Bieber, “The Box,” and the Race for Number One
by Zeke Tweedie
Staff Chart Topper
Don’t put Justin Bieber in a box. Since coming into his artistic own with Purpose in 2015, Bieber has spread his artistry over the musical spectrum, with work ranging from sensitive electro-pop to obtuse, lazy R&B. His newest song, “Yummy,” falls into the latter. While reviews on the new single are somewhat mixed, the general consensus about it is that it is too dragged down by its simplicity and lyrical hollowness to be special.
Regardless, the song kept Bieber at the top of the headlines, though not for the reason he hoped. The song, his first solo single in over five years, was headed for the top of the Billboard charts on name recognition alone. But his comeback bop never made it past the #2 spot on the list, being blocked from reaching the number one spot by Roddy Ricch’s “The Box.” The surprise hit off of Ricch’s debut album, Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial, the song had propelled him from being unknown outside of hip-hop circles to a star.
By the time “Yummy” hit airwaves, however, “The Box” had already been out for almost a month, ancient for a chart-topping song; it was in a prime position to overtake Ricch’s song and cement Bieber’s comeback. Bieber took every precaution, however, in his promotion for the single, hoping to ensure its success. While over-promotion of a pop single is nothing new, the inundation of “Yummy”-related material in the social media sphere quickly became a subject of conversation. On top of the run-of-the-mill Instagram post and music video, Bieber’s social media became poster boards for the single, with up to dozens of consecutive tweets promoting it, and seven different videos on his YouTube, consisting of a lyric video, two fan videos, and four different music videos. This alone was enough for fans to begin to comment on his perceived desperateness, but his Instagram activity quickly became the top story.
During the opening week of the song, Bieber reposted his manager’s post instructing fans on how to help the song get to #1. It asked fans to run up the streaming statistics in a variety of ways, including playing the song on repeat while they slept. They were careful to note that it was important to leave the volume on the lowest possible setting, as having it on mute would cancel out the streams. After quickly becoming the laughingstock of Twitter, the post was deleted, but the trouble wasn’t over. Bieber, while hosting a series of live videos alongside fans, repeatedly briefly talked to them before cutting them short in order to shout out the song.
On top of the ensuing ridicule, social media began to reject Bieber’s push, and reverse it, with many people endorsing “The Box” and promising to keep it at the top of the Billboard chart. Ricch, for his part, did no new promotion of his single, simply tweeting “stream yummy by justin bieber” with a flexing emoji. The publicity around these events ended up buoying “The Box” and kept it in the #1 spot, as the single not only retained the spot, but saw a rise in streams, rare for a song that has been out for so long.
The next week, Ricch was challenged again, this time by former Bieber belle Selena Gomez, who became his top competition for #1 album. Gomez, apparently unmoved by recent history, became the latest target of the Twitterverse when she pulled from her own bag of shameless marketing. Gomez posted a video a few days before the charts would be updated showing her and her friends buckling their seat belts, getting ready to spend their afternoon going to several stores around town and buying every copy of her album that they could find. Many people made the obvious connection to the still-potent Bieber controversy, and renewed efforts to keep Ricch’s Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial at the top of the charts. Ricch, again, stayed silent, except to shoot off a quick tweet: “stream rare by selena gomez,” this time with a fire emoji.
This time, the race ended differently, with Rare edging out Ricch by about 2,000 units. While this was more than Gomez could have bought in an afternoon, criticism still came in, with critics and audiences alike accusing Gomez, as with Bieber before her, of blatantly chasing numbers, as well as using dishonest tactics in order to achieve them. To many, this was a symptom of an industry that prioritized streams over quality, and commercial success over artistic integrity. The disparity between the subjects, with Gomez and Bieber as international pop superstars, and Ricch, an unknown Compton native armed with an unconventional trap banger, only assisted the narrative that the industry had become overreaching. Nevertheless, Gomez and Bieber both apologized and congratulated Ricch on his success, and seemed to accept the criticism. As of this deadline, “The Box” is the #1 song in the world.