Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean” is No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100: How he bypassed the radio to score his comeback hit.

How Justin Bieber Bypassed the Radio to Score the Biggest Hit of His Career

How Justin Bieber Bypassed the Radio to Score the Biggest Hit of His Career

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 14 2015 5:34 AM

Why Is Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” No. 1?

Justin Bieber
With “What Do You Mean,” Justin Bieber bypassed the radio to score his first-ever No. 1.

Still from the music video

Here’s a list of No. 1 hits from the last half-dozen years of Billboard’s Hot 100. What do they have in common?

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Dance beats? Sure, except for Eminem’s hit. Electronic elements? Yes, but that could be said of most 2010s chart-toppers. Anthemic? Maybe half of them are.

No, this is a list of all the songs that debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 since the turn of the decade. By and large, these songs did not wind up being the respective acts’ best hit, or even their biggest (e.g., neither Britney hit is one of her classics, the Eminem song is a half-decent rewrite of “Lose Yourself,” and the Gaga and Katy songs were massive but relatively short-lived). Among these megastars’ hits, these are the ones that received the most carefully coordinated record-label boost from the get-go—opening the way Hollywood opens a major motion picture, right at the top of the box office. On Billboard’s album chart, debuting at No. 1 isn’t special—the top album most weeks is a debut. Since the charts were computerized a quarter-century ago, it’s become routine to see an act’s rabid fans swarm in and send an album to the top slot in its first week. But starting a song at the top of the Hot 100 is the triple-lutz of chart feats. So many elements, from sales to airplay to streaming, make up Billboard’s flagship pop chart that getting a plurality of them to line up, right when a single is launching, demands name-brand artist recognition and military-industrial precision.

The last song listed above, Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?”—an electro-pop ode to hopefully innocent romantic miscommunication—joins the list of No. 1 debuters this week, thanks to just such an industrial-strength campaign. The drop at iTunes, the YouTube release of the video, Bieber’s airborne, tearful performance on the MTV Video Music Awards: All were timed to maximize his numbers in the first seven days. (Bieber’s label even timed the release of “What” to each outlet, including radio, based on when each would report to Billboard.) “What Do You Mean” is his first-ever U.S. No. 1 song—remarkable when you consider that for the last half-decade Bieber has been the nation’s biggest teen idol, racking up five No. 1 albums before his 19th birthday, a record. (Contrary to popular belief, if tweens and teens are really into a pop star, they will pay hard cash for his album.) Now legal drinking age, Bieber is attempting the classic boy-to-man career transition achieved by numerous pop idols over the decades. From the evidence of this week’s Hot 100—Bieber sitting pretty at No. 1, just as the tykes head back to school—it may appear that Justin has made his grown-’n’-sexy shift flawlessly, and right on schedule.

Except that isn’t quite what happened. “What Do You Mean?” got to No. 1 by relying on some cross-section of the same rabid “Beliebers” who’ve been screaming for him since 2009. To be sure, with its friendly lilt, tick-tock tempo, and synth burble that recalls the centrist pop of the ’80s, “What” is charming and insinuating enough to make believers out of music lovers over 17. It has won plaudits from critics not necessarily predisposed to acclaim a Justin Bieber song. But the jury is still out on whether “What Do You Mean?” will be as well remembered as such boy-to-man classics as Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” or Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.” Even if you’re rooting for the Biebs, the chart explosion of “What” is—so far—a triumph of market-timing over hitmaking.

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It has always been thus for No. 1–debuting songs. In all, there have been 23 hits in chart history that have started atop the Hot 100. The first, Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone,” pulled off the feat 20 years ago this month. You might think that song’s icky, infamous video might have been a factor in its explosive debut, but video play was not a factor on the Hot 100 in 1995. For Jackson and his Sony army, the secret was building radio airplay of the song for weeks, then dropping a retail single at the moment of maximum demand. Once Jackson’s team showed it could be done, other hit acts and labels rushed to copy the formula for a No. 1 debut, which in the late ’90s and early ’00s revolved entirely around physical singles (during an era when the single was otherwise being killed off as a retail medium). Some of these No. 1 debuters were as well-remembered as “Fantasy” or “Doo Wop (That Thing),” some as forgettable as “Inside Your Heaven.” But whether the song was from a name-brand megastar or an American Idol winner, the acts that debuted at No. 1 did so with heavily hyped CD singles deployed in record stores just to attract fervent fans. Over the last decade, as singles went from physical to digital, the fundamentals of the formula didn’t change—prime the hardcore fan, time the release carefully—but as new services from iTunes to Spotify to YouTube have been added to the Hot 100, scoring a No. 1 debut has involved more moving parts.

