Why strain your eyes on a music blog when you can just tune your ears to the sound of 71 million cheering Beliebers? Justin Bieber's star has been so powerful for so long that he needs no critical praise. But some of the world's most-read music publications, including historical champions of the underground, and global rockist strongholds have already thrust his newest songs atop their best-of-2015 lists. Pitchfork even reviewed the 21-year-old Stratford, Ont. native's new record, Purpose – it scored a middling 6.2, but it was still the first review of his career.
Some of this has to do with the company Bieber's been keeping. He and his star-making manager Scooter Braun have long tapped into a rich Rolodex for producers and co-writers. But on Purpose, the redemption-themed album released last month, Bieber enlisted several collaborators who, like him, are reinventing or creating their own pop narratives. There is Skrillex, for whom Purpose is his latest effort to shift from guttural EDM rumbles to more ethereal production; Blood Diamonds, an occasional Grimes and Madonna collaborator enjoying huge mainstream attention; and Poo Bear, earning public recognition after nearly 20 years of pop songwriting, including for 112 and Usher.
Their contributions and narratives have intertwined with Bieber's to help him lift Purpose from Another Top-Selling Justin Bieber Album to Critically Acclaimed Top-Selling Justin Bieber Album. So an acoustic Bieber concert, then, would be a test of his true mettle. Stripped of new collaborators and their acclaimed production, that protective armour that fuels so much of Purpose's feel-good sound, can Bieber still hold his own?
Yes, it turns out, because doing so fuels the very narrative arc his new sound has helped build.
At Toronto's Danforth Music Hall Monday night, Bieber offered an uncalculated-sounding, sometimes shaky but largely charming acoustic performance in front of 1,500 rabid fans who paid $100 (or significantly more) for the privilege. Many more lined up for hours in the cold, sometimes given promotional Virgin Radio and Wind Mobile toques, only to find out they wouldn't get in. Proceeds went to the Stratford House of Blessing, a food bank and centre for people in need whose services Bieber's mother used when he was a child.
Accompanied by his guitarist Dan Kanter, the superstar singer blasted through nearly 20 songs, largely from Purpose but dipping into a handful of his classic and Christmas songs, plus Drake, Ne-Yo, Tracy Chapman and Beatles covers for good measure.
"Goddamn Canada, y'all get your hands together," he greeted the audience before heading for a stool next to Kanter. Wearing a cream hoodie, long white T-shirt and black skinny jeans torn at the knee – the pants that will define 2015 to future generations whether we like it or not – he sat down and opened with the unfailingly catchy multiplatinum single What Do You Mean.
It was a fine rendition, and a sign of what to come – still catchy, still all hooks, though missing the bounce that makes the recording so insatiable. But that's not really what he was here for. Next came I'll Show You, on which Kanter traded Skrillex's airy chorus for finger-picked guitar, giving it the improbable air of a country song. And it could very well be a country song – Bieber sings of the pressures of life, learning things the hard way, and of rebounding. That kind of narrative flavours all of Purpose, which has been framed, much like his Comedy Central Roast earlier this year, as a comeback, a search for redemption after a long stretch of misbehaviour.
What better way to show humility, then, than to strip away the very things that built you back up? This was a return to Bieber's origins, after all – to him and a guitar, just like his humble early days on YouTube. He's done this before, for whole records and shows, but this time around, he had redemption on his mind. For much of the set, it could have been any pretty-talented singer-songwriter showcasing tunes with better hooks than anyone else in the room could write or sing. The difference was how Bieber held the crowd in his hands while showcasing some humanity, warts and all.
On Baby, about halfway through the 90-minute show, he let the audience do the work for nearly a third of the song. He later performed Trust a capella, struggling to hit a few notes, but keeping the crowds rapt regardless. His stage banter wavered from unfettering enthusiasm to the kind of short, clipped sentences you'd expect from an exasperated young man expected to perform to impossible expectations. But he never lost the audience, even through a couple of moments of hard-to-root-for stubbornness, including a profane lyric slip-up and his noticeable disappointment after finding out Kanter couldn't accompany him on Trust.
The acclaim surrounding Purpose is certainly deserved. It's a wonderful pop achievement. But take away everything that lifts it to such soaring heights, and it still wouldn't change Bieber for his Beliebers. He'd still have his 71 million Twitter followers. In contrast, look at his labelmate Carly Rae Jepsen, whose new album Emotion earned wild acclaim this year but had reportedly dismal sales. The narrative that the Bieber machine constructed has worked, acclaim or not. His singles became Billboard No. 1s and Purpose broke streaming records. The fans were already with him for the long game.
To open Purpose, Bieber sings "Mark my words – that's all that I have." It's ostensibly a plea to his ex Selena Gomez, but it invariably points out the power of his words alone. Of course he'll remain beloved when stripped of the stylings that brought him new critical acclaim. He never needed critics in the first place.