Number Ones: Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’ Is The Epitome Of Pop In 2015

It's like if Bieber, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran had an extremely popular baby.

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In his semi-regular column, musicologist Tim Byron takes a deep dive into the new song at the top of the ARIA Singles Chart.

Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’ has somehow managed to beat the unbeatable: selling more copies than Adele’s ‘Hello’ right before Christmas. It seemed impossible. Adele is the biggest name in music, full stop — her album 25 has sold about as many copies in the last three weeks as Taylor Swift’s 1989 did in a year. And ‘Hello’ sounded like a number one single, with a nagging hook and some impressive vocal pyrotechnics.

The record industry’s default position when it comes to releasing things in 2015 after Adele’s album came out is basically “eh, why bother?” Right now, for example, if there’s a big obvious chart-topper from Rihanna in the pipeline, it’ll be delayed ‘til after Christmas. It seemed unlikely that Adele would be toppled until 2016.

Then this came along.

Bieber’s Synthesis Of 2014/15 Pop

So how did Bieber do it? Namely, he took bits and pieces of pretty much every big pop hit of the last 18 months, tied it up expertly in the gift-wrapping paper of authenticity, and plopped it under his Beliebers’ Christmas trees. For starters, the lyric — a kiss-off to a former lover, presumably Selena Gomez — is more than a little Taylor Swift. Bieber’s lyrics do give off the impression that he knew she was trouble – “my mama don’t like you, and she likes everyone” — and they’re never, ever, ever getting back together, like, ever — thus the “you can go love yourself” refrain. The lyric is a little ambiguous on whether there’s still bad blood or just a blank space, but Bieber is certainly trying to give the impression of no longer needing to shake it off – “you think you broke my heart, oh for goodness sake”.

The song’s arrangement is very barebones, too, similar to the Rihanna/Kanye West #1 single ‘FourFiveSeconds’. Like ‘FourFiveSeconds’, ‘Love Yourself’ is more or less just vocals and a guitar, and it’s all meant to indicate that singer-songwriter ring of authenticity. If the video clip for ‘Love Yourself’ avoids black and white footage of a sans-makeup Bieber wearing denim, it’s only because Bieber’s people instead opted for the Sia route: footage of a couple of people doing an interpretative dance, a la the video clip for Sia’s ‘Elastic Heart’ featuring Maddie Ziegler and Shia LaBeouf.

One of 2015’s most notable pop stories is Bieber returning from his annus horribilis of bad publicity somehow more successful than ever. Bieber’s recent tropical house pop thing — the one full of the dolphin noises and the “expensive sounds” — was already responsible for a fair few of the big pop hits of 2015, between ‘Where Are U Now’ (a #3 single), ‘What Do You Mean?’ (a #1) and ‘Sorry’ (which is still charting at #3). Bieber’s vocal manner is very much in the vein of his recent hits — like in those songs, he gives a relatively stark, unadorned performance, almost undersinging the lyric rather than going for bravura stuff like melismas or swathing it in vocal effects like autotune or double-tracking. There’s also some other subtle echoes of the tropical house pop thing that Bieber’s made his own this year; there’s a horn line straight out of Omi’s ‘Cheerleader’ midway through the song. And there is something in the vibe of ‘Love Yourself’ that’s crying out for a sped-up tropical house-style remix.

If you think ‘Love Yourself’ is just a little bit reminiscent of Ed Sheeran, well, that’s because pretty much every guitar lick and melody screams Ed Sheeran. I mean, Sheeran co-wrote the song, and it sounds like it. There are definite echoes of the slightly-too-wordy lilting verse of Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’ in the slightly-too-wordy lilting verse of ‘Love Yourself’. ‘Thinking Out Loud’ and ‘Love Yourself’ are both based around solo electric guitar backing played relatively clean, without much in the way of distortion or effects. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was (an uncredited) Ed Sheeran on guitar and backing vocals. Considering that the recent ARIA Awards featured Ed Sheeran being awarded a new-fangled ‘Diamond’ award for selling a shitload of his X album, it’s little wonder why even Bieber wants to sound like the guy.

In other words, ‘Love Yourself’ is like a rocket aimed at the top of the charts, what with the Taylor Swift-esque lyrics, Justin Bieber’s vocals, Ed Sheeran’s guitar melodies, Rihanna and Kanye’s play for authenticity, and the Sia-esque video clip. In your head, the typical sound of pop probably sounds something like a Katy Perry single, something produced by Dr. Luke and Max Martin. However, in 2015, the sound of pop right now is actually closer to ‘Love Yourself’ than the typical Katy Perry track.

‘Love Yourself’ Was Produced By The Guy Who Made The Typical Katy Perry Track

In fact, ‘Love Yourself’ was produced by Benny Blanco, who spent much of the early 2010s as an offsider to Dr. Luke and Max Martin. In the Dr. Luke/Max Martin complex, Blanco was the guy usually credited with the basic beat. As a result, Blanco is credited for production work on all those typical Katy Perry hits — ‘I Kissed A Girl’, ‘Hot N Cold’, ‘Teenage Dream’ and ‘California Gurls’ — as well as stuff like ‘Tik Tok’ by Ke$ha, ‘Moves Like Jagger’ by Maroon 5, and ‘Dynamite’ by Taio Cruz. Before becoming part of the Dr. Luke factory line, Blanco was best known for producing the 2007 EP Bangers & Cash with rapper Spank Rock, which featured the tracks ‘B-O-O-T-A-Y’, ‘Pu$$y’, and ‘Bitch!’. He’s certainly not the guy you’d expect to be producing a song like ‘Love Yourself’.

