Pop & Hiss

How Justin Bieber's and Kanye West's charm offensives differ

Justin Bieber and Kanye West both played nice Thursday on "Ellen," but not in the same way

Last summer, inundated with what felt like knee-jerk mea culpas from Jack White, One Direction and Pharrell Williams (among many others), I called for a moratorium on celebrity apologies, which seemed to have reached a critical mass of meaninglessness.

Justin Bieber clearly didn’t hear me.

Ostensibly booked as a birthday surprise for Ellen DeGeneres, the pop star appeared Thursday on DeGeneres’ talk show to say he’s sorry – sort of -- for the varied antics that have threatened to derail his career over the last 18 months or so.

“I’ve done some things that might not have been the greatest,” he said before adding that he’s ready to “kind of own up to some of the things.” Bieber elaborated in a video he posted on Facebook, saying he’s not who he was “pretending” to be.

“I’m a person who genuinely cares,” he went on, “and although what’s happened in the past has happened, I just want to make the best impression on people and be kind and loving and gentle and soft.”

Bieber wasn’t the only celebrity pursuing a bit of image rehab on “Ellen,” about the safest space a famous person can go to these days to get something off his or her chest. (“I don’t like being mean to people,” the host told Bieber, explaining why she’d turned down an invitation to appear on his upcoming Comedy Central roast.)

Kanye West showed up, too, for a fascinating interview in which he described how marriage and parenthood have taught him how to compromise and how to “shut up.” Thanks to his wife Kim Kardashian and their daughter North, he said, he’s “a better human being” than he used to be.

Crucially, West wasn’t apologizing; indeed, he characterized some of his supposed misbehavior – “things I’ve done in the past that were considered negative,” he said – as instances in which he was actually “jumping in front of the tank for other people, or for culture, in a way.”

Like Bieber, though, the rapper was working to present a different side of himself, one he revealed more of in the music video for his song “Only One,” which DeGeneres previewed on her program before West posted it Thursday on his website.

Directed by Spike Jonze, the clip depicts West and his 1-year-old daughter tromping around a muddy, rain-soaked field as “Only One” – West’s hymn-like collaboration with Paul McCartney – delivers the reassuring message that West has said he channeled from his late mother while in the recording studio. It’s very sweet.

Yet for all its unguarded intimacy, the video doesn’t feel like a rejection of everything else we know (or think we know) about West. And therein lies the difference between Bieber’s and West’s charm offensives.

For Bieber, morality is a binary system -- you’re either a good guy or a bad guy, never both at the same time.

When he emerged six years ago he was, of course, a good guy: a squeaky-clean Canadian kid who’d been discovered singing on YouTube (in videos posted by his mom) and catapulted to global pop stardom. Then fame slowly turned him into a bad guy, a role he seemed to relish in misadventures such as one widely publicized incident involving a mop bucket in a New York restaurant.

By the end of 2013, Bieber was proudly reclaiming good-guy status in songs like “Recovery,” where he acknowledged “our trust has been broken,” and “Change Me,” a delicate piano ballad about finding the person capable of making all his wrongs right.

Well, perhaps he just didn’t find her, because soon after that the wrongs began piling up again -- until this week, when he cleansed himself anew, vowing to transform one more time.

West, in comparison, rarely doubles back on himself. His decade as a superstar has been a period of accumulating contradictions: the striver vs. the champion, the philosopher vs. the materalist, the lover of attention vs. the fighter of paparazzi.

If you crave a kind of ideological consistency in your artists, you’ve probably been maddened by the way he embodies so many ideas and habits at once. On Saturday, just weeks after he released “Only One,” West put out another team-up with McCartney, the brilliant “FourFiveSeconds,” which also features Rihanna.

Here, over a warmly ingratiating acoustic groove, West admits that contentment hasn’t displaced his old fury – that the rage is still within him, just waiting to spill forth at the right provocation.

“Woke up an optimist / Sun was shining, I’m positive,” he sings, “Then I heard you was talking trash / Hold me back, I’m ’bout to spaz.” Later, he and Rihanna warn against mistaking their kindness for weakness, which beyond its characteristic self-aggrandizement – just look at all this kindness! – might be the key to decoding West’s outlook.

Where Bieber asks us to take away his power, West keeps hold of his, and with no remorse. He’s not pretending that one version of himself erases any other.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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