By Olivia Isenhart
At some point in your life, you might find yourself at a Justin Bieber show. If you do, watch closely—not just Bieber, but the diehard fans, the haters who bought tickets anyway, the moms who are doggedly supervising, the kids who are posing for selfies in the bathroom. Don’t even overlook the sassy slogans on his tour shirts. Why? Because it’s fascinating. Biebermania is a phenomenon that is still very much alive, regardless of how you feel about the guy at the center of it. And a cultural obsession so potent, polarizing, and at times, utterly confusing, is always worth studying. After all, just mentioning his name will elicit a strong reaction from almost anyone. How does an identity like that come to be? And more importantly, does he secretly kind of love it?
If you found yourself at Justin Bieber’s Madison Square Garden show last night in NYC, you know there was no shortage of people-watching (or soul-searching) one could quietly delve into pre-show. The young fans, many of whom were flaunting “Belieber” beanies, were bouncing with excitement as they munched on popcorn and chatted about the latest Bieber gossip—more often bad than good. Even in those moments, you could start to see the strange intricacies of Biebermania. It’s more complex than a love-to-hate-him, hate-to-love-him dynamic. For his fans, it seems more like a headstrong, we-love-that-everyone-else-hates-him rebellion. In an era of shock value, that kind of makes sense.
Bieber seems to understand that tension well, and plays it up as often as possible. Last night’s performance, drama-free as it was, still felt like a game of who’s going to blink first; as if Bieber’s attitude is simply, “I’m going to do something you hate, and you’re still going to love me. Just watch.” And they do, indeed, love him. His show seems explicitly designed to fight off the longstanding assumptions about him—but at the same time, perpetuate them. The unspoken tug-of-war is constant. You think I’m setting a bad example for kids? Whatever, I’m going to wear a shirt that says “BIGGER THAN SATAN.” You think I’m arrogant? Fine, I’m literally going to float above you in the very first song. You think I’m disconnected from my fans? Okay, then I’ll separate myself from them in an industrial-sealed glass cube. “Bieber in a box!” one fan shouted as he rose up above the crowd in the contraption. The moment it had a name, the stunt felt like a meme. But maybe that’s all part of the plan.
While his singing and dancing was solid, the star still seemed to perform with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. “I think NYC got quieter since the last time I was here,” Bieber complained at one point, though he was quickly repaid in a deluge of screams. Even so, he remained on the defensive, with the unmistakable body language of someone who’s been mauled by critics and paparazzi for most of his existence. Interestingly, he sang a passionate “I’ll Show You” last night, emphasizing lines like “It’s like they want me to be perfect, when they don’t even know I’m hurting,” and “Don’t forget that I’m human, don’t forget that I’m real.” But he sang it amidst all the lasers, pyrotechnics, and special effects money can buy. (In all fairness, “real” is probably a strange concept when you’ve spent your life in the limelight).
It’s still tough to detect whether Justin Bieber is fueled by all the attention, or like those lyrics would suggest, deeply bothered by it. Either way, he’s still doing everything he can to earn some kind of reaction onstage—and his fans are still eating it up. Perhaps there’s a certain thrill to seeing a person do whatever they want at all times, especially somewhere as hallowed as Madison Square Garden. There’s no questioning that Bieber is a rebel. The only mystery is his cause.