sex ed

Justin Bieber’s New Song: One Small Step for Mankind?

Justin Bieber.
Justin Bieber.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been two years since “Blurred Lines” weaseled its way into the Zeitgeist; two years since we first saw Robin Thicke whisper-sing “I know you want it” into Jessi M’Bengue’s ear; two years since Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone called Thicke’s hard-to-avoid hit “The Worst Song of This or Any Other Year”; two years since listeners slammed the song’s unsettling implication, saying it enforced rape culture. Since then, Thicke’s fall from (several steps below) grace may feel like karma, but “Blurred Lines” was hardly the first pop song to suggest consent isn’t obligatory, and will almost definitely not be the last.

But a lot can change in two years. Some people — say, brooding pop stars riding auto-balancing skateboards — get a chance to grow up.

Justin Bieber, the 21-year-old doofy Canadian you love to hate, made his triumphant return to the throne of his millennial music kingdom this week, and there were several issues to assess: his new haircut (what), his tearful moment on the VMAs stage (hm), and the song that officially pushed him back into the limelight, “What Do You Mean?”(strangely presaged by a PR ploy featuring everyone from Martha Stewart to Mariah Carey).

Produced and co-written with Bieber favorite Poo Bear, the song is obnoxiously catchy and smooth. The tone of the music will be familiar to the Bieber zealot: It’s enjoyable enough to be easy to digest — slick like a dolphin moving through water — and Bieber’s vocals are that of the soppy heartbroken Casanova. But the song’s lyrics, never Bieber’s strong suit (see: “Baby”), should not be dismissed. He sings:

What do you mean? Oh, oh

When you nod your head yes

But you wanna say no

What do you mean? Hey-ey

When you don’t want me to move

But you tell me to go

What do you mean?

Oh, what do you mean?

And the pre-chorus adds:

First you wanna go to the left then you wanna turn right

Wanna argue all day, making love all night

First you’re up then you’re down and in between

Oh, I really want to know …

Bieber repeats the question “What do you mean?” 27 times throughout the song, asking his fictional lover to clarify her actions and words. Is it possible that Bieber — the guy who pissed in a bucket and was insolent and arrogant at his own deposition — has learned and is subsequently teaching proper consent? To compare, RAINN’s definition of consent is dependent on the importance of communication, saying that positive consent would be “communicating when you change the type or degree of sexual activity with phrases like ‘Is this OK?’”

Whereas Thicke and his pop predecessors claimed to know best what women want, Bieber confesses his ignorance, and wishes to seek further information. When his fictional lover insists that he leave but she doesn’t want him to go, he pleads for clarity on the matter. While it may speak to Bieber or his character’s general obliviousness, he recognizes the value of communication. Bieber has become an inquisitive student on the issues that plague our sex lives — he wants to know what to do because frankly, he admits, he has no idea. Will the student become the teacher when men worldwide hear Bieber advocating for consent on their Top 40 radio stations? Could Bieber be behind a sea change in teen (and adult) sex education?

Perhaps not. Alas, the song is far from perfect. It does reinforce the notion that women’s wishes are flighty and inconsistent. “That’s the kind of myth that drives rape culture,” writer Kate Harding told me in an email. “The idea that girls and women aren’t honest and straightforward about what they want, that they’ll say they want something and then change their minds later.” Harding, author of the new book Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture— And What We Can Do About It, continued: “That’s the thinking behind the belief that any woman who reports a rape might just have decided she regrets consensual sex.”

Lena Dunham seemed to agree with Harding when she tweeted, “Let’s do away with pop songs where a girl nods yes when she means no and vice versa, k?” It’s not a point that can be totally dismissed in the case of “What Do You Mean?” and the lyric Dunham references bespeaks a culture that is dismissive of women’s wants and needs.

Still, Bieber seems to be stumbling — with his jerky dance steps and low-slung basketball shorts — in the right direction. In an interview with Ryan Seacrest prior to the song’s release, Bieber told the host, “Well, girls are often just flip-floppy. They say something and they mean something else. So … what do you mean? I don’t really know, that’s why I’m asking.” In the first half of this answer, he displays his 21-year-old pop-star ignorance; but it’s the second half that is striking. Bieber admits that he really doesn’t know what women want, so that’s why he’s asking. This admission to ignorance — as it reflects in his song — is a big first step. And, really, it only takes four words to begin seeking answers.

Bieber’s New Song: One Small Step for Mankind?