“My life is a movie, and everyone’s watching,” Justin Bieber sang five years ago on his album Purpose. After years of scandalous, increasingly absurd media attention, from stories of the pop singer buying a pet monkey to pissing in buckets, the record was a self-aware message to an industry that loves to laugh and gawk at a teen pop star newly catapulted into adulthood. But rather than revel in his dirtbag ways and stick a middle finger to the press, Purpose was apologetic to the point of debasement: the chorus of its biggest hit was, literally, “I’m sorry,” sung like a monk self-flagellating.
Justin Bieber hasn’t put out good music in a long time, but the world never stopped watching him. And in the years since Bieber’s Purpose, it’s become clear that the artist has been battling demons that were perhaps at the root of all those post-teenage antics. Fans and critics have come a long way since Britney Spears, and discussions of mental health, anxiety, and how the two bubble in the cauldron that is teenaged fame now happen out in the open for artists. Ever since Bieber canceled the Purpose tour in 2017, he has undergone, however cosmetically, a sort of awakening. He’s gotten even more religious, attaching himself to the hip of his pastor Carl Lenz. He took a vow of celibacy at one point, citing a sex addiction, and he entered treatment for depression. But you’ll barely see Bieber talk about any of this in his YouTube docuseries Seasons, which seems to slam the door in fans and viewers faces when it comes to getting a peek at what the artist’s life has been like.
Because streaming platforms built for increasingly younger audiences assume those audiences won’t watch anything longer than a few minutes, the episodes of Bieber’s docuseries Seasons only clock in at about 10 or 11 minutes each. The show rushes through the past few years in montage form at the top, and while the handful of interviewees in the series, like his managers Allison Kaye and Scooter Braun, talk about the “dark” space Bieber was in on the Purpose tour, Bieber himself barely does. “I think that being human is challenging for everybody. We’re all struggling to some degree,” he says. He is finally in a “good headspace,” he says.
So that’s where the series meets Bieber, in this good headspace, but specifically the good headspace of making his new album. Recently, he played it for critics and was reported to have cried through the listening session. The handful of episodes of the show I saw are less of a docuseries about Bieber or his life and more a fly-on-the-wall look at him recording this new music. Maybe this footage would be less disappointing if the material were better, but instead, viewers are subjected to scenes of repetitive vocal takes recorded for his single “Yummy” and an unfortunate Spanish language track riding the high of “Despacito” called “La Bomba” (“Singers are good at imitating, so I guess I’m just good at imitating,” Bieber says, explaining why he doesn’t know Spanish but continues to sing in it.) The result is a show that feels like a collection of scrap material for a real documentary, one that’s missing in action. What we have here is just a montage of Bieber’s coworkers and friends talking about how great Bieber is (“His work ethic is amazing,” producer Poo Bear says) broken up with footage of studio time.
Perhaps Bieber is done talking about the difficult periods of his life and career, or it’s a discussion that may come deeper into the extremely short series. But the tight focus Seasons has on his album recording sessions only seems more suspect as the show ignores the elephant in the room: Why did it take five years to record another album, and why won’t anyone really talk about it? A split-second scene where Bieber’s wife Hailey reminds him to take his meds is infinitely more revealing than 99 percent of the documentary.
Bieber was just a child in his first documentary Never Say Never and for a generation who grew up with him, whether they loved him or simply loved to judge his life from afar, revisiting the turmoil of Bieber’s life makes sense. Taylor Swift, an artist who is arguably more famous and more private than Bieber, is set to release her first documentary through Netflix this week, and the details already reported about its content are proof that artist documentaries can still be revealing, even if most are PR slop. A true documentarian would have known there’s likely something a bit deeper to unearth in the rubble of Bieber’s career, one at the intersection of his fame, addiction, and religion. But for now, the movie that is Bieber’s real life exists just for him and him alone.