Justin Bieber does not smile.
During the Purpose World Tour on Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center, the 22-year-old Canadian pop star wavered between a hardened stare and a blank expression as he bounced, flipped, and falsetto-ed his way through a two-hour spectacle. It was difficult to determine whether the constant shrill screams of the mostly female crowd were in support of this newfound stoicism or a cry to let loose and take his shirt off. Either way, Bieber commanded their attention and delivered a set that both baffled and entertained.
Discovered on YouTube as a prepubescent 13-year-old, Bieber has gone through numerous changes, all of which have been public. He's changed vocal registers; covered his body in tattoos; had several run-ins with the law; and released the 2015 album, Purpose, which has catapulted him far from his side-swept bangs of yore into a genre-bending, critically acclaimed artist.
Descending onto the stage in a clear plastic cube, Bieber, sporting a custom "Bieber" Flyers jersey and a freshly shaved head, performed every song from Purpose, with a sprinkling of older hits in between.
On the surface, Bieber delivered a pop concert that met the standard guidelines. He proved his talent, both with vocal riffing and guitar playing. He even performed a drum solo for a good five minutes. It didn't matter that the dancers masked his clunky, slow-motion pops and locks and his reverse moonwalking. They were there to wow the crowd while Bieber put up a wall of malaise. With such older hits as "Boyfriend" and "Baby," Bieber reworked them to fit his new image and musical style, but seemed less than thrilled to have to sing them to his audience of supporters.
And this is where the concert turned from cookie-cutter to performance art. Bieber consistently swaggered upstage and turned his back to all of his shrieking Beliebers. He stopped between songs for minute-long water breaks. He sang the title track, "Purpose" while sitting on the stage with his legs extended. His costume changes were few but always included a questionable Tupac Shakur-style bandanna on his head. And then there were the moments in which Bieber chose not to sing at all. During parts of "What Do You Mean?" and "Where Are U Now," Bieber held his microphone by his side and danced without moving his lips while a backing track still sang the verse of a song.
This reveal was calculated and that is where the true pageantry was unveiled. Bieber committed to these choices and the audience drank the Kool-Aid along with him. His apathetic persona was a joy to take in. It was like watching James Franco cohost the 2011 Oscars.
Amid the stage chatter about wanting to hit the snooze button and sleep all day, there was a smattering of vulnerability bubbling just beneath the surface. He let it show only once or twice; during his performance of "Life Is Worth Living," Bieber gave us a glimpse of his emotional backbone.