concert reviews

My Mama Don’t Like You: Justin Bieber at Barclays Center

I debated whether or not to buy a ticket to Justin Bieber’s New York tour for months. It was a big financial decision. Or as a co-worker said the day after when I walked into the office in a Bieber tee, “I hope that wasn’t expensive!” Newsflash: pop concerts are not cheap, particularly when everyone on StubHub sells tickets at $150 over the original value for all those of us who couldn’t buy them the day they were released due to work, funds, life. However, I knew I desperately needed the momentary reprieve that a night of Bieber and “What Do You Mean?” could give.

2016 has already been a rough year for us all. We’ve endured the loss of Bowie and Prince, survived another winter, and, if you’re like me, departed work a little more world-weary with each passing day. I bought the ticket to Justin Bieber in hopes of celebrating his revival (yes, Selena Gomez’s not the only one) and hoping for my own.

No one can deny the ascent of Justin Bieber on last year’s charts. His crossover appeal has seen such a rise that Urban Outfitters now sells “vintage” men’s tees of his baby face (I loathe these shirts. Men can continue owning Metallica tees for all I care.). It’s been ok’d by Complex and Pitchfork to indulge in Bieber’s musings. I’ve always been a Bieber fan musically, but I’ve been on the fringe of his fandom. I will defend “Die In Your Arms” until the end of time, but I’ve never quite seen the appeal of his locks or tattoos. I already have my fandom (One Direction), and it takes up more than enough of my time and money. Yet in light of their hiatus, I knew I had the savings to allow for one night of carefree dancing and swaying to “No Sense” and “Love Yourself”. The price of admission was entirely worth it once Bieber sat on a velvet sofa and sang you think I’m crying on my own, well I ain’t to a reverent audience.

Upon arrival at Barclays, I immediately made the mistake of purchasing a tee outside of the arena only to discover my favorite shirt inside after four steps into the arena. $80 and two tees later, I trudged past the merchandise only to discover the beer lounge immediately to my right. I’ll be honest: I plopped myself there for the first two openers alongside wine moms and Bud Light dads. I was here for Justin and Justin alone. I made sure to charge my phone, and watched as gleeful teens in a uniform of ripped black jeans and tank tops made their way to their seats. I lusted after a Saint Laurent jacket that walked by on a young teen and watched the number of Calvin Klein merch bags grow in number. I was pleased to see that most of the people in attendance were still the young women who had been there since the beginning. Pop airwaves might be drowned in “Sorry” and “What Do You Mean?”, but among the fans paying for tickets are the same women who attended the Believe Tour.

The tour opened with Purpose’s album opener, “Mark My Words.” Singing from the middle of a glass box, fists and face pressed against the glass, Justin Bieber sang Mark my words, that’s all that I have / Mark my words, give you all I got. After the spiral of the last few years, Purpose begins with a hushed promise.  There was a reliance on the stark images of Justin on top of a metaphorical mountain on stage, the slope of the stage. He climbed the inclined stage as he did the charts—effortlessly.

The concert kicked into gear when Bieber came back out, the box descending into the depths of Barclays Center, to perform “Where Are Ü Now”, the smash hit remix of 2015. “Where Are Ü Now” has been remixed for the tour, and Bieber effortlessly carried out killer dance moves alongside his vocals. Singing to us fans, he pleaded, I need you, you, you, you, you, you / You, you, you / I need you the most.

It’s impossible to separate the narrative of the relationship between Selena Gomez and Justin from Purpose. He confronts the tabloid culture of his breakdown on “I’ll Show You”, singing My life is a movie and everyone’s watching / So let’s get to the good part and past all the nonsense… Much like his continued appearances on James Corden, striving to show his heart, his humanity, Justin just wants us all to focus on the beats and lyrics. He wants us to focus on his craft and not the spectacle. I’m not made out of steel / Don’t forget that I’m human, don’t forget that I’m real… It can be hard to remember that the celebrities we see on Tumblr and Twitter exist outside of our browsers. “I’ll Show You” asks us to look for the man behind the music. Act like you know me, but you never will… As I stood there, swaying and spilling beer, I thought of all those meet and greets Bieber had cancelled due to sapped energy. The distance between us and Bieber grows daily as the magnitude of his celebrity engulfs him, but lyrically we’ve never known him better. Bieber, the singer, is trying to let us in. He just wants to set the limits. He just wants to show us, under the lights of an arena.

