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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 J.Biebs is a ’90s kid, he was 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 earworm 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 hard-core pop music, he shows off real, resonant vocals. For maybe the first time, he sounds his age.
I don’t mean to make Bieber, a world-famous multimillionaire heartthrob, sound like some kind of object of pity. It’s just that the focus on him has felt scary—in the most formative part of his life he experienced a fandom like that of the Beatles, but trained on just one person. He was a minor, who grew up in an environment so cloistered that his mom told The New York Times that she was initially reluctant to have him sign with Scooter Braun because Braun is Jewish.
“I have a lot of money, clothes, cars, accolades, achievements, awards, and I was still unfulfilled,” Bieber wrote on Instagram in 2019, in a post where he confessed to dealing with depression and substance abuse, and to having “abused all my relationships.” He added, “There is an insane pressure and responsibility put on a child whose brain, emotions, frontal lobes (decision making) aren’t developed yet.” It's hard to draw the line between explanations and excuses, but this all feels like a pretty accurate picture of what it's like to become a megastar before you're old enough to drive a car.
When we were kids, celebs seemed like the luckiest people in the world—Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Taylor Swift, and Britney Spears among them. Now we’re all grown-ups, and these same people are speaking out about times they felt exploited, or uncared for, or overwhelmed by pressure. And it’s easier for me, at least, to see that I have something that these celebrities didn’t have—a childhood, one that didn’t involve a full-time job.
These days Bieber is serving as a mentor of sorts to Billie Eilish, another wildly talented child star who achieved worldwide fame before her 18th birthday. But is his reckoning enough to make amends for the person he was? “I’m not being disrespectful; I do feel I was a victim to certain abuse,” his ex Selena Gomez told NPR in early 2020 of her relationship with Bieber. Whatever horrors Bieber suffered, his peers who are women, specifically women of color, had it worse, and in this case, possibly because of him. Even within the battered gilded cage where former child stars live, women of color receive the worst treatment.
Tiny Desk Concerts have an effect like a black-and-white filter, a way of capturing performers in their most flattering light and loveliest sound. That only works if the performer has talent and ability to flatter, and Bieber does. It’s nice to see him chilling, singing about God and weed. It’s the kind of music you could listen to while doing the dishes, or during a quiet leg of a road trip.
Seeing this wave of former child stars finding their way into a more grounded adulthood feels like an omen of happier times to come. Justin Bieber is all grown up, and so are we.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour