By Mikael Wood
7:36 PM EDT, October 3, 2012
Mistakes: They're what kids — even the famous ones — do.
When Justin Bieber rolled into Staples Center Tuesday night for the first of two shows, the Internet was still buzzing with video of his performance at Glendale, Ariz. For those who missed it, the teen idol got sick after a pre-show meal of spaghetti Bolognese washed down with whole milk.
The unplanned spectacle, endlessly replayed on YouTube, provided a valuable peek behind the teen-pop curtain, and reminded us in vivid detail that Bieber isn't just a global brand with a vast multimedia dominion. He's also an 18-year-old boy.
By Tuesday’s sold-out concert, the first of two at Staples, the curtain had been dutifully redrawn. Briskly paced and intricately choreographed, this high-tech pop production (with a mixture of live and prerecorded singing) emphasized the idea of Bieber over the real-life person; it merely reinforced established baseline notions: Cute face! Great hair! Nice voice!
Bieber’s grand entrance seemed to promise an expansion of those themes. Following an introductory video in which he appeared to fly around the arena, the singer descended from above the stage attached to a pair of enormous steampunk-style wings. Then he and his eight-piece band launched into “All Around the World,” the throbbing opener from this year’s excellent “Believe,” while a crew of dancers raced through the crowd hoisting flags from various countries, including Bieber’s native Canada.
The moment was weirdly exciting — and excitingly weird, like the product of a teenager’s comic-book imagination. He kept it up during the lovely “Catching Feelings,” which at Staples became the basis for a bizarre outer-space mermaid situation.
From there, though, Tuesday’s 90-minute show quickly flattened out, papering over Bieber’s idiosyncrasies with hand-me-down set pieces such as the 1990s-era drill-team routine in “One Time” and the Motown-inspired shuffling that accompanied “Die in Your Arms.”
Guest appearances by Jaden Smith and Carly Rae Jepsen (the latter of whom opened the concert) provided brief upticks in energy; they allowed Bieber the opportunity to interact with another human in real time. But neither left behind a lasting effect.
What made Bieber’s cipher-like presence especially disappointing is how effectively he communicates via other channels: his songs, of course, but also his Twitter feed and his YouTube clips and the photographs taken by the kind of paparazzi he battled Tuesday in a video during “She Don’t Like the Lights.”
In these and other venues Bieber projects a specifically lifelike persona: When Lizzie Widdicombe reported in the New Yorker recently that Bieber displayed some poor sportsmanship in a game of greenroom crotch-jab, the reader might’ve thought, Yeah, I can totally see that.
He’s fully a 21st century creation — perhaps the pop idol most attuned to the age of social media — but onstage Bieber revealed only incidental glimpses of the kid within, as when he adjusted his skin-tight trousers following an acrobatic move or flashed an I-can’t-help-it grin at the sound of fans cheering his exposed abdomen. Last weekend’s vomiting incident served a similar function — however unpleasantly — at his Arizona show.
Bieber brought up his gastrointestinal troubles at Staples after a ho-hum acoustic medley he delivered atop a giant crane. He was telling the audience how he doesn’t like doing interviews or photo shoots — that what he really cares about is performing for his fans.
“I’m not up here sick,” he said. “I’m good!”
Then he did “Beauty and a Beat,” a highlight from “Believe” about losing oneself in the music; Bieber actualized the concept by sitting down behind a drum set and bashing out a hectic solo. At the end of the song he kicked over the drums, explaining with a spray of little-boy petulance, “Sometimes I just want to be a rock star.”
Sometimes, maybe — but here, at least, not often enough.
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