Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande Use an Award Show to Speed a Comeback

LAURA M. HOLSON NYTIMES.COM 11/27/15

Watching the rapturous reactions to the performances of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande on the American Music Awards last Sunday, you would have been hard-pressed to recall that one was an immature scofflaw recently dismissed as a has-been, and the other’s career seemed all but dead after getting caught on video licking a doughnut at a Southern California bakery and saying, “I hate America.”

But everyone loves a redemption story, and in this era of six-second Snapchat fame, it seems a pop star can go from “Over” to “Comeback” in record time.

“Ariana Slays! Bieber is Back,” Michael Buckley, a YouTube entertainer, wrote on Twitter after the two performed hits from their recent albums on Sunday’s show.

Billboard gushed over Mr. Bieber’s soulful, rain-soaked performance of “Sorry,” saying, “It was practically an artistic baptism on live TV.” USA Today had these words for Ms. Grande’s Marilyn Monroe-inspired catchy dance hit “Focus:” “Nailed it!”

Award shows have long been opportunities for the second-chance crowd to re-emerge after a penitent time out: Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Kanye West among them.

Billboard gushed over Mr. Bieber’s soulful, rain-soaked performance of “Sorry,” saying, “It was practically an artistic baptism on live TV.” Credit Matt Sayles/Invision, via Matt Sayles, via Invision, via Associated Press

But unlike artists who sometimes had to wait years to be embraced again by the public (think of Frank Sinatra’s long years in the wilderness before teaming with Nelson Riddle in the 1950s for a series of now-classic albums), the pop stars of today bounce back with whiplash-inducing speed.

Jayne Charneski, an audience and consumer strategist who used to work at the talent agency Creative Artists Agency, attributes this phenomenon to (what else?) social media. “If the story is written in real time, it can be changed in real time,” she said. “Young people understand this. They too are in charge of their own brand online.”

Ms. Grande, the erstwhile doughnut licker, managed to spin the incident last July into a lesson on childhood obesity on Twitter, writing, “We need to do more to educate ourselves and our children on the dangers of overeating and the poison that we put into our bodies.” (Which does raise the question: What was she doing at a doughnut shop in the first place?)

Mr. Bieber had more to atone for: assault, pounding his neighbor’s house with raw eggs and being charged in Miami with drunken driving and resisting arrest. People even petitioned the White House last year to deport Mr. Bieber, a native of Canada.

Since then, he has embraced spirituality, naming his album, tellingly, “Purpose.” And he is practicing humility after a fashion, recently apologizing to fans on Twitter for walking offstage at a concert in Norway and to the television host Stephen Colbert for skipping out on an appearance.

“The Internet makes the news cycle,” said Ilan Zechory, a founder of Genius, a website that publishes annotated songs and other content. “You don’t have to wait for an interview on television anymore.”

Indeed, the teary pit stop before Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer (to wit: Britney Spears in 2003) is no longer a rite of passage. Four years later, Ms. Spears shaved her head, went to rehab and battled for custody of her two children. In September 2007, she appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards in Las Vegas. But with scant social media love to boost her comeback, her awkward lip-syncing of “Gimme More” after months of silence confirmed fans’ worst fears.

“She is 25 years old and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life,” joked the show’s host, the comedian Sarah Silverman.

Now pop stars are better at managing their media message, melding good and bad times (though some sins, like Chris Brown assaulting Rihanna in 2009, stick longer than others).

“The redemption theme even plays into the lyrics,” Mr. Zechory said of Mr. Bieber’s new album. “Sorry,” “Love Yourself” and “Life Is Worth Living” are all titles from “Purpose.” And recently Mr. Bieber told Complex magazine that he wanted to live an honest life like Jesus Christ. “Love, life, peace and happiness,” Mr. Zechory said. “Until it gets boring.”

All the tweets in the world won’t help if there isn’t the music to back it up. Miley Cyrus, who offended fans with her scantily clad, bottom-grinding gyrations two years ago, got back into their good graces at the 2014 MTV Music Video Awards after a yearlong media onslaught. But it was her blockbuster album, “Bangerz,” that secured her place (for now).

Robin Thicke wasn’t so lucky. He followed up his 2013 breakout hit “Blurred Lines” with “Paula,” a self-proclaimed apology to his former wife, Paula Patton, for being unfaithful. (Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic called it “the musical equivalent of a Facebook friend who refuses to stop overdoing it on tequila slammers and ranting about the demise of their relationship.”)

Ms. Grande’s and Mr. Bieber’s American Music Awards performance resonated with fans because, well, they liked it. “One day you can be licking doughnuts and being disgusting, and then you have a performance like ‘Focus,’” said Dave Bakula, a senior vice president for industry insights at Nielsen Entertainment.

Mr. Bieber’s album, too, is a hit. “Purpose” debuted at No. 1 and tied a record held by the Beatles and 50 Cent: having three of the top five Billboard songs in a week.

More impressively, Mr. Bakula said “Purpose” had 100 million audio streams. “If you are shunned and forgotten and hated, you don’t have 100 million streams,” he said.

But mostly, Ms. Charneski said, this year’s young musicians will be forgiven quickly because licking doughnuts and throwing eggs are something almost every kid can relate to. “Even when these kids are bad, they aren’t really that bad,” she said.

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