By Daniel D'Addario
February 27, 2015

Justin Bieber has never been out of the headlines since his recording debut in 2009. And yet he’s never seemed more irrelevant. The pop singer, who turns 21 on Sunday, can barely be called a “pop singer” anymore; his last studio album was released in June 2012, with a 2013 compilation of previously-released singles failing to chart at all.

Nearly three years is a fairly significant gap between albums for an artist of Bieber’s tender age, leaving entirely aside the fact that Bieber has replaced productivity as an artist with a seemingly insatiable attitude for consumption, aggressive attitude, and hijinks that Bieber, turning 21, is getting a bit too old to call “youthful.”

Bieber has a lot going for him, including a legion of fans who are waiting for new music. The cycle of approval and disapproval for stars has been moving faster than ever in recent years, proven positive by Lady Gaga’s successful Oscars performance being understood, widely, as practically a full-scale comeback after a down period in her career. One good single, and then a subsequent album of strong material, could sate a fan base that has had little to celebrate in recent years.

Bieber’s participation in a seminude Calvin Klein shoot was headache-inducing for those who care about Bieber’s prospects; playing the bad-boy only works if there’s another side to the story. (Mark Wahlberg, after all, leveraged his underwear ads into movie stardom. With nothing to promote besides his body, what’s Bieber’s endgame?) A more promising sign, though, is Bieber’s participation in an upcoming roast on Comedy Central airing March 30. It’s true that participating places him in somewhat ignominious company: Past roast subjects, including Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen, have been pop-cultural punchlines with little prospect of getting taken seriously by the public at large. But in order to get out of his current morass, Bieber has to think creatively. Presenting himself as someone who’s in on the jokes, and ready to get them all out of the way in a single evening, is a canny way to move forward. Bieber has already apologized to the public for his behavior; it’s addressing it straightforwardly, and with wit, that will prove he’s ready to move on to the next phase of his career.

Bieber’s not really comparable to many other pop stars: Only Miley Cyrus began her mega-famous period quite so young, and Cyrus saves her child-star-gone-bad act for the stage. It is, fairly transparently, an act. Bieber’s current problems are difficult to overcome because they look, uncomfortably, less like a phase in an artist’s career and more like what he has grown into. There simply isn’t enough precedent for an artist who’s practically spent his entire adult life behaving badly in public to prove that he’s changed other than by doing the work of an artist every day.

Bieber should not apologize again—been there, done that—but instead devote himself to changing the conversation around him. A new album, with the associated live performances and concerts, would be part of making that change. Having people around him willing to be straightforward and honest, even if they’re only the roasters on a soundstage for a single night, would be another.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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