John Seabrook’s recent book The Song Machine, about the way modern pop songs are put together, unsurprisingly devotes quite a lot of space to the Max Martin/Dr. Luke machine. And within that world, according to Seabrook, Blanco is seen as something of a useful idiot. Max Martin, of course, had a past as a hair metal frontman, and Dr. Luke apparently grew up in a house filled with jazz before playing in the Saturday Night Live house band in the 1990s. Which is to say that both of them sometimes may have to suppress their inner instincts to do something artistic instead of putting together a hit single for Katy Perry.

However, there’s a revealing quote in The Song Machine from Bonnie McKee — the lyricist on ‘Teenage Dream’ — about Blanco: “Luke always makes us ‘Benny Proof’ everything. He says that if Benny doesn’t get it, America won’t get it.” Blanco, in other words, is not the kind of guy who needs to suppress inner artistic instincts.

So Blanco being the producer of a barebones hit like ‘Love Yourself’ makes a certain sense, precisely because he’s not the guy you’d expect to be producing. If ‘Love Yourself’ makes sense to someone like Blanco, if he can hear the hooks in it, well, it’s probably going to be a hit. After all, Blanco lives in that world of number one singles. If that song makes sense to him, it’s because that song’s influences are things he already knows about.

Love Yourself: A Triple-Entendre

The other clever thing about ‘Love Yourself’, beyond its ability to synthesise virtually all of 2014/15, is the triple-entendre of its refrain – “you should go and love yourself”. There’s three ways you can interpret the refrain. The first, of course, is the most charitable, and this is that Bieber is diagnosing his ex’s inability to love herself as the cause of her personality faults. This is similar to the advice that if you want other people to love you, you’ve first got to love yourself. The second interpretation is somewhat less charitable; he’s suggesting that, instead of trying to “hit my phone up” — presumably for some Drake-style hotline bling — that she should hit up her vibrator.

The third interpretation is the least charitable. In pop, the word ‘love’ is sometimes used as a substitute for the word ‘fuck’ — most obviously so in the clean version of Enrique Iglesias’s unfortunate date-rape anthem ‘Tonight I’m Fucking You’, which got retitled ‘Tonight I’m Loving You’ for the radio. Elsewhere, the thing that Lloyd is missing in his track ‘Dedication To My Ex (Miss That)’ is “loving” in the clean version and “pussy” in the explicit version. Which is to say that Bieber, in ‘Love Yourself’, may well really be telling his ex to go fuck herself.

Because Bieber sings the track pretty straight, and because the official video features interpretative dance rather than Bieber sneering or frowning, it’s hard to tell which of these three alternatives is the correct one. Of course, as ABBA told us in ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, breaking up is never easy to do. Your ex likely knows you pretty intimately, and you likely know them pretty intimately — and that level of shared knowledge means you have a large variety of emotions when you break up, whether they were a saint or a devil. Interacting with a recent ex is inevitably awkward even in amicable breakups — in interactions with your ex, you still have a variety of not-yet-an-ex habits that have not yet been extinguished. All of that means that most of us have decidedly mixed emotions about our exes.

Bieber And Your Mixed Emotions About Your Ex

‘Love Yourself’ pretty expertly exploits these mixed emotions. After all, Bieber sings the lyric in the refrain with little emotion — he mostly sounds weary. This means that a listener who has recently broken up — always a prime market for pop music — can interpret the lyric in a way that goes with their current feelings. To such listeners, ‘Love Yourself’ will sometimes sound like Bieber really means “go fuck yourself” and will sometimes sound like Bieber really means “they couldn’t love you because they couldn’t love themselves”.

For all that the song has a backstory to it — the assumption that it’s about Bieber’s ex Selena Gomez — there’s very little in the song that isn’t universal. I mean, the only time in the song that a gender is specified is when Bieber sings “oh girl, for goodness sake”. The song is designed so that Beliebers — who, five years after ‘Baby’, are largely now young adults — can put themselves into the situation with minimum fuss. Even a more specific line like “my mama don’t like you, and she likes everyone” is still broadly universal — in the wake of a break-up, I doubt many mothers are fans of their children’s exes.

If right now, you’re missing your ex rather than wanting to tell them to go love themselves, Bieber’s got you covered too: ‘Sorry’ is currently at #3 in the charts. In fact, between the two Bieber songs, Adele’s ‘Hello’ (at #2 this week), and Shawn Mendes’ ‘Stitches’ (the #4 this week, which is based around the line “now that I’m without your kisses, I’ll be needing stitches”), Australia is 100 percent sorted when it comes to break-up songs. Must be that time of year.

Tim Byron has written for Max TV, Mess+Noise, The Guardian, The Big Issue, and The Vine. (@hillsonghoods)