"You're not even looking at me while I'm talking to you," Justin Bieber says to a fan inside the audience pit wedged in the middle of the triangular stage, during the first Toronto stop of his Purpose world tour.
He appears to be calling out the fan for pushing a younger child — "a four-year-old," according to Bieber — out of her way to reach a water bottle discarded by the pop phenom.
His tone walks the fine line between teasing and admonishing, "Go ahead, take it, you worked for that," he says eventually, presumably referring to the contentious water bottle. Watching the action, some girls in the audience giggle. One squeals: "Awk-waard." But then Bieber launches into the title song from the new album, Purpose, and the whole place erupts in screams, the weird moment forgotten.
That episode sums up Justin Bieber's first of two Toronto concerts: as much a study into the emotional state of the Stratford, Ont., singer, as in the love and loyalty of his fans, the so-called Beliebers.
Sweet tunes, no smiles
Justin Bieber descended on stage trapped in a glass box that would, for the next few songs, alternate between being a prison and a dancing platform — a perfect visual metaphor for Bieber's current position on fame and public life.
On the one hand, he's at a career high point, Purpose having won him respect of the critics and even a Grammy. On the other, he recently proclaimed he feels emotionally drained; like a "zoo animal," with an edict of no more photos or meet-and-greets with fans.
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Certainly, Bieber is a solid, competent performer. His voice was clear, his pitch perfect, his mastery of R&B inflections undeniable, particularly on acoustic numbers he did while strumming a guitar, like Love Yourself. On a purely technical level, his performance was pretty flawless.
But for all the adulation reverberating back from the crowd, Bieber barely cracked a smile all night. Even while shimmying to more provocative numbers with female backup dancers, Biebs seemed to be having about as much fun as one heading to a root canal procedure.
Sure, he was wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, but there were no specific shoutouts to a near-hometown crowd. No inside jokes. When he addressed the crowd, which he did in a limited way in the first place, speeches heard at other concerts made a reappearance.
Children provide a spark
The one exception to Bieber's blasé demeanour were his interactions with the smallest of fans. When a group of kid dancers joined him for the performance of Children, he asked them all to say their names and high-fived them; perhaps the sole spot in the night where he seemed genuinely happy.
It was another encapsulation of Bieber, an artist at a crossroads. On the one hand, here he was, trying to present himself as what he sees as an adult: his arms covered in tattoos, his sound drenched in EDM, a pastiche of renaissance statues and rap videos flashing on the screen behind him.
On the other, there was Bieber, the guy onstage who still most readily identifies with his youngest of fans: those who don't ask much of him, who won't send mean tweets and who are just happy to sing along. When he addressed the littlest Beliebers tenderly, you couldn't help but wonder if he's also giving a bit of TLC to his younger self: the one who shot onto the world stage at 14 with a song in his heart and all kinds of expectations on his shoulders.
Don't stop Beliebing
And perhaps it's their own sentimental ties to younger Bieber — for many of them, the first concert they attended — that keeps his fans going no matter what personal crises their idol may be going through, no matter how onerous their affection may be to him. If he seemed "not into it" at some points in the show, they certainly didn't seem to notice: they were too busy singing and dancing.
For the social media generation, Bieber's confessions about his struggles with fame appear to make him relatable, not off-putting.
"He's really transparent about the issues that any teenager has growing up in this industry," said fan Emily Stewart, while leaving the show.
"I actually respect it quite a bit when he says, 'You know what I've done stuff in the past, I get flack for it but it's who I am as a person.' I think we've all been there."
As the massive Purpose world tour rolls on, Justin Bieber may still have some soul searching to do to find his truth as an artist and a person. But his fans already found their purpose: supporting him.
Justin Bieber performs his second Toronto show on Thursday. Having already played Vancouver and Montreal, he moves onto shows in Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon in June.