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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge