More Than Ever, Justin Bieber Feels Like a Cautionary Tale

The singer’s first album in five years, Changes, and his YouTube documentary, Seasons, paint a picture of fragile recovery from the trauma of child stardom.

Justin Bieber in 2020
Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP

Justin Bieber’s rollout for his new album has made him seem less man than ghost, here to warn us about the moral catastrophe that child stardom in the internet age has turned out to be. He’s currently unfolding a 10-part documentary on YouTube, and rather than dwelling on the glamour of being a young, recently married multimillionaire, it shows a fragile individual pacing a taupe-brown recording studio and sometimes retreating to a hyperbaric chamber to calm down. A small team—handlers, doctors, producers, and Bieber’s wife—dispenses medications and motivation to the blank-eyed 25-year-old, who says he often prefers to stay in bed rather than do anything else.

The supposed point of this documentary, Seasons, and of the album it’s promoting, Changes, is that Bieber has come out on the other side of an adolescence that nearly killed him. It’s a story he’s told before, but not in terms as eerie as the ones being used now. Bieber’s strong 2015 album, Purpose, touted a message equally applicable to his exes, the restaurant mop bucket he famously peed in, and the other drivers on the road at the time of his 2014 DUI arrest: “Sorry.” The sonic tone was one of uplift, with the then-trending sounds of “tropical house” sprinkled around like baptismal water. “My life is a movie and everyone’s watching,” he sang in the album’s opening lines. “So let’s get to the good part and past all the nonsense.”

The transcendent claims and catchy bops of the Purpose era ring more ambiguously now. After 16 months of concerts to support that album, with reports of his listlessness onstage, Bieber cut short his world tour. Late last year, he posted a long Instagram note sharing what he’d come to understand about the harmful psychological and even biochemical effects of becoming famous at age 13. He wrote about getting into “pretty heavy drugs” at age 19—not long before the release of Purpose—and about the high rate of mortality for child stars. The note had a rambling desperation, but it celebrated his survival thanks to the people around him, God, and his recent marriage to the model Hailey Baldwin.

Changes again broadcasts a recovery narrative. But while Purpose found an overlap between the majesty of church music and the catharsis of pop, Changes forgoes dramatic moves for pleasant numbness. Bieber croons with an emphasis on sensitive micro-inflection while his melodies make simple, swaying motions. With puttering rhythms and burbling ringtone-style keyboard lines, most songs give the sense of a Jacuzzi lit with therapeutic LEDs. In the best tracks, including “Intentions” and “Come Around Me,” Bieber’s musical roil works in nifty counterpoint to his voice. Late in the album, he gets out of the sonic bath and turns to guitar and piano, which are treated with the sort of reverb that conjures the image of an arena entirely empty of people.

Well, empty of people save one—an omnipresent “you,” some balming presence Bieber serenades. That presence might be mistaken for God or a pharmaceutical product if Bieber’s constant sex talk did not out it as Hailey. The droning single “Yummy” came off as the scribblings of a horny teen scrawling on his desk during detention; other songs describe his wife as a stick-shift driver and anatomy teacher. The more arresting image, however, is painted on “ETA,” in which he frantically texts Hailey to find out when she’ll show up to comfort him. In the outro, he learns that she’s only five minutes away, and you can finally sigh in relief. The impression given, as with so much recent music by emotionally ailing young men in pop, is of women not as individuals but as abjectly worshipped nurses.

Perhaps the depiction of marriage as medicinal will be inspirational for listeners considering popping the question to their lover. Otherwise, the uplifting content of the album amounts to hip-hop appropriation and goofiness. In place of confession, Bieber substitutes wealth brags (one “Yummy” line mentions a Lamborghini and Bieber’s own fashion line, Drew House) and T.I.-style vocab (“Let’s get it on … expeditiously”). When rappers and R&B singers (Quavo, Post Malone, Lil Dicky, Summer Walker, Kehlani, Clever) show up for features, many of them bring a level of personality and specificity that highlights Bieber’s blankness. That’s not always a good thing; in fact, the guests tend to break the tranquilizing effect of the music itself.

Nitpicking the songs feels tricky, however, because the listener is to believe that it is a triumph for Bieber to have released them at all. Seasons plays up how difficult it can be for the singer to get through any given day, and much of the material is sadly familiar: His struggles with anxiety, depression, and addiction fit with the tales of his peers (Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato) whose childhoods were consumed as entertaining public narratives. Taylor Swift’s recent Netflix documentary can be seen as a companion piece too. But whereas Swift portrays herself trying to deprogram damaging cultural ideas about self-worth that she absorbed as a teenager, Seasons suggests that society’s demands can be met with the right kind of effort—whether by turning to one’s spouse, one’s manager, or one’s art.

Or: one’s doctors. In addition to addressing mental-health issues, the documentary presents Bieber as physically afflicted, with diagnoses of Epstein-Barr and Lyme disease. Viewers meet a variety of doctors and gurus, including Daniel Amen, the celebrity psychologist whose brain-imaging technique has been widely criticized as quackery. (“I have my share of critics, but pressed on because our work changes lives, and that has always been the driving factor,” Amen said in 2016.) At one point, Bieber is hooked up to an IV containing a substance called NAD, an unproven treatment that Hailey says will “repair [the brain’s] pleasure centers.” Throughout the doc, Bieber says he’s on the mend. But as a viewer, judging the efficacy of his many pills, therapies, injections, and contraptions feels impossible.

It is clear, though, that he still regards the celebrity machine with a sense of fear. The specters of pressure and expectations recur in Bieber’s speech, and the record producer Poo Bear explains that Bieber feels his task is for the album to be “flawless.” There is a way to hear the lovingly textured and coherent Changes as coming close to succeeding at that mission. But there is also a way to hear it as strapping Bieber in for another round of battery. If he’s built up resilience to the fame game, you can’t tell from the way he’s strenuously begged fans to stream “Yummy” to send it higher on the charts, or from the way he DMed at least one influencer who dissed his new music. He’ll meet his forthcoming 45-date tour with the helpers and the marriage he’s been showing off lately—but also, it’s worth hoping, with a fortitude so far hidden from the cameras.