- San Diego, California - You may be wondering why I’m writing this. The truth is that I have very little experience with commercial pop. The music that I review, tweet, and talk about is generally far removed from anything that could be considered “Top 40” material--the closest I’ve come is perhaps Regina Spektor, but her style is several levels removed from the heavily-processed, high-energy sound on modern radio. Thus, I can’t evaluate Believe in comparison to other pop artists.
I’ve also never heard a full Justin Bieber album in my life. I’ve heard two singles (“Never Say Never” and “Baby”) and, in the case of the latter, I really got to know it from a Relient K cover rather than the original recording. So I can’t analyze how this album compares with Bieber’s prior releases.
What I can bring, however, are fresh ears. I’m reviewing this album as exactly that--an album--not a statement or a symbol or a harbinger of some new musical age. Coupled with Bieber’s own statements about his aspirations for this album, we can consider whether Bieber is really accomplishing what he intends with his music.
Overall, I found Believe to be engrossing only on occasion, far more often falling into musical or sonic cliches. The first handful of tracks are the most intriguing, as they jump between high-energy dance tracks and laid-back ballads that seem like something (relatively) new and compatible with Bieber’s vocal style. The ham-handed application of pitch correction seriously undermines Bieber’s potential talent--I really can’t tell from this album if he’s pitch-accurate or not--and ruins several moments on his acoustic guitar-driven tracks by forcing a rudely artificial sound on top of organic accompaniments. As the album progresses from track to track, the unrelenting rhythmic patterns and stereotyped instrumental accompaniments give me an innate suspicion that Bieber is copying something that I’ve heard indirectly from pop bands in soundtracks and on the radio for the past decade.
I enjoy the dance/hard-house roots of “All Around the World” and “As Long As You Love Me”--the “smooth” feel of Bieber’s voice plays off well with angular, rhythm-oriented instrumentation, and I feel like there’s just enough structural variation to keep things engaging. “Thought of You” was one case in the album where the autotune seemed to add something in the falsetto-processed chorus. “Die In Your Arms” was the strongest conventional pop track that I could find--though afflicted by heavy autotuning, the voice-piano-and-drums focus of the track works, coming off as a poppier, more relentlessly upbeat cousin of a “Florence + The Machine” track. “Be Alright”, though melodically derivative, sounds nice.
Long-time readers of Sour Grapes Winery may remember my article, Compression! Auto-tune! Sampled instruments! (Oh My!): The Role of Technology in Modern Music. In essence, I stated that these effects can be used well--even artfully--but they have earned a terrible reputation because they are applied slavishly to pop albums either to sidestep performance issues or try to compete with the sonic power of competing releases. Unfortunately, Believe falls on the dark side of the production spectrum, especially in terms of auto-tune. With the exception of the chorus of “Die In Your Arms,” the Auto-tune doesn’t add anything to the songs, at the cost of making Bieber sound incredibly untalented and in need of vocal development. Even multi-part vocal harmonies, which, in the case of AWOLNATION, took a sardonic edge with their pitch-perfect manipulation, sound hollow and lackluster on Believe. Though I can’t find any good reason for the heavy vocal treatment on the album, I can conclude that they ruined several moments of the album by transforming what might be an impressive melodic progression into a robotic production.
The rhythm on this album is similarly disappointing. While the few dance/house songs feature at least a semblance of rhythmic upheaval in the bridges, the rhythmic “identity” of the rest of the tracks is established in the first five seconds. This becomes apparent less than halfway though the album and, frustratingly, isn’t remedied from then on. Especially after hearing more rhythmically immersive tracks like “All Around The World” at the start, this repetition comes off, at best, as uninspired and, at worst, as lazy.
Above all, this album sounded frustratingly familiar. Songs like “Right Here,” “One Love,” and “Boyfriend” use sampled instruments, vocal mixing styles, and arrangements that have permeated the pop soundscape for years. As I stated previously, I don’t habitually listen to pop, and my main exposure is indirect--through television, movies, and store ambience--and extends over a decade. Thus, my definition of “familiar” pop structures is far more forgiving than many, but even I find myself bored by the majority of tracks on this album. When I listen to this album, I can’t help but think of the many banal environments in which I hear the same instruments and the same production treatment--supermarkets, department stores, and shopping malls--and put Believe in the same musically-irrelevant category.
A question that constantly circulates about Justin Bieber is whether his fame has far exceeded his talent and whether he is more of a representation of the industry’s dedication to a product than it is of his individual artistry. After listening to this album, I can say that Bieber has some expressive range--his singing varies between low-register semi-rapping to high-register sustains--but the album surrounding him is so mercilessly corrective and generally uninspired that I honestly have no idea whether he is a good singer. All I can say is this: if Bieber is in fact a talented singer and/or songwriter, he is being massively underserviced as a creative individual by the music industry, because he is being squeezed into a formulaic, uninspired “pop box” that makes him sound no different than any other pop artist of the 21st century. Apparently, this box is profitable, but it also kills any sort of creative distinction or individuality between artists.
In an interview with MSNBC concerning this album, Bieber stated, "I think (this album) is about proving people wrong and going out there and making good music and going out there and performing better than everyone else...that's what I have to do to cross over (to being an adult performer). Or else I'll just be another teen heartthrob, and I want to be remembered." Despite (likely) being a cash cow for both Bieber and his label, there is nothing on this album that will make me remember Bieber as more than an Internet sensation. If Bieber is really looking for significance in the wider scope of the progression of music, he is going to have to break from the entrenched pop formula and really let his voice and writing stand out for what it is. Unfortunately, to do so may mean fighting against the very industry that has so greatly profited by his image.
Justin Bieber, I wish you luck in battling the juggernaut.
Rating: 1.5/5 Sour Grapes