Bieber went on to perform “The Feeling,” his collaboration with Halsey, and the instant classic “Boyfriend”. The arena joyously sang along to the slick vocal magic of “Boyfriend,” which is just as massive as it was in 2012. It’s still exhilarating to sing along to Chillin’ by the fire while we eatin’ fondue / I don’t know about me but I know about you.

I was happiest to hear “Love Yourself.” There’s no arguing with the brilliance of the lyric my mama don’t like you and she likes everyone. By pairing up with Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber wrote the first song off Purpose that might not actually be aimed at Selena or his fame. This isn’t an apology, but a declaration. The kiss-off that I’m happy to add to my pop arsenal is you should go and love yourself. Even better, in a year of self-care, the shortened love yourself. Ed Sheeran knows how to write a ballad, and this track allows Bieber to do what he does best: quite simply, sing. I’ve loved watching Bieber take this song around the world. The presentation in concert was minimal, which allowed for the track to find its true depth. Anyone who has watched the concert film Believe knows that Bieber’s tours of old were about bombast, cinema, and flair. The Purpose Tour smartly contains itself. It’s not as interested in the staging as it is in Justin’s restoration. Sure, there are dancers; but at times there is just Justin, the man, alone on stage. Nearly consumed by the lights, we get to watch him apologize and resurrect the career he nearly imploded.

Thankfully, the last half of the concert retained old hits “As Long As You Love Me” and “Baby”, while adding  “Purpose” and “What Do You Mean?”

It’s interesting how “Baby” in 2016 retains its desperation:

And I’m in pieces, baby fix me
And just shake me ‘til you wake me from this bad dream
I’m going down, down, down, down
And I just can’t believe my first love won’t be around…

At the height of his fame, Justin still is in pieces. He still can’t believe his first love won’t be around. Week after week, we get continued Instagram posts where Justin reflects on his history with Selena. While she was seen crumpling a sign calling for her to marry Justin earlier last week on her Revival Tour, Justin seems intent on hanging onto the past.  “Baby”, a breakout pop hit, feels just as relevant to Justin’s history and headspace now as it did in 2010. The song now carries the weight of his real true love, the media backlash, and the continued desire to connect with millions of people through music.

I am still speechless that Bieber performed “Children.” The track dragged. If I’d been in need of another 20-oz beer this would have been the time.

I’d like to remind you to not leave during his drum solo, a pulsating reminder of the talent behind every changing hairstyle (thankfully, he cut the cornrows before Barclays so I could attend in good conscience). The encore of the night was, of course, “Sorry”. As we grabbed our coats and threw away our beers, Justin wanted us to remember that he wanted to redeem himself. Justin, in my opinion, consider yourself absolved.

Setlist:

Mark My Words
Where Are Ü Now (Jack Ü cover) (Purpose Tour remix)
Get Used To It
I’ll Show You
The Feeling
Boyfriend
Cry Me A River (Timberlake cover)
Love Yourself
Been You
Company
No Sense
Hold Tight
No Pressure
As Long As You Love Me
Justin Bieber Drum Solo
U Smile
Children
Life Is Worth Living
What Do You Mean?
Baby
Purpose

Encore:
Sorry

On Being Yourself and Who That Is: the 1989 World Tour in Denver

It still doesn’t feel real. It didn’t feel real driving there; it didn’t feel real in line. I was drinking margaritas out of a neon cup and I bought her seagull sweater and it didn’t feel real, Vance Joy said, “Are you all excited to see Taylor?” and I screamed and clapped and it didn’t feel real. And then the lights went down and she came up out of the floor and I laid eyes on the physical human form of Taylor Swift for the first time in my life. And I started crying.

TOUR SPOILERS BELOW!

