A Star Is Re-Born: Why Is Justin Bieber In Sydney For A Hillsong Church Conference?

If history's taught us anything, it's that male pop stars with controversial pasts don't need to reinvent themselves in order to sell records. Is this about something deeper?

On January 2, Justin Bieber made a declaration via Twitter: “2015. New beginnings. Get ready”. This was perceived as a coy nod to a new musical direction; ska Bieber, hardcore Bieber, who knew? Fans were happy there was a new album coming, and everyone else kept on living their lives. Then, at the end of January, the apologies begin.

A rather earnest Ellen appearance sought to show Bieber in a reflective, repentant mode, after a year filled with controversy — and although Ellen came across slightly Oprah-ish in her judgemental, parental admonition of Biebs — and even if the whole exercised seemed calculated, with Caulfield-levels of phoniness — Justin for the most part seemed sincere. The redemption song continued the following day with an online video apology, in which explained why he’d been nervous about appearing on Ellen: “I was afraid of what people are thinking about me right now. It’s been a minute since I’ve been in a public appearance, and I didn’t want to come off arrogant or conceited, or basically how I’ve been acting in the past year, year and a half.” This apology wasn’t tied to one specific incident; just a general fall from grace buoyed by some bad behaviour, involving – among other things — alleged brothel visits, noise complaints, spitting on fans, pissing in buckets and a baby monkey. “I’m not who I was pretending to be,” he claimed on the video.

Comedy Central were called in next to help our young hero, with a Roast intended to show that Bieber could make fun of his public persona, and that some of the edgiest comedians in the world were tacitly on his side. He was one of them that evening, joking with them, good-naturedly copping a ribbing, and ending the entire thing with another wholly sincere cap-in-hand moment that fell flat only because it wasn’t funny and wasn’t intended to be funny (which on a station called “Comedy Central” tends to be a problem). Will Ferrell, Natasha Leggero, Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg all took part in seemingly good humour, but Hannibal Burress didn’t attempt to hide his contempt:  “You should thank me for participating in this extremely transparent attempt to be more likable in the public eye,” he stated, bluntly. “And I hope it doesn’t work.” The joke was cut from the broadcast.

Although non-comedy-world people like Donald Trump and David Hasselhoff have been previous Roast subjects, the Comedy Central connection seems odd for Bieber — until you consider  the previous year’s bad press, which erupted when Seth Rogen called Bieber out for being a “piece of shit” and “a bit of a motherfucker”, on Twitter and then, four months later, on Howard Stern’s show. Rogen is a hard-working stoner comic, an everyman who seems to represent the common consensus, with a personal style that’s the polar opposite to Bieber’s coiffed, pop star sheen. The way Rogen told it, Bieber’s people (trace any fall from grace, and the problems start when you have ‘people’) told Rogen he would like to meet him, and Rogen obliged — only to have Bieber act coolly, in what Rogen perceived as an arrogant slight.


Bieber’s reply tweet to Rogen, in the aftermath of the Howard Stern interview, seemed humble and honest enough — he was a big fan, and was a bit shy. It’s easy to scoff at the idea of a multi-million dollar pop star getting nervous around another famous person, but remember: these are not the circles Bieber moves in. Rogen has been on screens for fifteen years now, and is a huge movie star. On top of that, he is quick-witted, perma-baked, universally-loved, and autonomous in a way Bieber has never been. Even James Franco is obsessed with him, so it’s not inconceivable that Bieber would genuinely get nervous and attempt to play it cool, only to come across as arrogant. And it’s not unlikely he’d want to win back that crowd by letting them roast him publicly.

Last month, Bieber did an interview for Seventeen magazine; another mea culpa, but from an even more reflective place. “I was rebelling a little bit,” Bieber admitted. “I was getting cockier and cockier. I didn’t have people to check me. I looked back and I was disappointed in myself.” While it’s easy to doubt his sincerity, it’s unfair to. Part of growing up — the main part, some would argue — is becoming more comfortable in your own skin, and distancing yourself from the person you used to be. The public may be framing his redemption as the work of a savvy manager (Scooter Braun, the best star-maker in the game) reigning in one of his charges before the damage becomes too big, but Bieber does seem genuinely embarrassed, not merely apologetic. Words are easy to string together, but that doesn’t mean they should be easily discounted.

Why Hillsong, And Why Now?

With the first half of 2015 spent in damage control mode, it would seem Bieber is now publicly celebrating his biggest saviour to date: that ol’ chestnut, Jesus Christ.

Bieber, who identifies as a Christian, landed in Sydney on Monday morning to attend a five-day Hillsong conference. It’s a mutually-beneficial appearance that Bieber’s team likely hope will let the good grace of the Lord shine down publicly on the troubled young pop star, making him safe enough for parents to allow back near their teenage daughters (metaphorically, hopefully). The Australian-founded Hillsong might purport to be a church, but — like a lot of big religious organisations — at its core it is a business, with celebrity-backed marketing campaigns, operating costs, profit margins, KPIs, recruitment drives, and taxes– wait, no, no tax worries for these guys; much like Bono, churches don’t pay tax. Also like a business, it is intent on expansion; Bieber has credited Hillsong’s NYC ‘Hipster Pastor’ Carl Lentz with recruiting him as a delegate, as part of the Church’s wider push into America.

