Becoming an adult isn't easy—a fact illustrated vividly by the last few years of Justin Bieber's life. After being discovered as a child and rocketing to massive fame, Bieber struggled to find his place in the world. Completely understandable.
He broke up with Selena Gomez. He got two full sleeves of tattoos. He crashed a car, was arrested and took a break from creating, singing, and performing. His voice transformed and landed in a new vocal range that he had to learn to manage at the same time he was trying to figure out exactly who he was and would be.
Sunday night, at the VMAs, Bieber showed us that he's found himself.
In a performance mashup of "Where R U Now" and "What Do You Mean," Bieber pulled off a complicated dance routine, sang live, and showed that he's still a star who can command attention.
Near the end of the performance, Bieber was elevated into a spotlight of dancing light. He was sobbing when the final notes of the song played.
The night opened with Britney Spears presenting an award. She, too, felt the sting of a rough and public demise, and when we see her today it's no longer with the criticism of her earliest years or the pity of her fall, but with a sense of hope. That if Britney can survive and thrive, that maybe we can too.
And on the stage tonight, Bieber gave the full emotion to that fear: that maybe he wouldn't come back, that maybe the fame we had bestowed upon him had completely ruined his life, that maybe he'd never live up to our expectations, or even his own.
It's tempting to say that Bieber's tears were calculated. That maybe the tears were only as real as Bieber's true ability to fly. But there's a redemption narrative in Bieber's tears that (even if they are complete lies) make this whole night of ridiculous behavior feel worth it. True emotion in popular music is rare, and those tears on this night certainly felt real.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.