I can’t tell you what it was like, really, but I’ll try. It was loud and there were flashing lights; she gave us all bracelets and they lit up in time to the music, different colors, different patterns, and it felt like we were inside of a disco ball, underwater in some incredible glowing ocean. She talked to us, she called us by name, she said Denver, Denver, you look so beautiful. I watched the screens sometimes but I was so drawn to her actual self, her physical body down there on the catwalk, tiny and glittering but so real. So real. I have seen her face more times than I can count, I dream about her, I know her smiles and the way she tilts her head and so it was almost more important for me to be able to look at her small distant figure, dancing. She is a real human person and all of her was contained in a physical space that also contained me and that is still really strangely impossible for me to process. There’s an episode of Bob’s Burgers that says your hero isn’t supposed to be someone your own age, and I’m sorry, but that’s wrong, it’s just wrong. Taylor Swift is a woman my age and she is life-size in the most literal way, she is the size of a normal human person, she fills a finite amount of space, and yet she is so much of my everything. She is so massive, she fills my sky.
The show itself was incredible; she did a few numbers from past albums and she did them in a way that was entirely 1989 – I won’t lie, I will never get over the fact that I didn’t get to see the RED tour live, but having said that – there’s something about “We Are Never Getting Back Together” as a hard-rock thrasher that eased that ache a little. Something about “Trouble” as a smoky, sultry ballad that helped fill that void. She mostly did 1989, obviously, and she sang everything I needed from her – she sang “Clean”, she sang “New Romantics”, she sang “Out of the Woods” and giant paper airplanes soared and circled above her. She talked to us, and I know she talks to everyone but I also know that that doesn’t mean it isn’t real, that she doesn’t mean it. She said isn’t it funny, you know, that all thirteen thousand of your paths crossed here, tonight, with mine. She said you all heard something in my music that made you feel better, feel okay, feel like you needed to be here tonight. She said everyone tells you a lot of things all the time, things about who you are and who you’re supposed to be and what’s cool, and she said I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna tell you some things you are not, and some things you are. She said you are not the opinion of someone who doesn’t know you. She said you are not damaged goods because you have made mistakes. She said you are not going nowhere because you haven’t gotten to your final destination. And then she said you are stronger and braver and wiser because you have made mistakes. You are worthy of love.
I think people sometimes forget that Taylor Swift is a person – I think it’s easy to do because she is more than the sum of her parts. She is a person but she is a person that genuinely cares about everyone, that wears makeup going into the gym and leaving it, that makes mistakes and loves Ethel Kennedy and says stupid things sometimes. And all of these things coalesce into like, a weird list of attributes that are Taylor Swift the celebrity but are also just, like, Taylor Swift the human. And it’s weird to think of someone that famous and clear-skinned as someone who still gets their feelings hurt, who still has low-self-esteem days. And people are very quick to be cruel to celebrities, which is something I’m gonna talk about more when I talk about Justin Bieber and I don’t wanna get too off-track here, but what I’m getting at is this. It is very easy to forget the core of truth in all of Taylor Swift’s work, the part of her that informs everything she has ever written. She is not always talking about herself in her songs but she is always talking from herself, and there is a very specific and very admirable kind of bravery in that, in taking the way that you feel and making it into something that other people can understand and relate to. Laying yourself bare that way, it’s transcendent. So Taylor Swift is up there and she’s telling us she loves us, and she’s twenty-five and she’s beautiful and she is real, she is flesh and blood and I can see her hair and her shoes and I am so, so grateful for her.
I’ve been feeling sort of disconnected from Taylor, is the thing – I love this album, and this era, and I love the glitter and the crop tops and the girlsquad. But I don’t feel understood by 1989 in the way that I have always felt understood by Taylor Swift’s music; I don’t feel sucker-punched by the recognition of my own heart. There are moments of that, to be sure, but I feel like, I dunno, the easiest way to describe it is that I feel like 1989 Taylor Swift is too cool for me. And that was how I felt even as I loved it, until Saturday night. Something really, truly, genuinely magical happened on Saturday night, and I feel so undeserving of it because I doubted her, you know, I started to feel disenchanted, and it was like she fucking saw into my heart, saw what I needed.
