LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 09: Justin Bieber waits in the ring after the fight between KSI and Logan … [+]
Justin Bieber can’t catch a break.
The singer made his highly anticipated return last week with “Yummy,” a breezy R&B jam that serves as the lead single off his yet-untitled new album. It’s performing respectably, if not spectacularly, on streaming services, debuting at No. 2 on global Spotify behind Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey” and second to Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” in the United States. Bieber has not been shy about his desire to send “Yummy” to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. He recently implored his fans to stream and buy the song on iTunes during an Instagram Live session, and on Thursday, a post with detailed instructions to help “Yummy” hit No. 1 began circulating on Twitter. Those instructions include buying the song multiple times on Bieber’s website and iTunes; creating a playlist consisting solely of “Yummy” and streaming it on repeat at low volume; and having listeners outside the U.S. download a VPN app and set it to the U.S. to inflate Bieber’s stateside streaming numbers.
The tweet includes a screenshot of Bieber ostensibly reposting these instructions on his official Instagram from a fan account, though the link is disabled and the post does not appear on Bieber’s account. (The original fan post is still live.) Still, it invited the widespread scorn of Twitter users, who accused Bieber’s excessive “Yummy” promotion of being “desperate” and “privileged.” But Bieber’s tactics are hardly new; superstar artists don’t rise to the top without learning a little self-promotion along the way. In 2017, Taylor Swift launched “Taylor Swift Tix,” the ticketing initiative that allowed fans to improve their spot in the digital ticket queue for the Reputation Tour by watching Swift’s music videos on repeat, posting about her on social media or purchasing Reputation up to 13 times. And don’t forget about Korean pop artists such as BTS and Blackpink, whose fans mobilize to consume their new songs, albums and music videos en masse in order to break sales and streaming records. (Expect to see this again when BTS drop their comeback single next Friday and their new album, Map of the Soul: 7, in February.) Heck, Roddy Ricch himself can attribute much of “The Box”’s streaming success to a viral TikTok video poking fun at the track’s squeaky hook, which has earned more than 620,000 likes.
Bieber’s not doing anything new by promoting the hell out of “Yummy”; he’s just shamelessly employing the same tactics other artists try to hide. The loudest critics are the ones who resolved a long time ago to hate every move Bieber makes. Truth is, much of this chatter probably wouldn’t exist if “Yummy” weren’t so mediocre.
I stand by my cautiously positive review from last week, but it’s hardly a galaxy-brain take to say “Yummy” pales in comparison to Purpose’s effervescent lead single, “What Do You Mean?” That song set a daunting bar for success by debuting at No. 1, followed by two more chart-topping singles, “Sorry” and “Love Yourself.” Conventional wisdom suggests Bieber could replicate the success of those tracks with ease, but “Yummy” lacks the components of a smash hit. Its trap-lite beats and lithe backup vocals are delectable, but its low-stakes lead vocal and mind-numbing chorus fail to make a statement on par with other recent pop smashes that debuted at No. 1, like Ariana Grande’s self-love anthem “Thank U, Next” (and it’s flexy follow-up “7 Rings”) or Selena Gomez’s weighty ballad “Love You to Love Me.”
It’s not enough for veteran artists to drop a single and let the radio and streaming gods decide their fate. They have to hustle for a No. 1 just like everybody else, and the artists who lose sight of that are the ones who start to see diminishing returns. Bieber’s doing what he has to do to eat; if “Yummy” were a more substantive or unanimously acclaimed song, he wouldn’t be catching half the flak he is right now for promoting it.
This week’s charts haven’t been solidified yet, so it remains to be seen how “Yummy” fares against “The Box.” Yesterday, Bieber trailed Roddy Ricch by nearly 2 million U.S. Spotify streams. That’s a hard deficit to overcome, no matter how many fake VPNs your fans make. If anything, this so-called “battle” proves that virality can’t be engineered or focus-grouped; it requires a great hook and a stroke of luck. Sometimes, even the most dependable hitmaker is helpless against a viral song that’s heating up. (Just look back to mid-2019, when Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” shut Swift’s first two Lover singles, “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” out of the top spot on the Hot 100.) The music industry rules are constantly changing, and artists can either adapt or die. You can’t knock Bieber for playing the game, or for losing. But you should question why the game exists at all.
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