It was as much a confessional as a concert, but then Justin Bieber has plenty to repent.
Take the brushes with the law in Florida, Ontario and Argentina and the egg-hurling misdemeanour in California. The Anne Frank faux pas. The undocumented monkey. The urinating in a restaurant’s mop bucket and yelling “Fuck Bill Clinton!” And, most heinous of all, the revelation that he does not know who Bette Midler is and thinks her name is “Britt Meddler”.
Last year, 273,968 people petitioned the Obama administration to deport the Canadian for “threatening the safety of our people” and being “a terrible influence on our nation’s youth”. (White House response: “We’ll leave it to others to comment on Mr Bieber’s case, but we’re glad you care about immigration issues.”)
But here is another large number: the 16,000 tickets sold in a week for Thursday’s Evening with Justin Bieber in Houston, which followed events in Los Angeles and Chicago amid a PR onslaught presaging next year’s 58-date North American tour, which is now on general sale. His fourth studio album, Purpose, was released last week and is sparring for chart supremacy with One Direction’s latest opus.
Yes, he’s shirtless on the album art; but he’s also praying. Redemption became a necessary career strategy and there is pathos in seeing a 21-year-old dispense worldly-wise advice after personal and professional struggles.
Storming off stage after one song at a gig in Norway last month suggests he is still very much a work in progress. That, though, is now the point. Bieber wants to be seen as an ordinary superstar. Can he project a raw honesty that admits his flaws without scuppering his status as a pop idol?
If Purpose is a sort of mea culpa, the message from Texas on Thursday was: apology accepted. One minute before the scheduled start the background music upped tempo and fans rushed from their seats to the barriers that marked a path from the locker rooms to the stage.
There were febrile screams at the first syllables of a public address announcement which turned out to be a man announcing a 30-minute delay because of congestion at the entrances. Five minutes later there was another false alarm, possibly inspired by the sight of a small dry ice machine dispersing a light mist in the general vicinity of Bieber’s walkway.
Bieber appeared after a 45-minute hold-up, scooting to the stage on a skateboard. “Wassup?” he asked, dressed all in black save for a burgundy woolly hat. Some of the night’s loudest cries from the audience came when he took off his beanie to reveal wild blond hair that looked like a hay bale after a tornado.
He took questions from fans on subjects ranging from bucket list plans (“I haven’t been to Antartica. I wanna go to Antarctica”) to biggest life-changing moments (“Probably this album”).
His only misstep came when he was asked for his favourite Houston memory and said “probably when Yao Ming played here, with the Rockets”, a reference to the retired NBA star that fizzled like a punctured ball even in the arena the local team calls home.
Otherwise, Bieber’s responses drew whoops of excitement and he dispensed bite-size therapy like it was candy from a vending machine. “Don’t focus on where you’re at, focus on the better days to come,” he counselled.
He is “focusing on bettering myself” after “the awakening moment for me, I wasn’t really happy with the person that I was so I just started searching in a bunch of different ways … I want people to know that I’m human. People forget the human side, that I have feelings and emotions”.
If he were interviewing himself, what questions would he pose? “I would probably ask myself, what inspires me to do what I do? My answer to that would be one, the people who love my albums, the fans who support me. The second, for God.”
A teenage fan clutching a Bieber poster, Makayla, said afterwards that the Q&A session was “kind of surprising, I really enjoyed it though because you got to hear about his point of view, like why he wanted to do it”, she said. “I think he wanted to just clear up a few things and tell his fans his side of it instead of just the media side of it.”
Her friend Karli agreed. “The fans didn’t see his point of view when he was being arrested and all that stuff was happening, so him answering the questions and stuff was just clearing the air. I think he has a really strong fanbase and they’ll stay loyal to him, definitely,” she said.
After expertly performing a half-dozen songs with only a guitarist, Bieber departed and the 13 videos from a dance project called Purpose: the Movement played on the big screens, climaxing with a ludicrous vignette in which he is alone in the desert with only a piano and six over-friendly dancers in loincloths for company. By then, there were no more than a couple of hundred people still inside the seating bowl, while long lines snaked around the merchandising stalls outside. Just like the closing minutes of basketball games when a blowout victory is assured.
This article was written by Tom Dart in Toyota Center, Houston, for theguardian.com on Friday 20th November 2015 16.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010