Rain can smudge a homemade shirt and soak a neon poster, but it couldn’t deter thousands of Beliebers — both fervent, lifelong supporters and the recently converted — from the kick-off of Justin Bieber’s Purpose world tour in Seattle on Wednesday.
A certain heft accompanied the night, and not just because of the city-wide traffic alert my Über driver told me was issued for the area surrounding Key Arena. The 22-year-old tabloid king is fresh off his first Grammy win, a critically-acclaimed album with three number-one singles, and an undeniable pop culture moment that has the world minting him a comeback kid.
Anyone’s first Justin Bieber concert might be a ravishing bit of exploration into a gooey cross-section of the pop culture membrane, but Bieber-in-2016 attracts a much wider swath than the punchlines would suggest: Teens, tweens, parents, cool aunts, couples, college students, unaccompanied minors, unaccompanied adults — they’re all here, adorned with “Bieber Is Bae” shirts and bracing themselves for a star’s rebirth.
It’s a concert where crowds cheer, not jeer, at an infamous Calvin Klein commercial preceding the show, a concert where stilettoed hipsters chug Blue Moon next to mothers withholding Bieber merchandise over their daughters unless the little ones share their Swedish Fish. It’s a concert where, sure, some audience members wonder aloud whether a pre-show blare of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” is an early Bieber track they don’t know.
Yet it’s also a concert that shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Bieber is back. The only one who doesn’t seem to necessarily believe that is Bieber himself. But how do I get to that conclusion? Well, bear with me as I lay out the 10 wildest moments Purpose patrons will witness.
1. Bieber in a box
Every great concert demands a great entrance, and Bieber’s grand arrival at Seattle’s cavernous Key Arena elicits the kind of cheers you’d expect if the Pope dropped upside down into a Vatican convocation on circus silks. As the opening chords of “Where Are Ü Now” strum, Bieber rises from below the stage in a large glass cube, the hydraulics pushing him higher than any other lift (and there are several) that will be used throughout the rest of the show. He’s on display, an exhibit of scrutiny and dissection. The crowd erupts, but to the quieter, more introspective eye, Bieber’s entrance is but the first of several metaphors he’ll lay down throughout the night — teasing you, begging you to extrapolate. He writes something on the box — “MARK MY WORDS,” punctuated beneath by a stylish heart — and, before he even opens his mouth, already dares you to call this a comeback.
2. A return to pop
Mark these words: Bieber, for his purported enrollment into a nascent school of EDM scholars like Skrillex and Diplo, is at his heart the same bottle-blonde ball of kinetic energy that came of age in a time when being a world-touring artist meant explosive choreography and a self-imposed challenge to match the mettle of one’s back-up dancers. Backed by a worthy team of 14 millennial Martha Grahams, Bieber never shies away from a stunning dance break, particularly during “Been You” and an ethereal “The Feeling” (with circus acrobats and cosmic projections of Halsey, who’s featured on the track). If any good concert is a party, Bieber strives to infuse some solid line-dancing into this Bieb mitzvah.
3. A return to … grunge?
You won’t find the garish, shocking ensembles of a Vegas residency here. Instead, Bieber strikes sardonic alchemy between pairs of loose plaid shirts, torn jeans, baggy tanks (including a mid-act Marilyn Manson tee that reads “BIGGER THAN SATAN” in red and “BIEBER” in white below), and just enough jaunty high-fashion robes to remind you that the purple-and-white boy has transformed into a bleached, manbunned man.
4. The motifs
Some of Bieber’s projection motifs — like a beachside skate park or a techno Tron maze that could double as a screensaver—exist as pure whimsy, but others demand consideration that, again, simply begs you to call parallels between the Bieber you presently see on stage and the Bieber of the 2010s who couldn’t avoid a tabloid takedown even if he donated his entire fortune to charity. His third song of the evening, “I’ll Show You,” traps the singer under a literal steel cage while firestorms and spinning whirlwinds engulf him. “I’ve had a couple rough years,” he admits before the remorseful but defiant anthem. “But what I think you should tell people when they don’t say you can make it is, I’ll show you.” And as he sings, “Don’t forget that I’m human, don’t forget that I’m real,” it becomes clear that lyrics that once sizzled on radio suddenly scorch in real time.
