Reviewed: Justin Bieber at the O2

Dazed and deeply confused.

I had great hopes for this, and not just because it had been hailed, flatulently, as the biggest show on earth. Here’s a child prodigy cast in the Michael Jackson / Stevie Wonder mould who has thrown himself on the altar of entertainment, to be pawed at by teens and poked by haters who consider him the end of all recorded music.

There is perhaps no harder-working boy in the Western world. His songs are inspirational, aspirational pop anthems pre-tooled for huge stadiums. It will be an incredibly smart and exciting pop concert, I tell myself. But as the shadow of Bieber, suspended on wings, is flashed like a harpy on the monitors and the arena fizzes with firecrackers in a baroque display that bears no relation whatsoever to the slick r’n’b of his recent album Believe, it’s clear that this is going to be one of those profoundly depressing O2 experiences, sending you back on the Jubilee line gazing at your own reflection and wondering when your heart turned so small and black.

Bieber comes on stage at 10.20pm, which is a bit of an issue on a Monday night for an audience of 20,000 children who’ve been waiting three hours. Rock-and-roll behaviour doesn’t impress kids. Lip-syncing, they’re fine with – all the great pop acts do it nowadays, or at least make use of the “guide vocal”. Bieber got where he did because he can sing, but the main component of these kind of shows, apart from video projections, is punishing stage routines with so many leaps and slides it’s all you can do to stop your trousers falling down. Against the athletics on stage his distant, processed vocal is unnerving. It could be an animatronic dummy up there – and somehow you suspect that this thought is driving the Bieber fever: the live shows set children so much further away from their adored object than they are day-to-day, on Twitter and YouTube, there’s got to be some way of getting closer. And there is.

Tickets for the Believe 2013 tour come in various VIP tiers. For £330, you get what’s described as an “incredible” seat, a meeting and photo opportunity with Bieber himself, plus a gift bag and matching lanyard. For £175 you get a merely “amazing” seat (loser) and the bag – and you don’t get to meet him. Opting for the latter would be crueller than putting your child into care. The live industry has done a great job finding new streams of revenue, and the meet ‘n’ greet is now more important to “Beliebers” than the concert – a way calibrating their commitment and proving it, instantly, on Facebook. It’s not just Justin who does this, of course. Cheryl Cole, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga all have to make nightly small-talk with 30 teens too shy to speak after their two-hour gigs, and it can’t be much fun.

Descending, with wings. Photograph: Getty Images

Tonight is about watching a talented person labouring under levels of fame and physical pressure so severe they turn you from a performer into a panting automaton. It’s more like the recent Rihanna concerts than the shows of Gaga or Swift, who seem so utterly in control of their worlds. There’s something in the constant use of home-video footage of Bieber as a toddler and child – his “journey” beamed up, contrasted with the voices of journalists speculating that he “can’t make the transition from boy to man” – that speaks a profound lack of confidence, even contempt.

As a child, like Donny Osmond, he was singing mature, appropriately chaste love songs to fantasy ladies; two years ago, a fan claimed to be bearing his child after a backstage encounter (the Platinum Package) but he emerged from the scandal pretty much unscathed. Now aged 19, it’s probably time for him to lose the purity-ring reputation but his fanbase hasn’t changed, and like all great child stars he looks younger than his years. He is stuck in a crevice between childhood and maturity that would be far better navigated if he occasionally sat down at the end of the runway with a guitar, and looked around himself, and spoke to people – as the Believe: Acoustic album suggested he would. But for some reason he barely communicates, can't seem to improvise. He’s still too gamine to pull off the urban superstar thing, and the hefty beats and guy on the decks saying “make some nooooiiiiiisse” seem to underline his fragility.

Towards the end of the gig one lucky punter is pulled from the crowd and placed on a throne like a prom queen, treated to a personal rendition of a song called “One Less Lonely Girl”. This sort of “inspirational” section happens at a lot of the big pop shows, feeding the cult of The Self that dominates youth culture at the moment, telling young people they can “do anything” before they know who they are, or what they want to do. Bieber’s own believe-in-yourself speech comes from a video projection rather than the real person standing below. As he leads the girl off stage, reminding himself of her name, it’s hard to tell which of them looks more dazed.

 

Justin Bieber reaches out to fans during his first night at the O2. Photograph: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution