After seeing Justin Bieber in concert at the Pepsi Center last night, I think the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was us convincing ourselves that he's more than a silver-throated young punk.
In the beginning was the screaming, and the screaming was with preteen girls, and the screaming was desire. And the desire was made flesh in the first image of Justin Bieber as a smooth-chested golden boy projected on monitors floating above the dark arena. The massive screen wall behind the stage filled up with a larger-than-life Bieber at center, seated and glowing in a kind of cage. Bieber's pensive mumbles echoed through the space, his 18,000 disciples still screaming, as the screen projected a lit-up body falling through darkness amid images of a crumbling Roman Empire. We were witnessing the fall, preparing for a resurrection that promised plenty of popping, locking and pyrotechnics.
Okay, maybe it's me that's projecting.
I know already that I am trying too hard to Belieb. I know Bieber said in the GQ interview that the triumphant global hit “Sorry” — let me redeem, oh redeem, oh myself tonight — isn't actually about his public fuckups, that it's about a girl. I know this. But over the last six months, I have been baptizing myself in the admittedly excellent pop bangers of 2015's Purpose while reading it as Bieber's religious concept album, a club gospel of his second coming. I convinced myself that “What Do U Mean,” “Sorry,” “Where Are Ü Now” and every other track were addressed not to Selena Gomez or public opinion or the fans at his feet, but to a higher power. It's an easy reading to draw: Every one of these tracks is laced with spiritual diction (I was on my knees when nobody else was praying, oh lord), Bieber's current fashion features a lot of all-white cult-chic ensembles, and his merch is adorned with a lot of crosses. A lot. So maybe I wanted the Purpose Tour to be his Life of Pablito; I wanted Bieber to build me an allegory of his own redemption, wanted that pop-prophet gleam in his eye, wanted him to skate his snow-white Calvins down his own ultralight beam.
But that's not what happened. When Bieber emerged in the flesh, suspended in a plastic case (the second of several cage images), sporting the hands-free mike of a megachurch preacher and an Oilers jersey with "Bieber" on the back (all of his clothing had his name emblazoned on it), he never appeared repentant or even that present. Instead he moved through a well-choreographed show flanked by fervent, acrobatic backup dancers, hitting all his marks – on various platforms, ramps and one huge trampoline in the sky – with precision, but not much care.
Massive hit “Where Are Ü Now,” the collaboration with Diplo and Skrillex that turned his croon into the squeal of a space dolphin, erupted early in the set, which stuck mostly to tracks from Purpose. The set also included earlier hits “As Long As You Love Me,” “Boyfriend” and “Baby,” during which the Biebs performed Ludacris's rap verse. There were unique moments, such as Bieber's drum solo, and the local kid chosen to dance on stage with him who absolutely killed it. There were costume changes, though for most of the show Bieber wore an Axl-Rose-inspired cut-off flannel over what was probably the most incredible T-shirt ever, featuring a portrait of Tupac Shakur on the front and Bieber's name on the back (if anyone can get me this shirt, I will pay).
Yet moments of spontaneity were few and far between. Early on, while pacing the inside of yet another of his fancy cages, Bieber patted his controversial new baby dreadlocks, saying, "This is some kind of dread-Alfalfa," referring to the Little Rascals character and concluding, "Oh, well, whatever," before segueing into a scripted song-intro that punctuated the show: "All my life...people told me I would never make it...you know what I told 'em? I'll show you." Cue track "I'll Show You."
Bieber wasn't singing live very much, as far as I could tell. Which is a shame, because the guy can sing. His non-recorded voice was spotlighted once, when a plush sofa and acoustic guitar rose from the front of the stage. Bieber performed a medley like a high-budget, if humorless, Jason Mraz, but the piece culminated with current single "Love Yourself," to which his rendition added depth and color.
Maybe Bieber was born to be this way. Maybe he was born with his casual cool-boy strut and his catwalk-ready thousand-yard smolder, or maybe this is what happens when a person has been exalted and examined for so long. Bieber may be making the best music of his career, lending his pipes and charisma (evident by his legion devotees) to appealing, innovative electronica that pushes pop into the future. But on stage in this arena of worship, he came off as a glittery, dead-eyed idol.
The show ended with "Sorry." Bieber danced under a waterfall from the ceiling, holding up his pants, before finally stripping off his T-shirt and offering the crowd a glimpse of those Calvins. He smiled and embraced his backup dancers, who circled around him, and exited the stage, baptized and hardly looking back.