She had on her guest outfit, you know the one, the white one that she’s wearing in the pictures of her with XYZ guest of the night. And I thought okay, the guest is coming, I hope it’s not Ed Sheeran, and then she walked out to the end of the catwalk with an acoustic guitar. And she’s standing there strumming the guitar, and she’s talking to us, and she says, “I know a lot of you out there are going back to school soon,” and I was already crying at that point but I started sobbing then, started crying big ugly heaving hiccuping sobs, because I knew I knew and I hoped and I was so afraid that I was wrong, and then she played “Fifteen”. And I bawled and I sang and maybe I’m fooling myself but I’m pretty sure she had tears in her eyes. And just like that I realized that she is still Taylor Swift, still the same girl inside that she’s always been. The person that she is now is Taylor Swift, and she is informed by that, informed by everything that she has done and experienced and created up to now, and she’s twenty-five and beautiful and she’s not scared of anything, and she sings “Fifteen” and she means it, and I get it. I get it. I cried so hard I thought I might die, and I was trying not to because I wanted to be able to see her, out there on the catwalk, alone above the crowd. Taylor Swift is so fucking brave, okay, I don’t know if you have considered lately the loneliness of being the only one on a stage, of being the only one walking out of your apartment into the crowd of photographers, but I was struck again watching her by how very, very brave she is. “Fifteen” was the only song she played from an older album that she didn’t revamp in some way, to make it more 1989, and this is what I think, because she didn’t bring out a guest: she was her own guest. Seventeen-year-old Taylor Swift came out to play a song for us and she’s still here, you know, she’s in Taylor and she’s in all of us. And then she walked down to the other end of the catwalk to a keyboard and she said, “You know, when I was 17 I didn’t really know what love was, I hadn’t ever really experienced it, but I knew what I thought it should be…” and then she played “Love Story” and her face lit up just like it always has, just like it always will, when she sang Marry me Juliet you’ll never have to be alone, that sweet joyful smile cracking her face open, and she was every Taylor Swift that has ever been, and every one that will ever be. I was at the mall buying a hat and I saw a little girl trying on a flower crown, and her mom said, “Oh, that’s perfect, you’ll look just like Taylor,” and the little girl said, “Yeah, old Taylor,” and I laughed to myself because I got it but now I don’t know. I think you put on personalities and shed them and grow and evolve and change but you are always you, however you are, because you are! That is such a stupid sentence, I’m so sorry, but it’s what I mean. A picture of you at your best is a picture of you; you in your flower-crown era is you in your high-waisted shorts era is you in your curls and your cowboy boots is you in a glittery catsuit. We are all a hall of mirrors reflecting infinitely inward and outward and I guess I needed Taylor Swift to remind me of that.
She did “Shake It Off” last, of course she did, and I finally stopped crying. What a perfect thing, what a perfect expression of joy, what a perfect encapsulation of everything she has become and is still becoming. Shake it off, shake it off, a sea of flashing lights and different colors and everyone screaming and jumping and laughing. She had on glittery pink shoes and she thrashed her hair and she smiled so, so big, and I loved her so much I thought my heart would burst. She is so much to me. She is a perfectly constructed being, a crystalline princess with a business acumen so sharp it cuts, a sometimes-flawed human, a girl who loves cats and baking and dancing badly. She is all of these things that seem to contradict each other but they don’t, they can’t, because they all exist within her. Constructing yourself, telling your own story, creating your own narrative – this is the realest thing you can do, this taking control of the iteration of yourself. You navigate the hall of mirrors that is yourself, you tell stories to make sense of your own experiences. You construct yourself and in that construction you become something real and raw and genuine.
 I shared a space with Taylor Swift for two and a half hours on a Saturday night, breathing the same air, singing the same words, and it was magic in a way that I still can’t really pin down, can’t look at too directly. It was so healing, it was something I needed in my soul and I didn’t even realize how badly until it was given to me. She has given me so much, of herself but also of me, somehow. She has helped me become even as she has been becoming, and both of us are still changing and growing and becoming more, and she doesn’t know me and she doesn’t need me, but she loves me, and she understands me, and that is everything. The bracelet lights up if you shake it, and mine is living now in a box on my dresser for when I need it, a tiny, tangible reminder that once my path crossed Taylor Swift’s, that once she was aware of me personally, even as a tiny dot of light in a vast ocean. She was there when I needed her; she always will be.