Justin Bieber’s musical career and public image have become inseparable.
Earlier this year, the Canadian pop star released Changes, a shallow collection of sex-tinged R&B songs that served as the singer’s first album in five years. The album was explicitly dedicated to his wife, Hailey Bieber, which was perhaps the only interesting thing about it since the duo’s tumultuous relationship was already established as an inescapable part of pop culture.
The Biebers’ 2019 Vogue cover story illuminated what the publication called an “All-In” romance; it was filled with bizarre anecdotes, including that the couple married quickly to break their year-long celibacy. Bieber–an openly devout Christian whose close ties to the controversial Hillsong United Church have remained problematic throughout his career–had seemingly reentered the public eye as a changed married man of God who sang exclusively about making love to his wife.
On “Holy,” Justin Bieber once again bleats about his wife’s love–but because it’s 2020, it has to carry the weight of this year’s cultural reckonings about race relations and the military. But the single’s coinciding music video teeters on the verge of a strange political statement without ever fully taking a stand; the result feels like performative activism, or even worse, a vague acknowledgement of social issues for clout.
In the video, Bieber stars as a middle-class, blue-collar oil miner, who is let go from his post due to the “global situation.” He and his love interest–portrayed by actor and Bieber superfan Ryan Destiny–are soon evicted from their apartment and wander the streets until a kind veteran (portrayed by Wilmer Valderrama) on his way home from literal war, offers to shelter them. The video’s climax comes as Bieber, Destiny, Valderrama, and his family say grace around the dinner table and share a meal.
The video’s loose commentary feels about as impactful as a Tweet and borders on disrespect to the divisive struggles that actively plague middle America. As someone who’s been so public about his relationship as to create an entire album about his wife, choosing someone who is not Hailey to portray his on-screen love interest already feels like a dramatic decision, but to choose a person of color to represent said love interest feels tokenizing. If the struggles of an impoverished interracial couple in middle America was the story Bieber wanted to tell, why not choose a different actor to star alongside Destiny?
To have Bieber star alongside Destiny feels like an act of virtue-signaling. Like he wants us to know, once again, that he’s really changed this time and that he’s a good dude who remains woke and connected to the underprivileged. Never mind the fact that the song is about Hailey and isn’t remotely about any of the societal issues Bieber toys with in the video.
The world is literally on fire, and Justin Bieber’s call for unity rings hollow, as he remains fiercely aligned with a church that actively discriminates against the LGBTQ+ community. If Bieber were remotely connected to the issues he trivializes on “Holy,” then he’d realize that good intentions do not solve these problems. (Although, speaking of which, hell, even Bieber’s “Intentions” music video was more impactful. At least it shown a spotlight on the work of the Alexandria House, a nonprofit Bieber later pledged $200,000 to support.)
It would be nice if holding hands and sharing a meal is all that was needed to solve America’s problems, but it’s becoming clearer by the day that our problems are more systemic and complicated than that. Instead of capitalizing on the genuine pain of being a poor American, multi-millionaire white Evangelicals like Bieber need to step aside and make space for–or ideally highlight–the artists and activists who relentlessly strive to fix the issues that Bieber uses to prop up his image. With over 6 million views and counting, “Holy” is an awkward slog that doesn’t understand how high the stakes are.
Justin Bieber – Holy ft. Chance The Rapper