To promote the release of his new album, Purpose, pop sensation and controversial figure Justin Bieber hosted a live event at the Toyota Center Thursday night, promising a live Q&A, special guests and a video premier. The album came out last Friday and served as his attempt for legitimacy as a modern pop/R&B star. Purpose itself is a mixed bag of collaborations including a sweeping trop-house offering with Skrilex and attempts at soulful R&B that often miss the mark with artists like Halsey, Big Sean and Houston’s own Travis Scott. As a whole, it is an intriguing step for Bieber, and its high points, like singles “Sorry” and “What Do You Mean,” are some of the strongest pop songs of the year.
The new direction comes after his underrated compilation of R&B singles, Journals, and a year in which the star became entangled in multiple scandals: the emergence of controversial videos he made as a teenager to multiple arrests on charges of vandalism, DUI, assault and reckless driving. He attempted to rehabilitate his image through talk show appearances and Comedy Central roasts, but they came across as fake.
Musically, the perception of the young pop star began to shift in March when he was featured on Skrillex and Diplo's Jack U project single “Where Are U Now," which utilized the EDM's following to reach an audience that may not have paid attention to Bieber before.
The Toyota Center stop came at the tail end of an intense publicity run that pushed the album to number one on the Billboard charts leap frogging contemporaries One Direction, whose latest album came out on the same day. The Houston stop along with similar events in New York and Chicago, marks an elaborate publicity stunt typically reserved for artist with less star power than Bieber, and an interesting way to promote the new record.
At 6 p.m., the unusually early advertised start time, the venue was sparsely populated and it was announced he start time would be pushed back an hour to allow people stuck in Houston traffic time to arrive. The crowd skewed young—teens and college age kids who were tweens and adolescents in Bieber's early days—an audience that has grown up with him. The majority were young women, the most loyal fan base a young pop icon could hope for. The amount of genuine excitement was striking and a good reminder that those who dismiss the loyalty of teenage girls overlook the most passionate group of music lovers around.
There were also a fair share of children in the audience, which would have made sense five years ago, but less so now that Bieber’s music is attempting to take a “mature” turn. The longest lines came not from walking inside Toyota Center, but from the merch tables, which featured memorabilia that “might” be signed by Bieber.
While waiting, the crowd became antsy, singing along with pre-recorded music, chanting, screaming and sprinting towards the artist entrance at the slightest hit of activity including the appearance of a lone security guard. Roula from pop radio station KRBE & DJ J-Que from 97.9 the Box served as hosts and moderators when it came to fan questions.
When Bieber came out to deafening applause, he sat down with his manager for a rehearsed “interview,” where Bieber spoke on a variety of topics including his album title which he described as, "a moment for me to share something beautiful for the world. For a moment I felt like I lost my purpose, but I found it,” he said. On working with Skrillex, Bieber explained, “We made something that came really from the heart that will bring light to people and bring hope.” And he gave shout outs to the people featured on the album, conspicuously leaving out Scott.
That fan questions were the most interesting part of the evening even if Bieber's answers felt canned. One genuine moment came when he responded to a fan asking for a message to people with depression.“No one knows what you’re going through," he said, "But as long as you know there are better days ahead of you, and you spent time with people who encourage you, at the end of the day, that’s all you can do.”
He told a funny story about fans who snuck backstage at a show, hid in a trashcan and were almost crushed when the garbage truck came to pick it up; and said if he could collaborate with anyone dead or alive, it would be Michael Jackson.
Things got a bit more entertaining as it went on, with one fan asking if she could have his babies, and another bringing up hockey trash talk. The funniest moment was when someone asked him what his favorite part of Houston. "When Yao Ming played here," he said.
The Q&A ended conveniently with a fan asking if Bieber could play a song. He responded by bringing a musician onstage with an acoustic guitar and dove into a stripped-down version of “What Do You Mean.” From there, he surprised the audience with an 8-song acoustic set, giving fans more than their money’s worth at $24 a ticket. Even with a simple set-up of him mostly sitting on a stool, he had a commanding stage presence, alternating between newer songs like “I’ll Show You” and the gloriously petty “Love Yourself;” and older hits like “As Long As You Love Me” and “Boyfriend.”
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He continued his tradition of bringing a girl onstage to sing “One Less Lonely Girl," pointing at a girl in the audience, but when security guards brought the wrong person, Bieber stopped them. “No not that one, the one in front of her,” he said, no doubt crushing one fan’s dreams, but creating an inadvertently funny moment in the process.
Bieber finished his set with a rendition of his latest hit single, “Sorry,” arguably the best song on the album, then left the stage well before 8 p.m. as the screen above the arena played music videos for each song on Purpose.
There are those who are dismissive of Bieber, and he does himself no favors with his persona and emotionally manipulative songs, but there is no denying his confidence and allure as a performer. Purpose may not be his best work, but it feels like a turning point which may begin to get people to take him seriously as an artist. Unlike imitators, who try desperately to be at the top of the pop game, Bieber knows his status and makes it look effortless, even when he puts his foot in his mouth.
The evening promised to be interesting, but ended up surprisingly entertaining. Most importantly, he gave thousands of adoring fans a night that will not soon forget. He may not be the role model he thinks he is, but there’s no denying his talent or the impact he has on the Bielebers.