When Justin Bieber steps in front of a sell-out audience in Dublin tonight, his backroom team will be crossing their fingers that the concert goes off without a hitch. At a show in Manchester last week, the 22-year-old singer walked off after attendees refused to pipe down so that he could share some thoughts. A second hissy fit in a fortnight would bring further bad publicity at a crucial point in the career of a former teen heartthrob desperately seeking to rebrand as a grown-up artist.
“You can talk if you want,” Bieber had told the crowd, before letting go of the microphone and heading for the wings (in his defence he later returned). “If you guys wanna take this moment and — I just thought I could have a moment of, you know, trying to say something.”
Here was merely the latest display of peevishness by a young man keen to be taken seriously by a world that still largely perceives him as a warbling adolescent with a goofy grin. Several months ago, Bieber had dropped the bombshell that he would no longer pose for selfies with fans. After six years of global fame, he just couldn’t bear to be gawped at any more.
“If you happen to see me out somewhere know that I’m not gonna take a picture. I’m done taking pictures,” he said on Instagram. “It has gotten to the point that people won’t even say hi to me or recognise me as a human, I feel like a zoo animal, and I wanna be able to keep my sanity. I realize people will be disappointed but I don’t owe anybody a picture.”
Such outbursts brought me back to Bieber’s February 2013 performance, also at 3Arena, at which he had reacted badly to “True Beliebers” chucking keepsakes at his feet. The practice is commonplace at pop shows. Bieber, however, was worried he might lose his footing and ordered his band to stop playing. Explaining he was obliged to follow ”health and safety” regulations, he dashed about tossing the hand-written notes, teddy bears, and other items to one side.
In Bieber’s defence, it has been harder for him to wriggle free of his teen pop persona than for many of his peers. He’s four years younger than Taylor Swift, while he and Beyonce began their careers at approximately the same age. Yet, even as those artists have transitioned into respected songwriters, Bieber is still perceived as an empty-headed moppet — a fundamentally unserious artist bobbing along on clouds of teenage hysteria.
Long-term Bieber watchers will, moreover, have seen Manchester coming. The singer has a history of eccentric behaviour, which has grown more exacerbated as he has pushed against his originally wholesome and homespun image. The meltdowns have often teetered on farcical. In March 2013, for instance, Bieber had a Capuchin monkey named OG Mally seized by officials in Munich after he flew in from the US with the undocumented pet (Mally is now happily resident at a zoo in Copenhagen)
That same year he outraged fans (and the parents waiting to drive them home) by turning up two hours late at a concert at London’s O2. When he finally came on, a chunk of the crowd had already toddled off for the last bus.
“He shut himself off and went into a dark place,” Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun told Billboard in 2015. “Every single day I tried to help him turn it around, and every single day I failed. And I tried desperately.
Until Manchester, Biebs appeared to have steadied himself. His latest record, Purpose, is a grown-up dance album, the single ‘Sorry’ delving into past indiscretions with new-found maturity.
“It’s hard to make meaningful songs that make you want to dance because it can come off cheesy,” Bieber told Billboard. “In the past I’ve recorded songs that I didn’t like, that I wouldn’t listen to, that the label was telling me to record. I’m self-expressing with this album — I can’t skip on the moments that were dark, the moments that were happy, the. It makes it real, rather than ‘Let’s call up Max Martin to write you a hit song.’ I want my music to be inspiring.”
Really, it could go either way for Bieber. It is possible that, having taken a meat cleaver to his cherubic persona, he will flounder. Such was the fate of Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears as they grew up. However, not every artist has been devoured by adolescent stardom — consider Justin Timberlake and even One Direction’s Zayn Malik, each parlaying their celebrity into apparently solid post-heartthrob careers.
Which future beckons for Biebs? At 3Arena tonight he may go some way towards answering that question. A crisp and buttoned-down performance would suggest he has learned from past indiscretions. Another walk-off may indicate pop’s little boy lost isn’t quite as grown up as he would like to believe.
“Everyone, when they start growing up, realises, ‘Man, I did some dumb shit when I was younger,’” he told GQ in January. “It’s not just me.… If I could go back, I wouldn’t really change much. I think it’s all my journey. That stuff made me who I am.”
Hail hail, strop and roll
Bieber isn’t the only one to behave eccentrically on stage. Here are some other cases of unexpected behaviour:
The Killers, 3Arena, 2013
Halfway through the concert, clean-cut singer Brandon Flowers called a halt in order to break-up a fight that had kicked off in the standing area, thus proving there was more to him than a terrifyingly dazzling smile.
Guns ’n Roses, O2, 2010
“One more bottle and we go home,” Axl Rose had told Dublin after an empty container was pinged in his direction. Inevitably someone chucked another missile and off the band trooped. Boos rang out and a sulky Axl was eventually persuaded to return.
Cat Stevens, O2, Dublin, 2009
With premium tickets retailing at c €100, punters anticipated a night of nostalgia from the artist who today performs as Yusuf Islam. But midway through, the headliner exited and the attendance was “treated” to excerpts from a jukebox musical based on his work. Boos rang out and a sheepish Islam poked his head out for the second half, with Ronan Keating hauled on for a version of ‘Father and Son’.
Cat Power, Whelan’s, 2003
Arriving on stage looking the worse for wear, singer Chan Marshall instructed the crowd to sit on the (very sticky) floor and then half-talked, half-crooned through a car-crash set.