Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Justin Bieber – “Love Yourself”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in February 2016
He had every reason to love himself: in 2016 Justin Bieber ruled the pop world. To his credit, I suppose, he did it his way, not loving himself enough to be satisfied with mere masturbation — that’s a fate he decreed for the girlfriend in his song. The first two singles from the previous year’s Purpose delineated his petulance and cruelty, respectively: “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry.” And they worked. Beware the self-made man: he has no sympathy for those who lack his good fortune. A YouTube star imbued with the arrogance of peak Chevy Chase or an Errol Flynn, Bieber had no talent for affection; that’s why those singles worked like mad – this and their mastery of trop house and the lubrications given his larynx by producers MdL and Skrillex.
“Love Yourself” completed the triple play, a semi-acoustic kiss-off with a catchy as hell trumpet solo and buckets of contempt that Bieber hasn’t a clue what to do with; he’s like a confused Elmer Fudd with a double-barreled shotgun blinking while Daffy shouts, SHOOT’EM NOW SHOOT’EM NOW. As the guitar licks go up, signifying poignancy, Bieber whisper-chuckles each insult, “My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone” only the most memorable. What she’s guilty of other than taking advantage of his fame we’re not sure, but perhaps getting into a club saying, “Hi! I’m with the Biebes!” isn’t a venal sin in Bieberland. But the grossest dismissal he saves for the chorus, indicting her for taking pride in the way she looks. Reviewing it for The Singles Jukebox, I wished a female singer — Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, say — would cover it and give adolescent women the fuck-off sentiment they deserve. “It’s easy to imagine a high school girl directing it at a guy, mimicking Bieber’s ice cold malevolence,” I wrote, “How wonderful that would be.” But of course radio wouldn’t let a woman get away with that malevolence no matter how many euphemisms she used for “fuck.”
The X-factor is co-writer Ed Sheeran, not as (in)famous then, but you can see his fingerprints: the tugging, irresistible melody line that beguiled listeners for a while, including me; the same use of melody applied to ungenerous ends in which the object of desire devolves under his ruthless attention into an object of disgust like butter in a microwave set to five minutes on high. Always in Sheeran’s work is the sense in which he wants to impress on listeners his share of the work, how his efforts indemnify him against losses, in the manner of a minor MasterCard customer service rep reminding a complainer that she signed the consent forms, thus is unable to sue for damages.
Typical of the lack of imagination in “Love Yourself” is Bieber never thinking that loving herself might denote a pleasure she wouldn’t get from using his ID to get warm champagne at Club Space.