5. “Love Yourself”
There’s little doubt what the most beloved tune from Purpose is, charts and radio play be damned. “What Do You Mean” and “Sorry,” I’ma let you finish, but the symphonic “Love Yourself” — performed by Bieb on acoustic guitar while seated on a red velvet couch down center stage — offered the night’s most alarming, uplifting harmony from the thousand-strong chorus of the arena. The song, which isn’t filled with lyrics about career rejuvenation, offered the night’s first hint that these fans aren’t here for any sort of amends; they simply love his music. (The light acoustic break also continued with a breezy, feel-good solo of “Home to Mama,” his underrated duet with Cody Simpson.)
6. The trampoline!
Between bouts of candid emotionality, the kid still lets loose — for the fans’ sake and his own. A gargantuan trampoline net descends upon the front third of the orchestra audience as Bieber and friends bound joyously during “Company,” marking the first genuine bit of jubilant fun in an otherwise mature set list.
7. The throwbacks
With all his focus seemingly on reinvention, it was perfectly reasonable for myself and the teens I befriended nearby to wonder which Bieber “classics” he’d revisit. After all, here’s an artist who’s topped more than a few charts in his seven-year professional career. To wit, he indulged the crowd with highlight performances of “Boyfriend” and his record-setting “Baby,” which, coolness be damned, is a song worthy of filling any arena.
8. The arrangements
Truthfully, everything sounds like it does on the album, but the hard electric guitar riffs on the new version of “As Long As You Love Me” demand their own moment of attention. Bieber also goofily introduced his own act-two drum solo with the kind of self-assured charm that made his early YouTube videos such undiluted delights of a talented musician who only ever wanted to make music on a grand scale.
9. The finale
A dazzle of falling lights bookend Bieber’s finale performance of “Purpose” behind a piano, while a wall of falling water open his encore — a rousing, showstopping “Sorry” performed with aquatic aplomb beneath the onstage torrential downpour.
10. The heart
Here’s the crux of this whole thing: If you wipe away the steel cages and the glass cubes and the unmistakable lyrics of “look at me now” resurrection, Bieber had to prove that his comeback tour is exactly that — a performer’s return to top form, not just a fluke of well-produced singles and hooks. That unfortunate weight did seem to bear down on Bieber during the entire show — he brought out no special guests and remained solemn throughout the night — but over time, its heft will diminish. Towards the evening’s end, when Bieber sang “Life is Worth Living” backed by couples in stark white doing the kind of contemporary choreography that could win a So You Think You Can Dance semifinal, it was the first time the 22-year-old smiled all night.
Until that antepenultimate betrayal of joy, there was an unflinching seriousness that characterized his demeanor. Did he look scared to death? Maybe. Should he have smiled more, even at the risk of uncouth grinning? Perhaps. But an absence of beaming can’t be mistaken for any lack of determination to show the audience that, whatever we may know of him and, more damaging, whatever we may think of him, he’s done the impossible. He’s rebounded from punchline to the front line, and as the Purpose tour continues, I imagine he’ll betray many more of those smiles than the rare ones we were afforded. In truth, the key to restoring that jubilance is all in the hands of the Beliebers. For as much as Justin Bieber seemed to want to prove his worth to the fans, they, in turn, had plans of their own for this world tour. As he left the stage, hundreds of fans held up matching signs that bore a message substantial enough to render all talk of a ‘comeback’ seem instantly irrelevant. “WE NEVER LEFT,” a thousand signs said tonight, as perhaps they have said for years. “AND NEVER WILL.”