One Direction, Justin Bieber, and the Sound of Pop’s Future

One heartthrob act giddily recycles; the other solemnly pushes ahead.

Stephen Lovekin / Getty / Luca Bruno / AP / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

The Verve famously saw the profits from its biggest song siphoned away by a copyright claim from the Rolling Stones; perhaps they can now pay it forward by suing One Direction. The boy band’s new album Made in the A.M. opens with a string pattern and kitchen-sink rhythm that’ll be awfully familiar to anyone who remembers the ’90s—it’s like a big-budget karaoke version of “Bittersweet Symphony.” The sheet music for the two songs no doubt differs, but now that the “Blurred Lines” verdict has made sonic “feel” actionable, who knows what Richard Ashcroft might try in court?

Then again, the One Direction guys probably don’t have to worry. They and their team are pros at turning classic rock into bubblegum and getting away with it. How can you hear “Steal My Girl” and not think of Journey’s “Faithfully”? What is the opening of “Live While We’re Young” if not the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Perhaps because of One Direction’s major-label muscle and scary-energetic fanbase, or perhaps because all involved are very aware of where the legal line is, there are no confirmed cases of aging rock stars writing cease-and-desist letters on the matter. In fact, responding to preemptive Twitter attacks from Directioners, both Pete Townshend and members of Def Leppard took the time to announce they wouldn’t sue the band.

Theft, tribute, remixing are essential elements of pop, of course—especially in 2015, when technology has made the past more accessible and nostalgia more profitable. And it’s worth appreciating that there’s a kind of novelty in One Direction’s music. The influences they raid—Baby Boomer guitar bands, mostly—aren’t the same as the ones raided by other chart-toppers at the moment, and no one else reliably serves quite the same mix of candy-like melodies, multi-part harmonies, cheeky attitude, and grinning self-awareness.

Made in the A.M. is the group’s first album after the departure of Zayn Malik, and the last one before a planned hiatus. Accordingly, there’s a bit of a wistful, mourning vibe throughout—ballads galore—which is perhaps not One Direction’s best mode, even though the “Bittersweet”-biting of “Hey Angel” is quite pretty. The fun moments are very fun, though. “Never Enough” zanily takes barbershop a cappella and adds stadium shouting; the next track, “Olivia,” is the Beatles after an energy drink; “What a Feeling” revisits the groove from Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which is never a bad thing. The most uproarious pastiche, though, is the most mind-meltingly meta one: “Perfect” is basically a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Style,” which itself was an ’80s throwback whose lyrics appeared to be about One Direction’s Harry Styles. Now, Styles is singing back at her on her own beat. Does originality matter when the drama is this delicious?

But anyone who finds all this recycling and referentiality a distressing sign of stagnancy in pop music can cheer themselves up with—don’t laugh—the new Justin Bieber album. Released the same day as Made in the A.M. and thereby creating a friendly rivalry narrative to rile up fandoms and media coverage, it’s the work of a young male star who’s struggled more visibly with fame than the guys of One Direction have—and has responded by pushing himself musically in a way that they never would.

The publicity blitz around Purpose has not been subtle: Whether by weeping at the VMAs, putting crucifix imagery on his album cover, or releasing a single called “Sorry,” Bieber wants people to realize he’s atoning after a few years of purple-sweatshirt “swagginess” and teenage hijinks. Humbler, more overtly Christian, not a kid anymore—you probably can understand the concept without sitting through Purpose’s spoken-word segments and keyword-soup lyrics like “The meaning of forgiveness / People make mistakes / Only God can judge me.” The over-determined earnestness keeps the album from being as straightforwardly enjoyable as One Direction’s. But the music’s still worth a listen as a rare example of a new sound in pop music.

To be sure, it’s not a radical departure: Veteran songwriters are still involved, and there are still uptempo grooves and aching ballads and exercises in hip-hop drag. But while many of Bieber’s past efforts have been in line with production styles of the moment—insistent, bombastic, neon, dripping with hooks—Purpose is airy, open, and surprisingly restrained. The “tropical house” genre has been invoked to talk about the album, and indeed there are textures and rhythms—merry brass sections, reggae-derived rhythms—that should remind listeners of warm latitudes. But producers like the EDM punk Skrillex, the indie-electronica creator formerly known as Blood Diamonds (now just “Blood”), and Bieber’s confidante Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd wrap those elements with studio gauze to make them feel muted, angelic, and a bit futuristic. Sprinkled about are highly manipulated vocal snippets, little ghost choirs that heighten the otherworldly vibe. The same tricks have shown up on recent albums from Demi Lovato and Ellie Goulding, but Bieber’s version of it is actually more distinctive and less cluttered.

The sound, obviously, suits Bieber’s message; quoth Blood about the song “Sorry,” “The beat is saying moving forward, and apologizing, can be exciting and fun.” But even more than that, the production suits his vocals. Out of all the reasons people hate Justin Bieber, I’d submit that one of the important ones is the sound of his voice—especially when it was more kidlike—in the context of chipper, sing-songy tunes like “Baby.” On Purpose though, his smooth, still-high tone is given lots of space, and he delivers his words slowly. Which is to say, he sounds spiritual, even when he’s not singing about Jesus.

The music’s not all about inner enlightenment and PR rehab, either: Girls figure in, as you’d expect. The loping, electro-reggaeton of “Company,” is undeniable as body music, and Bieber’s seductive crooning is convincing enough. At least two songs—the tick-tocking No. 1 hit “What Do You Mean?” and the clever acoustic R&B of “No Pressure”—could be classified as “consent ballads,” which is another sign of potential evolution in pop music. But the best song dealing with romance might be “Love Yourself.” It sounds like Bieber’s singing by a campfire, with his voice up close to the mic, dewy. But the lyrics are anything but mushy; the song’s directed to someone who exploited him, and the “love” of the title should actually be read as another four-letter word. It’s an old pop genre—the kiss-off—given a twist, offering another bit of evidence that Justin Bieber has become the most interesting big-time pop star of the season.