At this late hour, is it possible to add even a fleck of psychic nutrition to the universe by parsing Justin Bieber's pissant vibes? We can — and should — always aspire to be sophisticated in our scorn, but this kid makes it so hard.
On stage, no contemporary pop superstar appears to hate their own life as much as Bieber, who plunged to new sub-levels of poutiness at Washington's Verizon Center on Friday, wallowing through his choreography as if he was performing court-ordered community service. Maybe he was. The 22-year-old has run into legal trouble in recent years — trifling sins for which he atoned on his 2015 album "Purpose." Three of the album's singles have since risen to the top of the charts, but despite its fashionable production, "Purpose" still feels like a joyless, lifeless, counterfeit act of contrition. And yet plenty of critics have lapped it right up, proving that the custodians of today's pop space worship power above all. Dark times.
Friday night's concert began with Bieber in quarantine, singing from inside a large plexiglass box. Unfortunately, he escaped and spent the rest of the night dancing listlessly and lip-syncing egregiously, frequently dropping the microphone to his side while his lyrics flowed through the speakers without interruption. His physical detachment from the music was perversely mesmerizing, especially whenever he sulked across the stage at a pace unrelated to the tempo of the music, which was pretty much during the entire show.
He spent other interstitial moments directly under the spotlight, silently tying his shoes and taking leisurely gulps of bottled water, creating pockets of dead air that felt like little punishments. This wasn't playful teasing, or punky defiance, or even cutesy aloofness. The signal was pure disdain.
Ultimately, he carried himself like a guy who has no friends. Maybe that explains why no one has spoken up about those frosted dreadlocks. Either way, this was still a pricey ticket, so the show's designers transformed the stage into an obstacle course through which Bieber proved that a person can do typically fun things with unremitting contempt for the universe. Between the hydraulic thrust of "As Long as You Love Me" and a spontaneous a cappella snippet of "U Smile," the singer plopped down behind a trap kit to perform a dead-eyed drum solo. During the mid-tempo bounce of "Company," he hopped onto a suspended trampoline and did some wan flips.
The night's only flickers of significant musicality came during his chart-topping "Love Yourself," which Bieber performed seated on a prop sofa, strumming an actual guitar. It's a goodbye-girl ballad with a burn of a hook, and Bieber sang it as if his bitterness was for real: "My mama don't like you, and she likes everyone."
But the most galling moment of the night came roughly 70 minutes into the tedium, when the superstar could no longer endure his lot in life. "Anyone here ever feel like sleeping all day?" Bieber asked his wide-awake crowd. "I felt like that this morning. I feel like that every day." Then he sank down to the floor and reclined flat on his back. "It's good to take rests sometimes," he said, "like I am right now."
This might have felt like a cry for help had Bieber not stood back up to snip at his fans before closing the show. "Can you calm down for two seconds?" he asked the screaming kids in the front row, sounding genuinely annoyed. "Can you guys quiet down?"
These young people were emptying their lungs with love, but their hero needed reverent silence to deliver his prefab motivational speech — a fake redemption story about how the world should learn from his mistakes, and how he has finally found his purpose, and how a purpose is all you need in life, and how "Purpose" is the name of his new album, and whatever.
Vexing, obnoxious, teeth-grindy stuff. But take a deep breath. There's really no need to damage your enamel resenting the hyper-fame of a superstar who's already doing such a fine job of resenting it himself.