Why Justin Bieber’s Purpose Tour left me feeling sorry (for him)

FL’s pop diehard JULES LEFEVRE went to Justin Bieber’s Sydney show with high hopes – and left feeling sorry.

At a certain point in an artist’s ascension to stardom, their performances become less focused on musical perfection and more on the pure art of theatre. To watch a stadium pop show is to suspend your disbelief: you know what you’re hearing and seeing is not that real, but in the end it doesn’t really matter – you’re there for a show, not an unplugged acoustic gig.

In order for this to work, there has to be some effort on the artists part to take part in the grand spectacle that is pop theatre. You’re selling the audience the time of their lives, you need to at least look like you give a damn.

Taylor Swift’s shows are so imbued with saccharine feelings it’s almost impossible to get through a performance without thinking like you may never be this happy again. The same goes for Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. They understand that for an audience to believe in them, they have to sell every bead of sweat that drips down their face during the outlandish dance routines.

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It doesn’t take much for the illusion to come crashing down, and boy, did Justin Bieber bring it crashing down.

It’s not hard to understand his apathy – Bieber has done this so many times that he could probably do it in his sleep. Which is, at times, what he looked like he was doing. Every kinda-sorta dance move, every raise-the-mic-tell-em-to-scream move, every prayer hands and point at the crowd and wink was delivered by a singer who felt completely absent – his eyes haunted and bored.

“What is jarring though, is when a singer doesn’t even attempt to sing the first half of his hit single – or even lift the microphone to his mouth – and instead lets the recording play out.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t a heady dose of spectacle. Tracks like ‘Where Are Ü Now’, ‘Baby’ and ‘As Long As You Love Me’ were accompanied by spiralling lazers, pyrotechnics, dance routines and drum claps so loud they could have broken bones. ‘Boyfriend’ went above and beyond, coordinating explosions with every shoulder pop of the back up dancers. On the flipside, ‘Cold Water’ and ‘Love Yourself’ were delivered acoustically, Bieber plonked on a red couch. His voice, stripped of artifice, was brilliant.

There were some undeniably lovely moments, like the soft piano of ‘Life Is Worth Living’ and the rumbling ‘Company’. More poignant was ‘I’ll Show You’, with Bieber singing “My life is a movie/And everyone’s watching…Don’t forget that I’m human/Don’t forget that I’m real”, standing motionless inside a cage. A staged moment made more affecting given the indifference displayed by the person living it.

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There was heavy use of vocal backing tracks, which is not unusual for pop performances in the slightest (and completely understandable given the pressure of making a voice last through a world tour.)

What is jarring though is when a singer doesn’t even attempt to sing the first half of his hit single – or even lift the microphone to his mouth – and instead lets the recording play out. Bieber eventually joined in on ‘What Do You Mean’ somewhere around the minute-and-a-half mark. He redeemed himself somewhat with closer ‘Sorry’ – as epic a pop banger as there ever was.

Perhaps what rankles most is this had the potential to be a killer show. Every element was in place, from the world class staging to the excellent album in Purpose. It might be his schtick to seem sexily disinterested in everything – and according to the tens of thousands of screaming people, it’s definitely working for him – but it makes for a lacklustre pop show.

If only he looked like he actually wanted to be there.

Jules LeFevre is a writer for inthemix and FasterLouder. She tweets at @jules_lefevre.

Header photo: Mikki Gomez