As I walked down 48th street between 5th and 6th, I could see people — mostly girls in their middle and high school years — lined up curbside, huddled in sleeping bags. Many were wrapped in scarves and wearing gloves; there was a lot of pink. It was about 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, and you could hear Justin Bieber music pulsing out of someone’s portable stereo.
These people, a hundred or so of them, were in fact waiting to see Justin Bieber perform on The Today Show’s plaza the following morning.
So why was I there? Justin Bieber’s latest album, Purpose, features coming-of-age lyrics . . . some that explicitly dive into his own faith journey and dependence on God. Not exactly what you expect of a teen pop star who just last year was detained for egging his neighbor’s house, arrested for an alleged DUI, and then again for dangerous driving on his ATV.
Needless to say, lyrics like, “Ask you to forgive me for my sins, oh would you please?” are not what most of us expect from Bieber, so I wanted to find out what his fans think of his new music — and the faith inspiring it.
“He found himself and found God”
I stopped at the first huddle of people I saw, a woman and some middle- and high-school-aged girls. The girls all had fan tickets, which ensured priority viewing, but they were still spending the night to claim spots closest to the stage. They giggled as they took turns answering my questions about Bieber and Purpose.
The first girl, Valerie, said she was initially nervous about the album, not quite sure what Bieber would produce after his almost-two-year hiatus. She said she and Julia, her friend, “are both so excited and proud of it.” There’s a consensus that “Love Yourself” is a favorite. Jenna likes “Children;” Valerie likes “No Pressure;” Julia likes “Been You.”
Valerie said, “I think all the songs are really different than what he’s been putting out. So it’s been more mature and I just like his new style.”
I didn’t ask about their personal beliefs, partially because I didn’t want to seem like I was evangelizing to these children and partially out of a desire to keep the conversation casual, but that was why I was out there in the first place.
What might they think of the Bieber saying, at the end of “All In It,” “And with God, it’s like He’s perfect and He never disappoints. So I just get my recognition from Him, and give Him recognition.”
When I asked how the girls felt about the prevalence of Bieber’s faith in his new music, Valerie spoke on behalf of the girls: “We’re all Catholic. We all go to Catholic school. I know a lot of artists don’t like talking about that stuff, but I think it’s good that he’s expressing what he believes in.”
Julia added, “I think it does fit. I think after all the drama that happened with him in the last few years, he found himself and found God and is trying to incorporate that into his music.”
“I love Bieber,” Valerie said. “Eight hours to go.”
This group certainly doesn’t represent Bieber’s more secular audience, but I was still intrigued. These girls, with their religious backgrounds, are probably familiar with Christian music. But what I found interesting was that they viewed Bieber putting his faith in his music as an extension of authenticity, rather than, say, an attempt to evangelize or worship.
“This isn’t something that he’s wishy-washy on.”
I moved on and approached two women, Alexandra and Amanda, both in their early twenties and standing in the corner of a grated area shivering. Alexandra, who had arrived early in the day after traveling from her school in New Rochelle, likened the sound of Purpose to shopping in Forever 21. “You’re having a good time, like, ‘Oh I like this shirt.’ That’s what the album makes me feel.” She likes bumping to the music. Amanda agrees, calling the EDM vibe catchy.
Amanda finds Purpose satisfying for its sound; Alexandra appreciates its message.
Purpose is “personal and about his love life and stuff like that,” Alexandra said. “You get to become closer with Bieber as a person because you get to understand all these feelings that he went through and how he was able to come through.”
She thinks it’s okay that Bieber talks about his faith. “It’s good for him. It’s good that he knows himself and knows that this isn’t something that he’s wishy-washy on.”
Amanda added, “That also kinda makes him vulnerable, to show what he’s really about, and I think that’s a really deep connection that he makes with the fans.”
It seems that Bieber has the support of his fans, though most receive the faith in his music with a relativistic acceptance. “It’s good for him.” Alexandra’s response may be representative of the general listener response. It seems less likely that Purpose is causing its listeners to think deeply about the Christian faith.
“He’s always liked God, but I think God’s helped him grow.”
I move along to a blockade section that’s empty except for two women. Shelby, who tells me she won VIP tickets on a Bieber fan site, is there with her sister Kerri. It probably goes without saying, but they both tell me they’re obsessed with Purpose.
