Justin Bieber at The RDS on June 21st, 2017
Male pop stars are an endangered species.
With not much happening in the genre since the dismantling of One Direction, we’re pretty much left with veterans like Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake. The market is eager for young heart throbs, which is good news for Justin Bieber, who maintained a monopoly on teenage affection for the past few years. Unfortunately, like a corporate multinational facing next to no competition, the Bieber Factory has little incentive to perform at its best.
The Purpose tour made its stop in Dublin’s RDS Arena on Wednesday night. It was a night to dress up, flower crowns and glittered french braids were sported by groups of the most dedicated teenage pop fans you’re likely to find. Before even entering the venue, screams of Justin’s name could be heard echoing around Ballsbridge, and the inability to cope was in the air.
This enthusiasm rarely waned throughout what was, unfortunately, a disappointing show.
Entering the stage under the shadow of Michelangelo’s David (really), Mark My Words opens proceedings. While Bieber’s vocal delivery is note-for-note, his presence is that of a moody teenager clothes shopping in Dunnes Stores with his Mam. He appears bored, uninterested, and as though the sound of thousands of adoring fans screaming his name lost any and all impact a long time ago.
Where Are Ü Now should have been the perfect opportunity for Bieber to step it up and heighten the energy, given what ecstatic energy the song has. Unfortunately, the pop star’s robotic performance undermined a terrific song and gorgeous stage production. We can take that as the theme of the night.
A bizarre performance of I’ll Show You saw the star pace the perimeter of an octagon cage, following a contrived monologue addressing those in his past who told him ‘he would never make it’. It was hard to believe at this moment that anybody Bieber has been in contact with for the past ten years has done anything but encourage him keep the machine going. There is money to be made.
The impact was more of a confused caged deer than ferocious MMA fighter, and the parallels with his own stardom were a little too on-the-nose for comfort.
High points of the set came towards the end, with both Baby and What Do You Mean giving the crowd a glimpse of Bieber enjoying himself. A funny ‘who here is from Ireland’ interaction went down well, and was met with the expected Olé Olé which, charmingly, may have been the first such rite of passage for many of the young gig goers. A smile at a sign held aloft by a fan close to the stage, laughing and thanking young fans during Children, his reaction to the crowd’s response to Baby, all seemed like genuine moments that could have made the case for passing the Turing test.
That said, there are many reasons why straight up criticising the show is reductive. Bieber’s RDS show was a disappointment, but his lack of enthusiasm is emblematic only of his alienation from the rest of pop music, and indeed from his fans. While we comment on his sequestered performance, we must also imagine the difficulty in trying to connect with tens of thousands of fans hungrily capturing your image in their Snapchat story, storing the 640 x 960 pixel image inches from their face for later, when you’re standing right there in the flesh. Surely it feels, to Justin Bieber, that he is performing to a crowd who stare at their phones the entire time.
When he gets the opportunity to showcase his drumming skills, which were more than adequate, he is elevated on a platform towering over the stage. His acoustic guitar is handed to him to play at the furthest point from his fellow musicians, far down the platform among the crowd. It’s clear that he is a competent musician, if only he had the opportunity to jam with his band.
Criticism here should be reserved for the changing tone of live popular music shows. The One Direction boys were among the first to deal with this isolation from their audience, but they had each other up there on stage for their arena tours. This was Justin Bieber, and Justin Bieber only.
With female solo artists the dynamic is different. An Ariana Grande concert is just as likely to be viewed through the lens of an Instagram story, but there is a give and take relationship between such solo performers and their fans that isn’t found in the case of Bieber.
Call it blind adoration, call it Bieber-mania, call it teenage infatuation, this dynamic between male pop stars and their female fans has been around for as long as pop music. Only now, these days, Bieber lacks piers, and is faced with new and increasingly invasive means of fandom. The lad can’t even shoot hoops in Bushy Park without it trending on twitter.
Far from being one of the great pop performances, Justin Bieber at The RDS is still an interesting case of modern popular music’s changing state. He stands alone in this new cycle of pop culture, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be prepared for it. Could we have done with more from the Biebs on the night? Absolutely. Can I blame him for phoning it in? Not one bit.