There are very few circumstances these days in which it is acceptable for 20,000 people to cheer at a someone in a cage. David Blaine performing an endurance trick is one, and Justin Bieber's entrance into the O2 Arena last night was another. Ascending from beneath the stage in a glass box with "Mark My Words" scrawled in pen on one of the walls, he rises higher and higher, an outline of his figure projected almost biblically on three different screens. Rows of fans coalesce into a dark mass punctuated by iPhone torch lights held up like votive candles before he even enters the stage. They don't go down again until he leaves two hours later. The screams are ear-splitting; a thousand ambulance sirens calling for some semblance of personal rescue.
Justin Bieber hasn't endured a world tour since 2012/13 in support of Believe – an era we will now refer to as "BC" (before critics). The crowd tonight is a strange but predictable mix of teenage girls (who comprise the majority), twenty-somethings whose appreciation lands just on the right side of irony for them to shell out £60 for a ticket, and broadsheet journalists who don't seem particularly enthused about the fact that Bieber's newfound artistic legitimacy means they have to spend their Tuesday evening watching a pop star barely pretend to lip sync his way through the hits. The word "endured" is particularly relevant tonight; Bieber has been on the road since March 9, and he'll be on the road until March 18 next year, and, at this point, it's starting to show.
For the first half of the show (yes, there is an interlude), Bieber seems distant; like muscle memory is carrying his body through the motions but his soul is backstage eating crisps. He has come under fire several times this year for giving lacklustre performances, miming at V Festival and offering the crowd a caveat of: "I'm a little hungover, I'm not gonna lie." Having now seen it myself, though, it feels less like the behaviour of someone who doesn't care and more like that of someone who has been in the public eye for seven years and is becoming fatigued by pandering.
From lengthy social media posts questioning the authenticity of awards ceremonies, to cancelling meet and greets with fans because "the pressure of meeting people's expectations of what I'm supposed to be is so much for me to handle", to deleting Instagram entirely after his current girlfriend began to receive online abuse from his fans, nothing about this year suggests Justin Bieber is feeling happy and healthy in his career – despite Purpose being his his most successful and career-defining album to date. "If I'm living my purpose I want the reward to be fulfilment. I'm getting awarded for the things that I'm doing and not for who I am, which is understandable," he wrote less than 24 hours after performing at the Billboard Music Awards in May. "I know it would probably be hard to calculate and award someone's spirit… But when I do get these awards the temptation of putting my worth in what I do is so hard to fight."
Between songs, his chat revolves around three primary topics: religion, love, and his hair – almost all of it landing awkwardly. "When Jesus comes back you're the first to go," he says to the people in the nosebleed seats. Meaning that when the rapture happens the fans who were dedicated enough to buy tickets that require a pair of binoculars to make out his features will be the first to go to heaven. The way he says it, though, makes it sound ominous. It's followed by a mutter that translates to a crushing silence in a room of 20,000. "Did you hear what I said?" he asks.
At another point, he stops to canvas some audience members at the front about their opinions on love. The answers pour in: "I love you", "I love you", "It's overrated". The last one doesn't sit right with him. "Love isn't overrated," he says, "it's magical!" The same happens again when he asks people what they think their purpose is: "You", "You", "To live!" He seems almost frustrated at this point. "I can't be your purpose," he says, before encouraging everyone to turn to the person on the left of them and say hello – as you would in church, without the "peace be with you" part. The rest is laced with uncertainty: "I don't know what to talk about", "I don't know what to do with my hair", "Should I get corn rows?" All this makes the show feel a little like he's a newly qualified "hip" RE teacher and we're the class who would rather doodle him topless in our textbooks than pay attention.
Stage banter aside, he seems to be in his element when he's doing the antithesis of what we've come to expect from him. For smash hits like "Sorry" and "What Do You Mean?" he doesn't even bother to lift the microphone to his face during dance routines he's done so many times he can't even feign enthusiasm. Pause the pyrotechnics and give him an acoustic guitar, though, and he'll glide sincerely through "Love Yourself" in a way that reminds you that he is easily one of the most talented male vocalists pop has to offer right now. Heartwarmingly, it brings his career full circle, to his beginnings as a kid with an unreasonably good voice covering Justin Timberlake songs on YouTube. Other highlights included a seemingly off-script bounce around on a trampoline, a four minute drum solo performed on a raised platform like he's the Travis Barker of pop, and singing "Purpose" sat on the floor – allowing the song to twist his face into a spectrum of emotion largely absent from the rest of the show.
It probably goes without saying that despite all this, very few people left disappointed. Groups of girls continued to sing his songs at the tops of their voices all the way out of the venue to the long, winding queues into North Greenwich station. The entire night was a wild and impressive display of what commercial pop is capable of in 2016: folding music, dance and art into something that caters beyond the dedicated arena of super-fandom. But his appeal is so broad now, his shows so bombastic, it's almost like he's lost in it. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the future, his set design is reduced to just two items: a stool and a guitar.
Entertaining people for a living can be exhausting. It is a perpetual test in how much you can give to others without losing yourself in the process. You really do get the feeling that Justin Bieber has lost enthusiasm for some of the more widely celebrated aspects of his career, like he wants to be someone else but doesn't know who that person is yet. At the beginning of the night he gently asked the crowd to "be quiet and listen while I'm talking", then found it difficult to know what to say. He seems happy enough performing, but he also seems like a pop star searching for a deeper meaning in a realm where it literally doesn't matter what he does because everyone will love him for it regardless.
With that in mind, there is something faintly tragic about the image of a 22-year-old pop star who has been doing this since the age of 15-years-old, suspended in mid-air above a crowd of adoring thousands, trapped in a glass box.
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(Photo credit: David Wolff for Getty)