A Bruce Springsteen concert is a medicine show, where the holy elixir that really does what it claims is rock and roll. Bruce himself is the living proof that this magic stuff can extend vitality into regions heretofore unknown, as he plays for hours on end without a sip of water and with barely a pause but to count down the next song. Bruce executes feats of strength, including crowd surfing, that people half his age can't hack. "I'm just a prisoner … of rock and roll," Springsteen hollered toward the end of the show last week at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, as one last big cathartic release. But Springsteen has spoken before about feeling like an actual prisoner, admitting in 2012 that his legendary four-hour shows were originally fueled not just by inspirational energy but by “pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred." It feels like every musician who rockets to megastardom experiences the alienating effects of the gap between the big projected Jumbotron image and the fragile offstage human.
If Bruce is a traveling preacher with a tent show, Justin Bieber is a pastor like those at hipster megachurches such as Hillsong (which he attends). Bieber's flock is every bit as faithful as Bruce's. I asked my friend how long she thought Bieber would play for and she responded "Until his Adderall wears off." But we were soon to eat our laughter. First there was an opening set by Post Malone, from which I learned that all of his other songs sound exactly like "White Iverson." I did not actually catch sight of Post Malone because I was standing in the endless line for Bieber merch, which included a sweatshirt with PURPOSE styled like Thrasher magazine's logo. Other shirts say BIEBER in a death metal font that calls YEEZUS to mind. Yeezus himself was there with Kim — a stadium spotlight before the show revealed that they were sitting at the back of the Staples Center floor on a leather couch. Kanye recently named Justin's "What Do You Mean?" as his favorite song of the year, and even if Bieber's crossover from teeny-bopper into adult pop star was preordained by fate, the Kanye seal of approval certainly helps reinforce the narrative that JB is pop’s cool, cutting edge.
The Purpose tour resembles '80s art-rock spectacles like the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense hybridized with Cirque Du Soleil and a '90s arena rock show. Bieber's body has been a talking point in his career since it became legal for it to be. And like Bruce, who put his own pretty face and body on album covers, Bieber seems to know the value in objectifying himself. There's an inherent danger in objectifying yourself, too — once you start doing it, it's hard to go back. Nudes of Bieber on vacation blanketed the Internet last year and caused Bieber to feel "super violated" even if he joked about it.
Despite the strong audience connection and occasional Christ poses they share, Bieber's most obvious career model is not Bruce Springsteen or even Justin Timberlake, but Michael Jackson. MJ's 1991 album Dangerous plays over the loudspeakers and it occurs to me that 22-year-old Justin Bieber was not alive when it came out. The last song that plays is "Dangerous," intended to be Jackson's 10th single from the album but canceled after MJ was accused of child abuse in 1993. Bieber's onstage banter offers vague platitudes about finding your purpose and being yourself. The most MJ moment occurs when he brings out a group of child dancers to breakdance, saying "this one's for the children" and "give it up for the children." I knew I was old, because my first thought was "those kids are up late!" (it was after 10 p.m.).
Bieber's interactions are guarded but intense — he lies down on the stage and lets front-row audience members lay their hands on him. Fans protested the dropping of a bit from earlier Bieber shows in which he brings a girl onstage to sing his 2009 hit "One Less Lonely Girl" to her, and it was added back into the show. Bruce Springsteen does an identical bit with "Dancing in the Dark," bringing a fan onstage to dance with him, making a show of erasing the boundaries between fans and star. (And fans who go too far off-script during these encounters risk getting bounced.) A strong sense of paranoia pervades the show — Bieber first appears in a clear box, elevated above the audience, like the David Blaine stunt. Shortly thereafter, a wire cage with LED sparks circling around it is lowered over him.
With long, floppy, bleached-blond hair and a trench coat, Bieb looks like a cyberpunk Thin White Duke. There is a heavy futuristic component to the Purpose tour visuals — endless zooms into computer-animated never-ending neon tunnels. Bieber appears like the heroine of Ghost in the Shell — an augmented super-being, outfitted with unnatural advantages. Some of the things Justin Bieber does onstage: three backflips on a trampoline in the sky, an acoustic mini-set on a guitar, and a five-minute drum solo. Bieber references '90s style touchstones with a 2Pac shirt, a parade of flannels, and a Marilyn Manson "BIGGER THAN SATAN" shirt, underneath which is printed "BIEBER," a neat trick made neater with the accompanying industrial remix of Bieber's "As Long As You Love Me."
After the show, Bieber posted an angry selfie with the caption "La is so fake they drain me until im dry, they act like them telling me their proud of me is supposed to make me want to suck them off. Thank you but no thank u.. To those in la that were authentic I appreciate you." He almost immediately edited the caption to read only "La is so fake they drain me until im dry." By morning he'd deleted the caption, too, leaving just the vestigial B&W selfie of JB in a beret looking just like Joni Mitchell on the cover of Hejira. The culprit was a fan who got past security into a private meet-and-greet that normally costs $925. Bieber freaked out — he wants his fans to feel close to him but not necessarily be that close to him, at least not offstage. Now the $925 meet-and-greet ticket no longer includes a meet or greet, just a chance to snap Justin from inside a room. To get a selfie with Bieber, you have to pay for the next-level, $2,000 fan package.
The day after the show, Justin posted a photo of him cradling a child with a serene Virgin Mary look on his face. "Love u guys…" the caption read, "I'm going to be canceling my meet and greets. I enjoy meeting such incredible people but I end up feeling so drained and filled with so much of other people's spiritual energy that I end up so drained and unhappy... Want to make people smile and happy but not at my expense and I always leave feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted to the point of depression." Justin's fans of course understood, and most left comments declaring their support rather than their disappointment. Bieber shouted out Kanye during the show, calling him "a pioneer in being himself." Justin stated that what he admired was Kanye "not being afraid to make mistakes." He said this part twice.