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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis