Justin Bieber review – searching for a sense of purpose

Three generations of Beliebers pack Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium but the young artist still looks as lonely as ever

Justin Bieber, 23 as of a week ago, has sins to confess. About $158m in earnings can’t hide the fact that the Purpose World Tour, his largest to date, doubles as a public apology tour. Bieber used to sing about puppy love, making promises to girls. These days, he sings about breaking them.

Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium is packed – almost to its 54,000 capacity – with three generations of Beliebers. Yesteryear’s tween girls have grown up, and a new crop have joined them, accompanied by surprisingly eager parents.

But for the first time, there are young men in attendance, wearing shirts emblazoned BIEBER without a hint of irony. Bieber’s 2015 album Purpose, led by EDM-pop collaborations with Skrillex and Diplo, not only rejuvenated his career – it made him cool. There’s no question he takes his music seriously – on Friday night, he plays 15 songs from Purpose, and only four from 2013 or earlier. He’s finally dispelled the myth that his talent was ever manufactured.

The lights go down; a collective scream rolls across the crowd. “I don’t want to live a lie”, he pleads, delivering Mark My Words from inside a glass cube. I’ll Show You, too, traps him in a UFC-like octagon cage, as fiery LED projections swarm around him. Is Justin Bieber a futurist? The hyper-modern backdrops, lasers and fireworks are worth the price of admission alone. It’s the most expensive staging money can buy, for a young multimillionaire’s songs about emotional detachment in the digital era.

It’s been five years since his voice broke, but Bieber still hasn’t fully grown into his adult voice. He’s never sounded as nimble as when we first saw him, a 13-year-old prodigy wailing Justin Timberlake songs on YouTube. His lower register, noticeably aged, occasionally dips into a reedy, nasal tone. But in the right setting, he still sounds angelic.

Where Are Ü Now is an early highlight – a gorgeous, secular prayer for companionship that culminates not in a chorus, but a wild dance break. But two Hillsong-influenced piano ballads – Purpose, Life Is Worth Living – make the show’s Christian themes explicit. Bieber sings them like he’s still searching for redemption every night. His younger fans know every word; the older ones go to buy drinks.

Justin sings Love Yourself, his Ed Sheeran-penned breakup song, alone with an acoustic guitar – and for the first time, the audience is truly hushed. Love Yourself encapsulates his persona: the wounded asshole who’s too charming to hate. The song’s written about an ex-girlfriend, but he directs its vitriol at himself, as if he’s alone in the stadium. But the mostly female crowd flips it around, singing it back at him with affection. Other performers would smile back, or at least react – but Justin looks as lonely as ever.

Bieber’s voice doesn’t project outward, it pulls you in toward him. His natural environment isn’t anthemic dance-pop, but smooth R&B. His best singles blend drama with intimacy, but live shows are an uphill battle. As the stadiums get larger, genuine emotional connection becomes more difficult. His band, talented as they are, compete for attention – adding prog-rock drum fills and guitar solos to songs that call for restraint.

The louder the volume, the more detached Bieber comes across as a performer. It’s not just that he rarely smiles; it’s that no one knows what to make of it. Is he having an off day? Has he lost the joy in performing, or is his James Dean pout his default expression? Are we reading too much into it?

Bieber’s early pop songs – including Baby, which he performs tonight – are straightforward rushes of emotion. His recent singles – Sorry, What Do You Mean – aren’t so simple. They interrogate his failed relationships with women, his masculine self-loathing, and toy with our sympathies toward him – all over buoyant dance beats. There are more virtuosic singers, and certainly more likeable celebrities, but none have Bieber’s gift for pathos.

The show has one truly odd moment. After playing Love Yourself, Bieber noodles around on his guitar, as if feeling out the chords to the next song. An army of musicians, dancers, sound and lighting technicians await his cue, but he’s lost himself in his guitar. But seconds later, he abruptly stands up – “right, thank you” – and jumps straight back into another choreographed electropop song.

Would he rather be somewhere else? Is this his only escape from the meticulous routine of a modern pop show? Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all. That’s Justin Bieber in 2017: distant, intimate, inscrutable, fascinating.

Contributor

Richard S. He

The GuardianTramp

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