The couch was gone, but Justin Bieber needed it back. He’d just been sitting on it, swathed in a preposterous amount of flannel, strumming his acoustic, having a quiet, pleasant time alongside 15,000 of his shrieking fans. Then he got up, and the couch disappeared into the stage, and then Justin Bieber remembered he needed it back: “I was supposed to do ‘Love Yourself!’"
He called out to unseen stagehands, asking for the furniture. They agreed. But it takes a minute to raise a couch back up out of the ground, apparently, so he killed time. He asked how the right side was doing. He asked how the left side was doing. He asked how the up top was doing. Then he told them, matter of factly, “When Jesus comes back, you’re the first to go.”
On Wednesday night, Bieber brought his Purpose World Tour to Brooklyn’s Barclays Arena. Since he dropped Purpose last November, the pop news cycle has been dominated, in turn, by Kanye West, Beyoncé, and Drake. But it’s not hard to recall where we’re at with the Bieber narrative: we’re solidly post-redemption. The tour isn’t exactly pushing his narrative forward; there’s nothing much mind-boggling about it. It’s a somewhat ambitiously constructed show, executed by Bieber with, at least on the night that I saw him, just barely enough aplomb to justify his fan’s very much still-present cacophony of shrieks. It’s a victory lap.
There are all kinds of doodads. There are Tron-esque dancers. There’s a drum riser that shoots high above the ground, on which our man solos, solidly enough. (Everything our man does—from the regular day-job requirements to, say, extracurricular swing-dancing with his back-up dancers—he does solidly enough. It's actually remarkable: there are so many things that our man is truly, exceedingly OK at). There’s metaphors, too, in the form of at least two boxes from which Bieber is eventually set free. One is glass, and Bieber gets to mark it all up with Sharpies. The other one is, more or less, made of lasers.
He messed up song intros. He put at least two shirts on inside out before quickly correcting his mistakes. He yelled “Where Brooklyn at! Where Brooklyn at!” with panache. I loved it all, up to and including the dancers flying on the trampolines built into the stage and the trampoline lifted high in the sky and the artificial-rain-soaked finale. Rain? Trampolines?! The Purpose World Tour’s main point of inspiration appears to have been Step Up 2 … The Streets, and I was very much good with that.
He moved faithfully, if sluggishly. I enjoyed it wholeheartedly and still wondered: is he having fun?
Earlier this week, the New York Times went deep on Britney Spears’s conservatorship, the odd legal agreement under which the pop star has now been living for eight years, since her infamous 2008 meltdown. Conservatorships, the Times explains, are “typically used to protect the old, the mentally disabled or the extremely ill”; in this case, one is being used to protect an entertainer who has been deemed—despite her ongoing, money-printing residency at Las Vegas’s Planet Hollywood casino—too unstable to manage her own financial wellbeing.
If you love pop music, this is exactly the kind of stuff that fascinates. Because we almost always seem to come back to this one point: how much agency do these pop stars really have? How much do they really want?
Spears has “conservators”—her father, Jamie Spears, and her lawyer, Andrew M. Wallet (A. Wallet!!)—that do that for her. Reports the Times, “Her most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes, are tracked in court documents as part of the plan to safeguard the great fortune she has earned but does not ultimately control.”
Britney does the same exact 90 minute show in the same exact venue three times a week, six weeks on, six weeks off. For her troubles, she recieves roughly the annual salary of an NBA superstar. It’s a strange limbo: she’s an adored pop star that generates insane revenue by punching the clock. It may be like this forever: there are no indications that the conservatorship will ever be lifted; there’s not even any indications that that’s something Britney actively desires.
In broad strokes, Bieber’s trajectory—kid star careens, grabs the wheel, rights self—is analogous to Britney’s. Britney’s conservatorship is an extreme case, though: it’s control that can be carefully accounted for, one court-certified expense receipt at a time. It's a curious, all-new thing: it's a muted kind of pop star tragedy. And it's not difficult, really, to imagine a time in which some sort of quasi-conservatorship would have fit Bieber quite snugly as well. That’s not Bieber's story, though; he managed to avoid the worst parts.
And yet in person, he felt like he was running through something obligatory, something he had been told to do. It wasn’t exactly reluctant; it was just his duty for the evening. And so there were just the sparest moments of free thought. Post-couch disappearance, pre-couch reappearance, he let us know, rubbing a hand over his new buzz cut, “I cut off all my hair. It feels weird.”