Yummygate: How desperate was Justin Bieber to have a hit?

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Based purely on its own merits, nobody would remember ‘Yummy’ at all. Justin Bieber’s ill-fated comeback single is entirely forgettable. By Bieber’s standards it’s only mid-table but by the standards of common decency it has to be one of the most barrel-scraping, pointless, barely-even-there singles of the year. We aren’t here to discuss the song itself, but the controversy surrounding it, and Bieber’s desperation to make the song a hit whatever the means.

‘Yummy’ was announced as the lead single from the forthcoming album Changes on December 24th 2019. It may have been a turkey, but it seems everyone but Bieber (or perhaps his PR team) knew it. They rolled out an aggressive marketing campaign that’d make ‘For Your Consideration‘ preppers blush.

The promo started easy, with Bieber hawking signed vinyl, cassettes, and CD bundles (who among you has a CD player?) from the official Justin Bieber store.

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The next step was entering the new frontier – TikTok, which for the Grandpas amongst you is a lipsyncing app. If you’ve heard a song on the radio in the last few years and thought to yourself “What the fuck is that shit?” then it probably came from TikTok.

The app has proven a great way to connect with a young fanbase. And if your song gets used in a dance challenge or as part of a meme format, you’re gold. If ‘Yummy’ could go viral here, then that could clinch the #1 spot.

Bieber took to the app imploring his audience to lipsync along to the song. They did. It was embarrassing for all.

However this was just the start. Youtube streams now count towards Billboard placements (they don’t affect charts in the UK) so Bieber flooded the platform with no fewer than five promotional videos (“Animated Version”, “x drew house”, Animated Version”, “Beliebers React”, “Fan Lip Sync”, “Food Fight” and “TikTok Compilation Video”) along with the official music video. Then, the official videogame companion to ‘Yummy’ was announced.bieber

This has all been – more or less – above board promo stuff. But here’s where we get into the weird dark arts shit. On 10th January Bieber shared some fan-made graphics explaining how fans could manipulate streaming platforms to inflate the figures.

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The posts shared by the official Justin Bieber Instagram account encouraged fans to create a playlist, add ‘Yummy’, and play it on repeat on a low volume while they slept. This is a practice known as stream farming. In addition, the post suggested fans should download a VPN – allowing streams from outside the US to count towards Bieber’s Billboard placement.

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And by this point the desperation was coming off Bieber in visible stank waves. So Bieber took to Twitter, in a last ditch effort, beseeching Beliebers to purchase the song on iTunes – as if we’re in a time warp to 2009.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for someone willing to make such a public, pathetic bid for validation. Did it work? No. ‘Yummy’ charted at No.2 on the 18th January, dropping to No.10 the week after and quickly vanished from the chart altogether. He was pipped to the post by Roddy Ricch; ironically, largely due to his popularity on TikTok.

What did the ‘Yummy’ debacle prove? That a viral hit can’t be forced. That mobilising a pop empire can’t guarantee you No.1. It symbolised the sound of yesteryear being replaced by the authenticity of something new. However the incident also raised serious questions about fandom, stream farming and listener coercion. What Bieber and his team did may have been legal, but it was hardly moral.

If ‘Yummy’ has given us anything, it has started a debate on where to draw the line on fan interaction versus fan manipulation. Encouraging someone to stream your song is very different from encouraging them to cheat the system for you. Bieber’s hubris was a timely reminder that you can’t force hype.

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