Live Review: Justin Bieber at Nokia Theater L.A. Live
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The teen pop star shows his fans that he has the same appeal in flesh and blood as he does in the virtual world.
Maybe Justin Bieber is an airbender. He might even be an avatar, able to control all four elements, and anointed to unite disparate realms — like the grown-up world and the kid world, or hip hop-grounded teen pop and singer-songwriterly classic rock. If an arrow lurks under his famous coif, Bieber’s doing his best to conceal it; this most successful pop star is not a show-off, and he projected normality Tuesday throughout the Los Angeles stop of his “My World 2.0” tour.
But Bieber also made clear that what a teen star needs now is a new kind of magic, an ability to seamlessly move from the virtual realm of YouTube and Twitter to the physical one, where joyfully hysterical fans demand a strong emotional connection. His performance was all about securing the link between his fans’ imaginary relationship with him, established via the Internet and through the highly produced singles that have won young ears, and the one he was building with them in the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live.
The show began with Bieber seemingly stepping out of an Xbox video game. This tour is presented by Microsoft’s gaming wing, and as with so many aspects of popular culture now, Bieber’s success reflects the now-common experience of merging a physical self with a synthetic one. Skillfully alternating between lip-synching dance numbers and belting out ballads in his wavering but clear pubescent tenor, executing dance routines that were more about posing perfectly than showing much athleticism, Bieber collapsed the space between the regular boy he professes to be and the enchanted one he’s become to his fans.
The Canadian teen played a reality-tweaking hero in several guises Tuesday. He climbed an inflatable skyscraper, looking like a junior member of the cast of “Inception”; he floated aloft in contraptions that carried an echo of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Lines of green light dominated the light show, giving the theater the feel of an arcade where a game of laser tag might break out at any minute.
Some of his actions were old-fashioned. He brought a fan onstage and gave her flowers, and convincingly clutched his duet partner, the equally precocious Jessica Jarrell (a.k.a. JJ), as they sang a slightly off-tune ballad. Others showed his vintage: a screen montage merged amateur family videos from his childhood with the video demos that made him famous and ended with him as a preschooler, declaring the driving ambition he shares with so many in his spotlight-obsessed generation: “I want to be on TV.”
Bieber’s raw skills may not have impressed the parents who’d squired his target audience to the show. Invoking Michael Jackson with a fragment of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somthin’” was a mistake; Bieber has neither the voice nor the grace of the King of Pop. (Merging that chestnut with “Walk This Way,” the song that famously united Aerosmith with Run DMC, was a more interesting move.) But what Bieber lacks in vocal oomph or break-dancing skills, he makes up in imperturbable presence. He’s the living definition of a natural performer, somehow free of affectations even when his voice was thoroughly drenched in Auto-Tune, or when he was up there in the air, a demigod with an acoustic guitar.
The night’s other performers seemed old-fashioned compared to Bieber. Sean Kingston opened with a jubilant but ultimately forgettable show; the Jamaican charmer makes great singles but doesn’t seem that comfortable onstage. Ingénue Jarrell and the girl group the Stunners took brief turns performing to tracks. None made a huge impression.
Bieber did so by being so easy to grasp. Teen idols have always been avatars — embodiments of hard-to-manage new feelings and urges, guiding young fans to the next level of emotional maturity. They’ve often moved between fictional scenarios like television shows and the “real” life of live performance. But in 2010, they’re more like half-supernatural creatures than ever. The tween-and-younger crowd want them to be like Harry Potter and their American Girl dolls while their older sisters (and some self-confident brothers) embrace them as online pals and subjects of elaborate fan fictions. To fulfill this role, an idol now must cultivate perfection and accessibility in precise and equal measure. Bieber does so without breaking a sweat.--Ann Powers