Taking the long view on popular music

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Reviewed: Justin Bieber at the O2

Dazed and deeply confused.

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

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.