Shelby loves all the songs, but her favorite is “Purpose.” She said, “I think that’s one of his best songs on the album. I really like the feeling. He talks throughout it and is very personal in it.” Kerri agrees that it’s a strong track. “I think it’s really relatable for a lot of people.” She likes, “I’ll Show You.”
The album shows Bieber’s growth, Kerri says. “He’s getting older.” Shelby adds, “I think it shows that he really cares.” He’s using “his faith and trying to better himself in different ways.”
I haven’t yet been able to illicit an involved dialogue about Bieber’s Christianity and the implications of its mention in Purpose. Generally, though, I’ve gained the sense that fans think his faith is appropriate to mention because it’s part of his maturation.
It’s getting late, so I decide to talk to one last group — Jessie and Alyssa, teenage sisters. I’m surprised to hear a second interviewee express faith. Jessie said, “I’m Catholic, and I agree with Bieber pretty much. But I think he’s always liked God, but I think God’s helped him grow and learn . . . He’s kinda always talked about Him, but it’s more now. It’s not that different, but it’s nice.”
Alyssa chimes in, “I think he’s more of a man now.”
“Bieber’s trying to be deep, but it came off not deep.”
I choose to get in line the following morning at 4 a.m., rather than spending the night on the sidewalk. Around 6 a.m., I started talking to Jonathan and Rachel, best friends who were in New York “to do crazy things like this.” Jonathan was carrying a sack with an auburn Miniature Pinscher. Rachel was blond with smoky eye shadow and a black snapback.
I’m glad to talk to Jonathan, a guy, though he admits he isn’t a “diehard Bieber fan.” He says he’s only seen the Purpose music video and wasn’t impressed. “The video just looked really low budget and it didn’t look like it was going anywhere . . . it just didn’t have a lot of depth to it.”
The video, with almost 10 million views, is set in a desert and shows Bieber in a jean outfit singing as scantily clad women dance around and grab hold of him. The top-voted Youtube comment reads, “Wow, this song got deep real quick! I never cared much for Bieber, either as a person or his music. He just didn’t resonate with me. But this new Bieber is different. He is more mature. He is a lot more honest. He is legit. Previously, I would have never said I was a Bieber fan. But now . . . I’m a belieber. Peace.”
Jonathan was more critical. He says, “I think that Bieber’s trying to be deep, but it came off not deep. I think he’s trying to reinvent himself and become a more adult individual. I respect him as a child star, and then I lost faith in him as a reckless teenager, and I see him trying to get his [life] together. I think he’s lost in where to go next with his album.”
Rachel disagreed. “I liked it. I think Bieber’s making a good comeback and showing that he’s grown up and matured.” She says, though, she doesn’t have an opinion on his faith themes. “I didn’t pay attention to that that much.” Regardless, she says, “it’s a good start in the right direction.”
“It’s faith, love, personality, who you are, who you are to others.”
The last person I spoke to was Adaeze, a young woman with mostly dark, and a few gray, dreadlocks. She tells me she’s been there since 5:30 a.m., we talk about Purpose, which, of course, she loves.
“I like the lyrics, since Bieber’s going through a lot. The older you get, it’s not all about love, it’s all about what’s going on in the world and how we are being treated and everything. It’s a really nice album.”
She said his music is his response to the tabloids that have put him in a bad light. His music is “his way of reinventing himself.”
She, like most Beliebers, didn’t see his music as preachy — a word I half-expected to hear — but rather as an authentic part of his maturation story. It fits within his album, but they don’t see it as the headline of Purpose. Rather, it’s a necessary part of the whole.
“I see his album as a story of his different sides. His faith, how he perceives the world, how he perceives his love life . . . It’s not just one focus. It’s faith, love, personality, who you are, who you are to others.”
After Adaeze, I don’t try talking to anyone else. It’s almost time for us to stampede our way toward the stage. I end up across the street from the back of the stage — not a bad view. Bieber’s onstage talking to the hosts, and then he begins with his popular single, “Sorry”:
You gotta go and get angry at all of my honesty.
You know I try but I don’t do too well with apologies.
After a few songs, Bieber tells Today Show host Matt Lauer that Purpose “reflects where I am right now. We’re going up. It’s been a long journey, but I think I’m in the best place I’ve ever been.”
Image courtesy of Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com.