In Pop Music, the Celebrity Apology Is Suddenly Hotter Than Sex

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“Is it too late for Justin Bieber to say sorry for ending Adele’s Hot 100 reign?” the headline of Vulture’s report on Bieber’s Purpose hit “Sorry” vanquishing Adele’s 25 single “Hello” rhetorically wondered this week. A headline essentially pondering whether Bieber’s apology should apologize to Adele’s apology might well lead us to note a certain similarity in the two most explosively popular tracks of the past few months. Between Adele moping as she revs up her landline to “tell you [she’s] sorry for everything that [she’s] done” and Bieber — over the odd calm created by what sounds like an electronic peacock and a Dembow-ish beat — asking whether it’s too late for redemption, it’s pretty clear that we’re having a bit of a love affair with penitence. And these two songs present us with an opportunity to experience apology from opposite poles — based on the seemingly oppositional ways we perceive these two celebrities.

Bieber is the quintessential celebrity who we pay attention to because of his very celebrity-ish antics, the kind that throb the hearts of tweens (and lead non-tweens to internal battles over whether they just “hate-clicked” or regular-clicked his potentially photoshopped bulge). Adele, on the flip side, is someone whose persona and voice have somehow been equated with a zenith of relatablilty. She’s your sexually normative, white EveryHuman who pops up every five years and belts 11 four-minute miniatures that somehow sound to us like The Human Condition at its purest — despite or perhaps because of their utter safeness. Alas, we have the disdained celebrity apologizing to us, and the celebrated pseudo-EveryHuman apologizing through us.

Bieber’s “Sorry” centers on a subject that’s neither sexy nor fun nor fast nor furious; it’s rather just about the kind of mildly sad experience mature human beings concede to having when they recognize their faults. Few things sound less exciting than a track called “Sorry” — apologizing is almost antithetical to pop, which so often focuses on emotional extremes or self-affirmation, while heartfelt apologies tend to be measured, and driven by perhaps the most sexless and least danceable emotion: guilt. Yet one thing that seems to make the mind of anyone who follows pop culture brim with glee — and affirmation — is the celebrity apology.

Despite our knowledge that celebrity apologies are often written by publicists and released predominantly because contrition will spackle a dent left in a celebrity’s reputation, we still revel in calling out celebrities and then seeing — perhaps illusorily — the power we exerted force them to reconsider their behavior or beliefs. After a celebrity gaffe, the Internet collectively stands, figurative arms folded and eyebrows raised, awaiting the moment when the celebrity admits that the people who are upset at them were right. This seems our fastest, newest way to create a bridge between ourselves and celebrities: we probably won’t meet them, but when they’ve been especially sucky, and then we say they’re sucky, and then they release a statement about having been sucky, there is a sense that we can influence the people we simultaneously deify.

Our relationship to Beiber epitomizes this, and so his release of a song called “Sorry” — and the subsequent hugeness of that song — makes a ton of sense. (It’s worth mentioning that Skrillex, Yektro, and Blood Diamonds’ production on the track is astoundingly good, and somehow gives dynamism to such a lyrically tepid song.) The introduction of a piece in Bustle on “Sorry” perfectly exemplifies how Beliebing in this day and age is predicated on an awareness of both his misdeeds and his subsequent remorse:

We have officially entered the age of the Bieber renaissance — the “Bieberenaissance,” if you will. After a few years of little music and a whole lot of bad choices, Justin Bieber has finally gotten his groove back…

Indeed, he made enough bad choices to necessitate a roast that even Steven Soderbergh watched, and thus his comeback — and our open-armed acceptance of it — came through our love of apology. He jettisoned himself back to popularity by giving us this thing we’ve come to love — through song! Sure, the song addresses a specific person, someone who he “let down,” but the hushed way he sings makes the apology sound intimate, like he’s delivering it directly to the listener. Further, pop that brings up nighttime, as “Sorry” does, normally would do so as innuendo — in pop, “tonight” is euphemistic for “tonight when we fuck.” But in “Sorry,” Bieber croons, “So let me, oh let me/ Redeem, oh redeem, oh myself tonight.” Since pop purports to reflect the desires of the People, it seems that we’ve substituted the excitement of sex with the excitement of sorry: here, they’re one and the same.

Meanwhile, the tone of “Hello” is such that no one would ever assume Adele was aiming the apology at them. Rather, the listener gets swept up in Adele’s swaying voice and the wind effects in Xavier Dolan’s accompanying video and feels they’re being beckoned to become Adele — or that they already are Adele. As the hilarious and uncharacteristically on-point SNL sketch above suggests, reactions to “Hello” automatically assumed the song spoke for literally everyone‘s human experience. While Bieber’s “Sorry” gives us fodder for — and even sexualizes — an apology obsession, turning it into a fetish, Adele’s “Hello” practically forces us to identify with the song and experience the catharsis of apology. And if the song itself didn’t force that connection, a popular response to it that was so fervently positive as to seem a form of mass hysteria did. Those of us who didn’t connect suddenly pondered whether we were sociopaths.

Writing for The New Inquiry, Robin James pointed out how the viralness of a video of a “pit bull howling along to a verse and chorus from the song… shows people think ‘Hello”s interpretive horizon is so natural even animals understand the song’s emotions.” Through being lyrically safe — and through the frequent assumption that whiteness and heterosexuality are unspecific — Adele’s song has been equated with such a universality that it’s seen as a positive that our musical taste would be shared with a (very cute) dog.

When we enjoy Bieber’s “Sorry,” we’re fulfilling the common desire to see pedestal-dwelling celebrities apologize. But Adele’s “Hello” and its attendant fervor allow us to get caught up in the apologizing, amplifying the gesture to near-spiritual levels of intensity (despite it all being about an apologetic phone call placed years after the end of a relationship). Bieber’s voice acknowledges the mild, pop-unworthiness of the act while his instrumentation turns it into something that beguiles the ears — making the apology almost sound personalized. Adele’s voice, meanwhile, dramatizes the seemingly undramatic act to the extent that the listener connects emotionally to it.

Songs florid and popular enough that they would once have inevitably been about sex, or love, are suddenly about the act of apologizing. “Sorry,” a word that may never have seemed worthy of dance-floor excitement or ballad-set exaltation, seems to be experiencing a powerful reign in pop. And our ecstatic reactions to these songs suggest that everyone — celebrities, the rest of us plebes — will do it, and everyone will love it. Or must.