When one thinks of artistic genius, it is unlikely that pop music comes to mind. From the throwaway lyrics of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to the recent trend of attaching catchy dance moves to otherwise dumbfounding songs (“Now watch me whip/Now watch me nae nae,” for example), pop music has been the land of formulaic beats, lyrics middle schoolers could write, and the kind of immature relationship angst that Taylor Swift has made millions upon millions on.
Every now and then, however, a song with subtle artistry graces the pop music landscape. The most recent addition to this rare canon is Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” Co-written by master lyricist Ed Sheeran, who famously wrote in “Thinking Out Loud” that he would love you until you’re seventy, “Love Yourself” takes the popular break up theme and, through the use of the unreliable narrator, adds a surprising dimension that is uncommon to find in a pop song. A close reading of the lyrics will elucidate the song’s genius.
For all the times that you rain on my parade
For all the clubs you get in using my name.
At first glance, these lyrics seem innocuous. Bieber is simply saying that his ex, whoever this person is, has benefited from his fame and fortune. But the verbs “rain” and “get in” are in present tense, not past. Either Biebs and the ex are still together or there’s something else going on. Let’s continue:
You think you broke my heart, oh, girl for goodness sake
You think I’m cryin’ on my own but I ain’t.
And I didn’t wanna write a song,
‘Cause I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care. I don’t,
But you still hit my phone up.
The first line here is relatively benign, but then the Biebs presents an interesting picture of crying on his own. Why add the “on his own” here? The line would work simply as “You think I’m cryin’ but I ain’t.” Instead, the line seems to indicate that he’s not crying by himself, but instead there’s someone else there with him. But who? We’ll come to that in a bit.
From there we get to the first obvious statement by the unreliable narrator. “I didn’t want to write a song.” But write a song is exactly what Biebs has done. And then he says he didn’t want anyone to think he still cared about her, but if that was the case, what he should’ve done is exactly the opposite, which would be to not write a song. The reason he gives for writing the song is also unbelievable. She still hits his phone up, but it’s likely the only people who know that are him and the girl, so writing a song isn’t necessary. Perhaps he could’ve also just blocked her… or maybe he couldn’t…
And baby I be movin’ on
And I think you should be somethin’ I don’t wanna hold back
Maybe you should know that
My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone
And I never like to admit that I was wrong
And I’ve been so caught up in my job,
Didn’t see what’s going on
But now I know
I’m better sleeping on my own
Bieber starts here saying he’s moving on, but the act of writing and singing this song indicates he really isn’t. From there, he moves on to “thinking” (not “knowing”) that he doesn’t want to hold her back and that “maybe” she should know that his mom doesn’t like her and she likes everyone. Well, Justin, if your Mom doesn’t like this mysterious other person, then she, by definition doesn’t like everyone. He then says he doesn’t like to admit that he was wrong, but because he’s so busy with his job, he didn’t see what was happening. Isn’t that admitting that you’re wrong, Biebs? And are you really sleeping on your own? Who is he talking about?
'Cause if you like the way you look that much
Oh, baby, you should go and love yourself
And if you think that I'm still holdin' on to somethin'
You should go and love yourself
Google Image Search the Biebs and you will discover that there might not be one person on the planet that cares about the way they look than Bieber himself, so calling someone out for caring about how they look? Hmmm… He then references the title of song, “Love Yourself,” which is obviously a take on “F--- Yourself.” Why not just use the F word here? Why use the word “love”? Justin finishes the chorus off by saying he’s not holding on, but the entire song illustrates the opposite.
And when you told me that you hated my friends
The only problem was with you and not them
And every time you told me my opinion was wrong
And tried to make me forget where I came from
And I didn't wanna write a song…
For all the times that you made me feel small
I fell in love. Now I feel nothin' at all
And never felt so low when I was vulnerable
Was I a fool to let you break down my walls?
'Cause if you like the way…
Bieber continues his brilliant lyrics about hating on his friends and his opinions and making him forget where he’s from (no one forgets you’re from Canada, bro), but we already know that Bieber’s friends and his opinions probably aren’t the greatest influences. Then we find out this mystery person made Bieber feel small and that even though he fell in love, he feels nothing at all (but you wrote a song about it!). He finishes off his song by saying he was at his worst because he was vulnerable with this person, and now he feels like a fool for letting them see the real Bieber.
The real Bieber.
That’s what this song is about, the reason why the unreliable narrator is such a key to understanding this song, which is about Justin Bieber and his alterego, Diva Justina, the girl he has such a hard time breaking away from because the girl is a part of him. The girl is him.
He clues us in already in the first two lines which are in present tense. This isn’t a girl he broke up with. This is a girl he’s still with. And he’s not crying on his own, because Diva Justina is always with him. Diva Justina is the one sending crazy text from his phone (possibly to Justin himself – You’re killin’ it, bro – who doesn’t find them until he sobers up the next morning), Diva Justina is the one his Mom hates, Diva Justina is the one who cares so much about how she looks, Diva Justina is the one who hates his friends (his “real” friends, the ones who try and get him to ), Diva Justina is the one who made Justin feel vulnerable because he fell in love with the limelight and the fame.
Throughout “Love Yourself,” Bieber’s use of the unreliable narrator points us to the instability of the song, and it’s this instability that compelled Justin to write this. In many places, Bieber sings lyrics that appear to be hypocritical on the face of it, but then Diva Justina compels him to keep writing. This isn’t a song about an ex-girlfriend. It’s about Bieber’s struggle with Diva Justina and trying to come to grips about the person fame has made him. Even when Justin is trying to turn it around, when he’s trying to get away from this girl, Diva Justina is telling him to accept who they are together and that after everything, Bieber should Love Himself.