Bieber and his promotional army, led by manager–Svengali Scooter Braun, mastered almost all of those moving parts in their conquest. “What Do You Mean?” was easily the best-selling digital song of the week—crucial, given that most weeks the largest single factor on the Hot 100 is sales. The 337,000 downloads “What” sold aren’t a record—for example, the last song to debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” a year ago, did so with a stunning 544,000 copies—but “What” opened with a roughly three-to-one sales gap over The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” more than enough to eject that song from No. 1. “What” was also the top on-demand song of the week on Spotify, Apple Music, and other such services, with more than 10 million streams. On YouTube, “What” was the No. 2–ranked video of the week—it would have been tops, but Bieber had the bad luck to pit his video views (combining his lyric video with his glossy, John Leguizamo–cameoing concept video) against Taylor Swift’s VMA-premiering clip for “Wildest Dreams.” Still, overall, Justin’s digital media blitz was enough to win him his first No. 1 on the multi-metric Hot 100.

Justin Bieber’s tearful performance of “What Do You Mean” at the VMAs.
Justin Bieber’s tearful performance of “What Do You Mean” at the VMAs.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Team Bieber certainly is proud of its achievement. In a statement to Billboard, Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels effused about “the Def Jam family [coming] together to execute this effort, with the vision and the goal of Justin’s first-ever Hot 100 chart-topper.” Nice corporate-speak, Steve! To be fair, you can understand why this goal has become Bieber’s white whale. After all his success, not scoring a No. 1 song started to seem bizarre and a little unfair. It’s particularly unfair when you consider that, up to now, the thing that’s kept Bieber Inc. from achieving Hot 100 manifest destiny is another large, conglomerated entity: American radio.

You may have noticed when I was running down the stats for Bieber’s new single that I didn’t mention radio, a major Hot 100 component. That’s because “What Do You Mean?” only ranks 28th in airplay audience in its first week (low enough that “What” doesn’t even appear on the Radio Songs chart on Billboard.com, where the magazine only publishes the top 25 airplay hits). Of course, most songs start slower at radio than they do with digital consumers, and “What’s” other stats were strong enough that he didn’t really need major airplay to top the big chart. But the long-term future of Bieber’s career will depend on his credibility with more passive music lovers—and the Biebs has had an especially tough slog on the airwaves.

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If you’ve made it this far in this article and are over the age of 20, chances are you have long been, at best, bemused by the Justin Bieber phenomenon, or more likely repulsed by the dude’s sense of post-adolescent entitlement. Radio programmers know this—and they do not want to alienate you. People with jobs, degrees, and fully developed pituitary glands are the bread-and-butter of radio audience measurement and advertising, and even back to the heyday of Backstreet Boys and N Sync, radio has been cautious about overplaying boy bands and TRL fare, putting a glass ceiling over the chart success of many teenpop acts. That goes double for Bieber: Since he broke as a YouTube phenomenon in 2009–10 and quickly became the people’s choice, radio programmers have been very careful not to overplay the likes of “Baby” and “U Smile,” lest adults lunge for their dashboard station-preset buttons.

