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Welcome to the Pop Song Professor! My name's Clifford, and I explain song lyrics so that you can know what your artists are saying and can enjoy your music more. 

What does "Sorry" by Justin Bieber mean?

SONG MEANING: "Sorry" by Justin Bieber is about personal regret for something wrong. It's not just about apologizing to a woman either--the woman may be a metaphor for the world. Want to find out how I know this? Keep reading! 

Justin Bieber is coming out with a new album, and it's called Purpose. "Sorry" is the new single off the album--the second one released so far. It's co-written by Bieber, Julia Michaels, and Justin Tranter, and it's produced by Skrillex and BLOOD. Concerning the sound, BLOOD said on Fader.com that the song was meant to make apologizing sound like fun:

"I wrote the music to 'Sorry' with Justin in mind, it was one of the first things I wrote for the album. From the perspective of the producer, I find the muffled vocal chops to represent the people or situations in which Justin or the listener could be apologetic towards. The vocal manipulations make an ambiguous sound and a moment later Justin replies, 'Sorry.' I love that narrative. Justin's vocal delivery and the triumphant key of the song gave the narrative a warm color. I am most excited by music that allows the beat to tell a story as much as the vocal and in 'Sorry,' the beat is saying moving forward, and apologizing, can be exciting and fun."

And if you're still not convinced that a song by Justin Bieber can have deeper meaning, keep in my mind what I said first--the woman in this song is a metaphor for more than just an apology in a romantic relationship. Bieber had a rough 2013 and 2014, and now he's ready to apologize and start fresh with everyone.

I've added "Sorry" and other recent hits to my Spotify playlist "Clifford Stumme's Pop Prerogative." Don't forget to follow the playlist, and you can keep up with the songs that I'm analyzing or listening to!

"Sorry" Lyrics Meaning

Thankfully, before anyone can discount "Sorry" as just another Bieber dance hit, Justin Bieber himself explained to a Nova937 reporter that "Sorry" is more than just about a girl:

"I just want to let people know that for a while I feel like I lost my purpose and I’m gaining it back… and I feel like it’s so important that everyone finds their purpose… so basically my message is that no matter how far you feel away from who you were, or who you think you were, or whether you’re lost, there’s always room to grow and always room to find your purpose.”

And to add to Bieber's statement, his co-writers Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter say on Genius.com that "[w]e were just trying to capture that moment in a relationship or a particular moment in your life where you realize you made a mistake and you’re finally ready to admit it and apologize" (Michaels) and that "[t]ruly saying sorry is never easy to do, and when you are you just hope it’s not too late" (Tranter).

These three together point to "Sorry" being a turnaround point for Justin Bieber and to what was a lifestyle that seemed to be spiraling out of control last year [some examples including vandalism, brawling, pranks, spitting on people, and groping a fan].

As for the lyrics themselves, in Verse 1, Bieber sings, "You gotta go and get / Angry at all of my honesty." He's afraid that when he admits his wrongdoing he won't be accepted by the girl/his listeners. He sings, "You know I try but I don't do too well with apologies," to excuse his own self-centeredness. The rest of the verse is a plea for "one more shot at forgiveness" and an acknowledgment that he didn't make those mistakes just "once or twice" but "[m]aybe a couple a hundred times."

He finishes by asking for the chance to "redeem [himself] tonight." I don't think this is necessarily a plea for sex, but the reference to "tonight" does leave the possibility open. If that's the case, Bieber wants to prove that his love for this girl is strong. If it's not the case, he merely wants to spend time with her.

Interestingly he asks for "one more shot at second chances," which would make this a plea for third, fourth, or maybe fifth chances. Or if his "couple a hundred times" is accurate, the number could be higher.

In the Pre-Chorus, Bieber sings, "Is it too late now to say sorry?" He doesn't want to miss out on the chance to get back together with her because he's "missing more than just [her] body." While he admits here that he is missing her body, he's telling her that it's not just about sex. He admits, "Yeah, I know that I let you down," but in the Chorus he wants her to forgive him when he sings, "I'm sorry, yeah / Sorry, yeah / Sorry / Yeah, I know that I let you down / Is it too late to say I'm sorry now."

In Verse 2, Bieber sings that he'll "take every single piece of the blame / If you want me too," but in a tone that doesn't match the apology in the chorus, he sings, "But you know that there is no innocent one in this game for two." He seems to be saying that while they both know he's done wrong, she's guilty as well. If this song is about the culture in general, this could be him saying that his fans encouraged or angered him in a way that led him to do some of the things that he's done.

He then encourages her to "go out and spill the truth"--he's okay with her (or maybe the paparazzi) telling everyone what he's done. But he still wants her to "say the words" with him, those words being "Forget this."

In the Bridge, the song calms down and Bieber sings, "I'm not just trying to get you back on me / Cause I'm missing more than just your body." While Bieber wants sex with her again, his desire for her company goes deeper, and he again asks, "Is it too late now to say sorry?"

Clifford's Thoughts: Is "Sorry" a Self-Righteous Apology?

In several places, I think Bieber's "Sorry" seems to be a decently sincere apology and request for reconciliation (although in a post on "Focus" by Ariana Grande I questioned how much we can trust co-written sincerity). But there are a few points that seem suspicious and not entirely humble.

  1. When he complains that she's "gotta go and get angry at all of my honesty." If he's being honest and owning up to what he's done wrong and what he's done is bad, then anger may be the right emotion for her. Just because someone apologizes doesn't mean that anger automatically does or should go away. I, you, and everyone else have been on both sides of a situation like that.
  2. The plea for a referee. If he's really apologizing and humbling himself, he doesn't need a referee. He needs to let go of his own pride and let her win.
  3. The mention of her "body"--not her personality, intelligence, sense of humor or anything else he likes about her--makes it seem as though Bieber wants sex with her more than he's letting on. The reference to sex, in fact, is the only reference to anything romantic or anything that would make this song explicitly about a female. Why did he choose sex to represent what he likes about her? Does he like anything else about her?
  4. "[T]here is no innocent one in this game for two" is the most suspicious statement. He's been apologizing the whole time, and now that we/she are listening, he argues that we need to listen more and forgive him because we're guilty too. Is he apologizing or does he just want to wheedle forgiveness out of us so that we can "forget this" and so he can keep doing what he wants?

Please don't misunderstand my opinions on Justin Bieber--I'm not a Bieber hater or anything of the sort, and I think people spend entirely too much time discussing him and other pop stars; I simply wish to comment on the qualities of this song. And my conclusion is that "Sorry" is insincere and self-righteous--conclusions supported by the text. Of course, I could be mistaken. I'd love to hear what you think.

Thanks for reading about "Sorry" by Justin Bieber! I have an insider e-mail list where I ask for your help to explain pop songs and let you know about new posts and podcasts. When you sign up, you'll get a copy of my "Top 10 Tips to Help You Decipher Pop Music"!

Clifford Stumme has his master's in English literature and is a blogger and a college instructor/desk-watcher at Liberty University. He likes juggling and reading/writing, and he is married to the wonderful and beautiful Wife April. He thinks pop music is awesome. Seriously awesome.

Clifford Stumme
Clifford Stumme
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