Justin Bieber is busting some moves – just about. As the two-part, 90-minute extravaganza that is the 22-year-old’s Purpose tour embarks on its first night at London’s O2 Arena, Bieber – hair fuzzy like a recently demobbed marine – is leading a huge pack of back-up dancers. (“Front-up dancers”, Bieber fondly calls them at one point.) He himself is performing a series of slick, curtailed versions of their more athletic moves.
Criticised at August’s V festival for a marked lack of commitment to dancing (or singing, for that matter), the rebooted former teen star isn’t so much lackadaisical during this dazzlingly staged show as entitled and imperious. He flicks, jerks and nods – at about 60% of the intensity of everyone else.
But move he does, with this sort of haughty efficiency, almost constantly – and sing, surprisingly often, given the widespread reporting of miming last August. Bieber’s emotional investment is confirmed when he warmly hugs every single dancer at the end – not even Madonna, den-mother of touring dancers, does that.
He’s confusing, Bieber – doing his own his little own dance, perhaps, between vacuity and depth. Purpose (2015) achieved the near impossible – it moved everyone on from Bieber’s teenybopper first act, and blotted out the memory of his various legal and moral faux pas, with an all-conquering pop&B tour de force. The production was on point, the lyrics self-examining.
He’s still just 22, though. At one point, Bieber wonders aloud what to do with his hair. “Should I get cornrows? An afro?” he muses, a blond Canadian seemingly oblivious to the criticism he drew for his dreads earlier this year, and for songs such as Sorry, whose beats appropriate styles from the Caribbean. (“I haven’t got the follicles,” he notes, of the afro idea.)
Later, Bieber wonders out loud what to talk about between songs. Love, suggests someone. In what appears to be a genuine spirit of philosophical inquiry, Bieber then tries to get fans to explain what love means to them. He is nonplussed when he only gets screamed devotion in reply.
You suspect another dance going on here – one between reality, performance and what audiences will accept in exchange for their money. The show relies heavily on seizure-inducing video projections on to a number of surfaces. There’s a particularly cool false Bieber entrance at the start, and a moment where you can’t tell the real dancers from their video doppelgangers as they parkour down an adapted skate-park half-pipe structure. Maybe the show’s designers are in on the dance.
Like email and unbiased news, singing for real might be something only old people care about. When Bieber drops the mic to his side, as on a frenetic Where Are Ü Now (a feisty extracurricular hook-up with Skrillex and Diplo, known as Jack Ü), and the vocals carry on, is that actually a problem? Not to the massed ranks of fans, who seem happy to bathe in the man’s aura while a five-piece band power through Purpose and Bieber’s previous hits. The Feeling – with a giant video projection of guest singer Halsey – packs in atmospherics, emotion and dancers flipping around all over the place.
Shortly, though, Bieber takes to a purple velvet couch with an acoustic guitar, as though it were actually important for him to display his musicianly bona fides. These songs are surprisingly enjoyable – especially Love Yourself, a stinging kiss-off to an ex that hinges on the observation that his mother never really liked her: “and she likes everyone”. Bieber’s playing isn’t always spot-on, but the pleasure he gets from it is evident. The pleasure the audience receives from his five-minute drum solo, delivered later from atop a hydraulic platform, is up for debate, however.
The concert’s second half tangoes between moments of arena dramatics and pure cheese. Company – another surprisingly fine tune – is set on a B-stage that descends from the main platform. It looks like a boxing ring. But it’s a trampoline, and Bieber indulges his inner child by bounding around. The entire show still has marked elements of youth – the tunes are rooted in R&B, but there’s not a lot of smut. The standing area is all seated; candyfloss is on sale.
Bieber even has a song about children that recalls the times Michael Jackson got maudlin about the state of the planet and its younger denizens. Four talented young dancers come on stage; as they leave the arena on the next song, everyone tries to high-five them. They’re grand. The song, though, is cloying and irksome – as are the ads for merchandise that is only available during the intermission.
You can’t really get away from the fact that Bieber’s star quality has been left in a hotel room in Germany, if ever he had it. Pop stars such as Bruno Mars are old-school song and dance men; Miley Cyrus is a ham. Bieber feels virtual, a civilian promoted beyond his capabilities, a cypher in which bemused boredom has replaced the imperative to entertain. The rest of the show, though, is great.