This stalemate between Bieber and radio persisted for about three years. Back in 2012, when I last checked in on Bieber’s hitmaking career, he had yet to score a Top 10–ranked hit on Radio Songs, the airplay component of the Hot 100. Especially frustrating for him, his 2012 smash “Boyfriend” peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 despite selling a blockbuster 500K-plus downloads in a week; he was again foiled by radio, where the song stalled at No. 11. Since then, however, Bieber’s done considerably better. Near the start of 2013, he scored two Top Five radio hits with key assists from artists old enough to rent a car: “As Long as You Love Me,” featuring rapper Big Sean, made it all the way to No. 2 at radio, and “Beauty and a Beat,” featuring hip-pop megastar Nicki Minaj, reached No. 4. Both songs were built on dubstep beats, a more mature form of radio-friendly dance-pop that Bieber inhabited credibly. Having launched his career with a puppy-like version of R&B, Bieber has found that more dissonant forms of electronic dance music are a better vehicle to make his transition to legit adult pop.

Bieber probably would have built on those successes straight away—if he hadn’t spent much of 2013 and 2014 making a public spectacle out of himself rather than recording. Realizing his jackass image was starting to overshadow his music, Bieber and his team have spent 2015 on a very public comeback trail—and they haven’t been subtle about it. Perhaps his Friars Club Roast–cum–public apology on Comedy Central wasn’t the cleverest idea.

But Bieber’s move for the summer was, by all accounts, brilliant: He recorded a cutting-edge song, and he didn’t front it. “Where Are Ü Now?”—a whooshing, über-synthetic single—is actually credited to Jack Ü, the nom de deejay of electronic dance music deities Skrillex and Diplo, with Bieber as the featured act. It’s built around a piano-and-vocal melody Bieber co-wrote and performed, then mailed to the production duo for heavy manipulation. “Where” is the “Climax” of 2015—like that 2012 Usher song (also produced by Diplo), “Where” is an innovative pop song with a distinctive, break-the-mold sound that also managed to infiltrate the radio. In a comprehensive New York Times feature and video dissecting “Where Are Ü Now,” veteran critic Jon Pareles learned that its piercing, Brian Eno/David Byrne–like worldbeat hook (let’s call it “My Life in the Bieber of Ghosts”) was actually Justin’s voice run through a computer to make it sound like a flute, or maybe a dolphin. The song was widely praised by critics, but most important for Bieber, it was a serious hit when he needed one—it peaked at No. 8 in July (even reaching No. 9 at radio) and is still clinging to the Top 10 this week.

Which brings us, finally, to Justin’s current interrogative hit, “What Do You Mean?”, which has been called “Where Are Ü Now?”–lite. In addition to its similar title, “What” sounds like “Where” was passed through the Top 40 radio chop shop and stripped of its weirdest elements—retaining the prior hit’s heartbeat rhythm and digital blips, but now using them to surround a brighter, shinier, vaguely tropical melody. Neither Skrillex nor Diplo worked on “What,” but there is production continuity: Frequent Bieber collaborator Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, who co-wrote “Where’s” original piano melody with Justin before passing it to Skrillex and Diplo, also co-wrote and co-produced “What” with Bieber and his longtime producer Mason “MdL” Levy. In sum, Boyd, Levy, and Bieber have pulled off a leaner, less futuristic version of Justin’s prior hit, winding up with something less shrill but also closer to aural wallpaper.

And yet, this low-cal EDM might actually be the sound of Bieber’s future. “What Do You Mean?” is exactly what the 21-year-old needed at this stage of the game—a song that wants to be approachable rather than amazing. It’s one of the few Bieber singles to date that you could imagine hearing in an elevator or a convenience store six months from now, one that might endure thanks to its very passivity. It’s not hard to imagine it being Bieber’s first serious hit on adult-contemporary radio.

The name of this Slate series is “Why Is This Song No. 1?”—and this week at least, the answer to that question is pretty basic: “What Do You Mean?” is No. 1 for the moment because Justin Bieber’s young, loyal fanbase, primed like Star Wars zealots, did their numerical duty in week one. By debuting at No. 1, it is no more or less deserving of its chart-topping status than Britney Spears’s “Hold It Against Me” or Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” were for a fleeting instant in years past. What makes Bieber’s first chart-topper more interesting than either of those quick-burn singles, however, is that it is a hungry hit rather than an Imperial hit—“What” has something to prove, which it can only prove over time.