Hillsong are also a youth organisation, which means being so up-to-date and hip they’d never dream of using words like ‘hip’ — so to have Bieber publicly repping them is a huge win. (No doubt they are hoping to convert some of the curious fans who come along to the conference purely for proximity’s sake.) Bieber is attending the conference as a delegate too, not as a performer, which removes any speculation that this is simply a fly-in, do-it-for-the-money job, suggesting instead something more spiritual and real (although I sincerely doubt he was asked to cough up the attendance fee). The music tie-in is perfect for the church, too; Hillsong recently scored yet another number one album, beating the beloved Daniel Johns to the ARIA top spot (I wrote about how they manage this amazing feat of book-cooking here) — so right now, they’re riding high.

Leaning on religion as a road to redemption is a tale as old of time, and it’s a path that’s notoriously hard to call bullshit on publicly. Belief (beliebf?) and faith is by its very nature intangible, immeasurable, and deeply personal. Bieber is following a similar path to fellow-Calvin Klein model and former teen star Mark Wahlberg, who was unapologetically racist and violent in his younger years, participating in a series of horrific hate crimes: he beat up a group of black school-children, a neighbour, and an old Vietnamese man to the point of blinding him in one eye. But now, Wahlberg is now devoutly religious, claiming to go to church daily. Last year he asked for his criminal record to be wiped, stating his deep remorse and love of the lord as an adequate defence.

Does He Even Need A Rebrand?

Whether or not Bieber has actually found God isn’t for me to say — although if he was truly atoning, a dark, empty church in the Midwest might be a more pure option than a pap’d plane ride across the planet — but he does seem intent on public self-flagellation, which he doesn’t at all need to do. Bieber and his millions of dollars, millions of fans, and ability to release whatever music whenever he likes didn’t actually need to apologise at all. In fact, when you look at the history books, doubling-down on shit behaviour would have been a better option.

Chris Brown’s litany of horrendous, consequence-free actions shows that the public has an oddly tolerant history when it comes to male pop stars. If he was in the NBA — a cesspool of bad behaviour — he would have been fined, kicked out of the league, blackballed by every team from the US to Croatia, and probably beaten up by Shaq — yet Sony continue to market Brown’s face, persona, and music to teenage girls.

In fact, there’s a well-worn path of terrible behaviour by musicians that we find ways to excuse. People who truly believe Michael Jackson was a paedophile can de-compartmentalise this from his music, and even joke about it; Led Zeppelin are revered as rock gods, despite the fact that Jimmy Page once kidnapped a 14-year-old girl and essentially kept her as a sex slave; Jay-Z straight-up stabbed someone who he suspected of leaking his album; on the otherwise chirpy ‘Getting Better’ from The Beatles crowning Sgt. Pepper record, John Lennon sang “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved”, then died a slain hero; Tupac was jailed for rape (which he denied), wrote a song bragging about sleeping with Notorious B.I.G’s wife, and also died a hero. Hell, even one of the guys from the shiny Scandinavian Ace of Base was a neo-Nazi. Bieber is looking pretty clean by comparison.

Let’s take a look at his most heinous crimes. Egging his neighbour’s house: almost a rite of passage in the Halloween-drenched United States. Dragging a Lamborghini down his gated streets while drunk: again, trade out the luxury vehicle for a Datsun 120B, and we have a national pastime for a section of bored teens (which, let’s not forget, is what he was). Pissing in a bucket at a restaurant while (hilariously) yelling “FUCK BILL CLINTON”: not the best of behaviour, but little more than a drunken prank by a drunken kid showing off to his drunken, idiot friends. Abandoning his pet monkey in Germany due to an immigration snafu: when Johnny Depp was the centre of a similar scandal recently, he came out as a swashbuckling hero oppressed by our embarrassing, nanny-state government. At no point did Bieber punch Rihanna repeatedly in the face, or rap about raping and dismembering women. His list of bad behaviour seems more like the sort of thing that a local policeman and a strict mother would team up to stamp out before it became actual delinquency; not the cause of a series of outraged tabloid pieces, and petitions calling for his deportation from the country.

Growing Up Is Hard Enough; Imagine Doing It In Public

One’s teenage years and early 20s are a time for fumbling through awkwardly; for trying on personalities like hats until your grow your own; for making mistakes, making them again, and hopefully-but-slowly learning from them and becoming a better, more humble person. The President of America admits to being a tearaway in his late teens and college years — there are even photos of him smoking weed available online — and he grew up anonymous during a time devoid of social media. Bieber, meanwhile, was plucked from an extremely obscure country called Canada at the age of 13, after a video he posted on YouTube caught the attention of Usher (or so the neat narrative goes). He has maintained and built a monstrous fanbase over the last eight years; he has also been tabloid fodder, the butt of jokes, and the target of fierce hate since his early teens – a tough road to hoe for even the most strong-willed of humans. Add to this the freedom that must come with untold wealth, and the suffocating level of insulation that’s been protecting him from the real world, and it’s easy to see how he could go off the rails.

But if you lay it all out, all Bieber is doing is growing up, and fucking up, and learning, and realising that younger Justin was a bit of a dick sometimes. It doesn’t take divine intervention for growth to happen, but a well-publicised trip to a far-away church certainly helps get the word out.

Nathan Jolly is a music journalist who has written for Channel [V], This Recording, J Mag, and Daily Life. He was formerly the Editor of The Music Network, and tweets from @NathanJolly

Feature image by Kevin Winter for Getty.