or not). So far as celebrities go, he’s in the A-List’s A-List. And so, while Bieber’s good at adding a bit of gas to other artists’ fires, stars of his stature don’t relegate themselves to propellent forever. Take it from Brad Pitt: Even if you’re best as a character actor, when you look like a leading man and sell like a leading man, you’re going to be asked to be a leading man.
The best version of Bieber in a leading role came on DJ Snake’s 2016 club anthem “Let Me Love You.” The song is a three and a half minute, conventionally constructed pop-EDM hit that peaked at number 4 on the Hot 100. But it’s a little odd, too. The seemingly quick, minor-key beat led Bieber to speed up his delivery, and he let his voice go slightly nasal. He lent the song an appealing after-hours, neon-tinted greasiness. It was the closest he’s gotten to capturing the saturated, Harmony Korine-esque character he projects in life in his music. He was technically a guest on Snake’s song, but really he owned the track. He hasn’t done so since, but it showed that in the right hands, he’s capable of doing more than making people squeal at his mere presence.
Sure, Justin Bieber has made mistakes. The monkey. The mop bucket. A few historical desecrations along the way. Then he spent all of last year telling us he was sorry. (Though it turns out he didn’t mean sorry so much as… Well, we’ll let him explain.) Now he’s found a better way to make up with the world: by making the best music of his life—and forcing all of us to rethink what we believe (Beliebe?) about him.
Featuring Lil Nas X, Normani, Young Thug, Jennifer Lopez, and more.
Originally Appeared on GQ