Where have you gone, Justin Bieber?

Justin Bieber has come up with some catchy song titles recently, like “Where are you now” and “What do you mean.” I’d like to add another one: “Where have you gone?”

You may reply, “What do you mean? (pun intended – sorry!) Justin Bieber hasn’t gone anywhere. He has several hit songs and has just performed at the Grammy Awards.” But that’s not the Justin Bieber I mean. I’m talking about the young kid who displayed such prodigious talent and enthusiasm for music and dancing from an early young age. Where did that Justin Bieber go?

Today, March 1st, is the Biebster’s birthday. (I only know this because several of my teenage piano students have been pleading with me over the past week to wear purple today, since it is apparently Justin’s favorite color. Let the record show that yes, I wore my purple shirt to their lessons because I wanted to encourage their enthusiasm for a good musician, even if he’s made some dubious personal choices over the past few years!)

Anyway, I decided to spend a few minutes of his birthday watching Youtube clips of him playing music as a young child. It’s amazing to see how good he was. I’m presuming he still is good, but you’d never know for sure from what he produces these days. (More on that later.)

Watch this video of him playing an energetic drum beat at age 2 and some later footage. (The thing he does on the guitar is amazing!) Just watch the first minute and a half or so:
Justin Bieber video clips

There are also clips out there of him playing piano and dancing.

Bieber was something of a child prodigy who played music the way grownups do, but while still a young child. He obviously loves music, and loves to sing, dance, and play instruments. In short, Bieber is a true musician.

So why don’t we see this anymore? Why do we see a guy stand up there at the Grammys and sloppily strum 4 chords on a guitar as if he’d never before touched the thing? Why do we see a guy sing in a boring monotone while Skrillex’s exciting background track dwarfs him? Why don’t we hear him record anything as interesting as that percussive guitar playing he did in the video clip I linked to above? Why don’t we get any of his personality onstage anymore?

It’s because Bieber is trying to live exclusively in the pop world. A pop world where everything is about image. While I personally LOVE the musical production of his latest songs, this didn’t come from Bieber himself. In fact, it was so edgy (and thrilling) that he didn’t even know what to make of it when he first heard what his producers had done. To his credit, yes, he went along for the ride and it ended up saving his career. But why was he more expressive and adventurous when he was 2 years old than he is now?

Sure, not everyone can be a Bobby McFerrin or a Lady Gaga and daringly cross genres at will. But there is a huge market of pop listeners who want and will accept real music. Just ask Pentatonix. Just ask The Piano Guys. For that matter, ask McFerrin and Gaga too. Surely Bieber could summon up some of his old enthusiasm and play like he’s probably wanted to play all along.

Instead of merely performing drum solos during his concerts, why doesn’t he play one on his records? Why not go on the Grammys and play that percussive thing on guitar like on the video, while singing his new song? His fans would love it!

I don’t want to seem like I’m just picking on the newly 22-year-old Mr. Beiber here. He seems to be making a sincere attempt to “get his act together” on a personal level, and professionally he’s rebounded like few pop artists have. The larger issue is about what his situation tells us about the pop music world in general. Does it really have to suck the musical spark out of every talented artist? Do multi-instrumentalists like Bieber really have to reduce themselves to singing boring melodies over someone else’s rhythm track? Why? Is this the only way to stay successful these days?

I refuse to believe that it is. I feel that once someone has a fan base as big and dedicated as Bieber’s is, they can certainly bring at least a little of what they want to the table. 10 percent? 20 percent? And if not, then what’s the price they’re paying?

Happy birthday, Justin, and may you keep nurturing your inner musician!

Have you checked out my piano improv video course yet? It’ll get you playing jazz, rock, pop, or even classical improv with more fluency, confidence, and musical style.

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