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Justin Bieber, despite large-scale presence, offers a slight performance at the United Center

JustBieber performing United Center Chicago Tuesday July 9 2013. |  Chandler West ~ For Sun-Times Media

Justin Bieber performing at the United Center in Chicago on Tuesday, July 9, 2013. | Chandler West ~ For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 10, 2013 1:40AM



Girls screamed, of course, to the volume of a Learjet taking flight. But to whom they directed their screams gave them a 10-minute countdown on a video screen to make sure their noise jettisoned — full throttle — the second he stepped onstage.

Make that floated. Justin Bieber, the global megastar and social media juggernaut, entered the United Center on Tuesday to the sound of Wagnerian opera while attached to a steampunk-looking contraption outfitted with wings. Above us, he floated slowly down, clad entirely in white. Upon arrival, he stood, slowly rotating his head to gaze at all of us from beneath his black Ray-Bans.

What was he thinking? “How long until I get back to the hotel?” “I wish I didn’t eat that taco?” “Did I remember to turn the oven off?”

We will never know.

No, Bieber’s entrance wasn’t subtle, but nothing about this 19-year-old’s rise to fame and tween mega-adulation has been since he was discovered on YouTube, ushered to stardom by Usher, and transitioned to tabloid fodder, thanks to a rotation of celebrity girlfriends, tussles with paparazzi and a pet monkey.

This stop, one of dozens on his “Believe” world tour that started last year, featured about 80 minutes of Bieber on video, and then put him atop several platforms, one riser and an elongated cherry picker that swept him over the crowd as he toyed with a black guitar slung over his shoulder. Despite his large-scale presence, buoyed by technology and stage construction, what Bieber offered on his own was actually quite slight.

The show did not dwell as much on his voice or dance moves, because both were tightly controlled, or not present at all. Lip-synching through choreographed dance sequences, bettered by a troupe of eight dancers, is somewhat excusable, but what about “Die in Your Arms,” a self-professed “old school” soul ballad Bieber mimed through the end? Old school, if Milli Vanilli are instructors, not the Temptations.

The hassle of actually conveying real vocals was instead reserved for the time after some songs ended. Then Bieber often reprised the melody, impressively singing a cappella, almost in respect to his early days as a hungry amateur in YouTube videos shot by his mother. Zooming from then to now became a major theme of the night. Many of those YouTube videos were resurrected as nostalgia — is four years too soon? — and Bieber relied on them to suggest how far he’s come.

Which is, not so far. Due to the demands of his celebrity, Bieber appeared to have little choice but to deliver the requisite mega-stadium show that is designed to protect the main attraction with dance and video sequences that often feel overly mechanical. Bieber, who often dances in place, or through his neck, shoulders and arms, and for whom overly choreographed movements do not come easily, did not adapt well. Instead, what might otherwise come across as sexy, mischievous or even dangerous, appeared rigid, cold and perfunctory.

When he did come to life, it was during slower moments, when he sang alone, or with sparse accompaniment from his six-piece band. The ballads “As Long as You Love Me” or “Fall” were the best reminders why he stood out in the first place.

Or he looked more like a natural when he slipped into his most familiar groove: a kid. He teased the crowd with his water bottle, practiced flipping his microphone stand four times before getting it right, and solicited squeals by throwing off his jacket, not once, but four separate times throughout the night. Worked the first time, so why not do it again?

Then came his finest moment: Less than a minute of spontaneous drumming at his own kit. For a performer who looked chained to follow the same script for almost a year, for once, had nothing to prove and looked joyfully unencumbered.

Like teen idols before his time, Bieber proves that his ultimate appeal may be his megawatt smile, cherubic face and puppy dog charisma, an alluring combination that means being in the same room with him is satisfaction enough. It certainly was for Molly Arends, 13, from Grand Island, Neb., who traveled eight hours for the show, her fourth, with her mother.

“He’s my idol, I’d do anything for him,” she said before the show, explaining why she came the distance.

“And she’s spoiled,” her mother added, laughing.

Didn’t matter. By the time Bieber sailed above their head on that cherry picker, both had their hands in the air hoping to catch his eye.

Mark Guarino is a Chicago-based journalist. Email: mguchicago@gmail.com.



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