After loyally squealing approval through false starts and several thousand missed bedtimes, the youthful audience at the O2 probably deserved a little contrition from Justin Bieber.
As widely reported, the 19-year-old Canadian was hours behind schedule last Monday night, finally lowered on to the stage by highwire at 10.20pm – a long, cooling chunk of time after his warm-up act, perky compatriot Carly Rae Jepsen, had come and gone. Jepsen used her brief set to throw gifts to fans. Bieber might well have done something similar: chucked out pillows, ideally, or Calpol, if not outright refunds for the raw-looking kids already being led away to catch trains.
Was this an apology brewing? Catching his breath after a brace of clubby, uptempo opening numbers, All Around the World and Take You, Bieber took off his sunglasses (establishing intimacy). He pinched his radio mic (precision required). He launched into a sales pitch. "How many of you in the audience own Believe?..."
The singer and his management were canny back when Bieber was breaking through with his R&B-indebted pop debut, My World. A busy channel to the fans was opened over Twitter and YouTube long before the embrace of social media was industry-standard. And with direct, unprecedented access to his fans' fancies, the hard selling from Team Bieber could be relentless, 24-hour. The way to please the Bieb (it was made clear without much artfulness) was to pay the Bieb. "As long as you love me," goes a telling song on Bieber's third album, 2012's Believe, "I'll be your silver, I'll be your gold." It was a deal restated at the O2.
"How many of you in the audience own Believe?" (Note that "own" where a subtler mercenary might have said "like".) Over affirmative screams Bieber continued: "Well, then you might know my new album, Believe Acoustic!" Screams. "This next song isn't on Believe Acoustic, actually." Screams. "It is on Believe though." And with that confused exchange over we were ready for the next track, a ballad about testy young love during which the singer clenched a shiny, gloved fist.
When a 15-year-old Bieber emerged in 2009, he was short, gnomish, with a floppy blond fringe. Like the hairdo – now a high golden coif – he's tall and sculpted in 2013. He looks less confident a dancer though. Routines in hectic numbers such as Never Say Never involved him swinging flung-out limbs, scarecrow-fashion. He hunched his shoulders, and didn't yet look fully comfortable in his new body. Endearing, actually – about the only thing about the performer, really, that was. "So I just happen to be looking for the prettiest girl in the audience," he announced, blandly, at one point.
This is the problem with Bieber, with the Bieber package: a total absence of humour. None of the winning cheekiness of a young Justin Timberlake. None of the lucky-us cheer of a British boy band riding good sales. Only blunt, unsmiling posturing.
Earlier, I had been quite taken with Carly Rae Jepsen, who trades in pop that is as thin as Bieber's but seems to have something a bit murkier, soupier about her. She teased a trio of pre-teen girls who'd been brought on to the stage, threatening to boot them back to the stalls if they couldn't sing the words to her big hit of last year. (The joke being that everyone knows the words to 2012's Call Me Maybe. Even US politico Colin Powell, who sang the song in a famous YouTube clip. Even our own Ed Balls, who has tweeted high praise.)
Jepsen displayed an infectious verve. Even during boo-hoo choruses ("I'm begging you stop begging me") she stayed spry, pointing at the sky, mussing her hair. Every so often she went to the rear of the stage to point at the sky and muss her hair next to a blond guitarist, named to the crowd as Tavish. Maybe it was the deranging effect of several thousand pre-teens, death-wailing in an enclosed space, but I thought I sensed chemistry between Carly and Tavish. Carly and Tavish – they seemed to be grasping at something human in the O2.
Nothing of the sort in Bieber's set. The star was at one point surrounded by dancers dressed as hoodlums and carrying baseball bats; he disarmed them. Hints at emotional complexity were left to the video packages that played on big screens behind the stage. One revisited Bieber's commercial achievements to date, and appeared to settle old scores with critics who had wronged him. Another dramatised his strained relationship with the press and paparazzi.
For a few minutes it seemed as if footage of Bieber karate-kicking photographers might herald some sort of lighter, less pompous phase of the evening. But the video soon gave way to a tragic song, during which Bieber sat on a staircase, head in hands, while dancers dressed as paps penned him in on all sides and brandished flash-boxes. An apology for the late start, by the way, was issued the next day over Twitter. It came with a sour attack on the media, for exaggerating reports of his late start.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © M. Keefe