Fellow music journalists have had their ears blown by Black Sabbath or My Bloody Valentine’s sonic assaults. For a few awful seconds, as Justin Bieber is winched onto the stage wearing metallic angel wings, I fear 20,000 screaming Beliebers will be the last thing I ever hear. Firework cannonades complete the entrance of the world’s biggest solo teenage pop star. He seems blithely unconcerned by his previous night at this venue, when he was by most accounts two hours late.
The flurry of moral outrage at that will probably be good for business. It’s certainly the first time Bieber’s been compared to Guns N’ Roses’ permanently tardy rock beast Axl Rose, and a dash of bad boy allure is just what his management crave. The 19-year-old’s new haircut, deeper, broken voice and mildly suggestive R&B songs on his new album, Believe, are well-trodden steps towards adult stardom last taken by Justin Timberlake.
The young girls at the O2 don’t want him to grow up yet, though. Regular video montages stoke nostalgia for a still more youthful Bieber, when he was a carefully stage-managed YouTube phenomenon. That was where the video for his signature hit “Baby” (reserved for the encore tonight) played out a puppy love rite of passage: boyish Bieber, voice still angel-high, dancing close with a girl at the mall. He’s just as lovably safe now. Even his odd, baggy trousers copiously avoid his crotch.
The music is the usual box-ticking corporate pop. A poodle-haired guitarist is wheeled out to give acoustic backing when sensitive authenticity is required for “Be Alright”, where Bieber’s voice sounds okay. As with his stiff dancing, though, it’s a pale shadow of the Timberlake-style Justin he wants to be. With his Miami Vice white jacket and vest, he looks a 1980s-style, old-fashioned star. And for all the multi-media sleights of hand and sub-Broadway set-pieces which fill the stage, his uncreative music isn’t ever the point. Bieber is simply the latest young man trying to survive in showbiz, and the empty vessel of his fans’ dreams.
Those fans scream on cue, but aren’t hysterical - not even the bashfully thrilled one Bieber serenades on “One Less Lonely Girl”. There’s some quiet British cynicism at his insistence they “follow their dreams”. “Accountant?” a girl ponders to her friend. But they leave happy and hoarse.