Introducing his anthemic "Never Say Never" during a New York City concert on Tuesday night, teenage pop sensation Justin Bieber barked through a litany of stock affirmations, extolling the value of self-confidence and determination to the assembled thousands of shrieking preteen girls who—we were to believe—were exactly the same as him with regard to aspiration and potential. But in Bieber's last example—"There's gonna be times in your life when people say you can't sell out Madison Square Garden"—came the unnecessary confirmation that the diminutive idol actually isn't just like us. As the name of his current tour ("My World") spells out, we're all eking out a living for the privilege of sharing Planet Bieber.
Not that we haven't had our share of laughs along the way—and by we, I mean all of us who don't hang on Bieber's every utterance and move. We chuckle at his boyish bangs and his unconvincing hip-hop verbal tics. We roll our eyes at his Twitter ubiquity, and enjoy his songs slowed down into codeine tranquility. We more or less consistently write Bieber off as a joke—which just proves that most of us haven't watched him at work. Turns out it's pretty close to impossible to come away from one of his shows unswayed by his enthusiasm, vigor, sincerity and, yes, actual talent, all of which were on display in abundance during his sold-out MSG hit on Tuesday.
At least twice during a lengthy show filmed for an upcoming 3-D movie release, we saw home-video montages showing that Bieber has been making music since he was a super-adorable tadpole in school-photo-dreadful haircuts. Throughout the concert he sang with a slightly raspy tone and a winning eagerness, and mimed convincingly during bits of more-complex choreography. (That his adolescent voice is currently cracking made it clear what was what). Amid a cadre of breathtaking hip-hop dancers, Bieber performed robotic gestures with a gangly enthusiasm. He strapped himself into metal cages—a disco ball, a framework heart, a space egg—to soar over the crowd. Wrapped in a harness during "Somebody to Love," he walked straight up a skyscraper backdrop, turning flips in midair at the penthouse. He played acoustic guitar and piano respectably, and ended a lengthy feature for his band with a competent drum solo.
This being both New York City and a film shoot, Bieber stepped up his game that much more. When Boyz II Men came out during "U Smile," the first in a string of unannounced guest spots, you winced that the hit-making trio was reduced to backing a child star—and then you were won over by Bieber's respect, which extended to an a cappella verse of "On Bended Knee" dedicated to Bieber's mom (seated just off stage left).
New Bieber bestie Kanye West skipped the show, though the singer slyly smuggled a verse from Kanye's "Heartless" into "Favorite Girl." But Usher showed up next during "Somebody to Love." Then, in a showstopping moment, Miley Cyrus emerged from a mist for Bieber's torchy "Overboard," her form-fitting black ensemble, high boots and sophisticated new haircut assuring that Bieber's come-hither gestures looked like clumsy pawing. (Bieber's got a ways to go before he'll make for a convincing romantic lead, a point underscored by his awkward serenade to an apoplectic fan brought onstage during "One Less Lonely Girl.")
Jaden Smith, actor-rapper son of Will "Fresh Prince" Smith, stormed out to spit a verse in "Never Say Never." Sean Kingston was less a romantic rival than a cuddly big brother to Bieber in their current single, "Eenie Meenie." (Kingston's own 40-minute opening set offered a fast-paced tally of his bubbly reggae-lite hits, smooth moves from protégé Iyaz and the uncomfortable if oddly appropriate spectacle of hearing thousands of preteen girls sing the "suicidal, suicidal" refrain in "Beautiful Girls.") And during "Baby," Bieber's inevitable encore, Ludacris bounded out to perform his part from the record.
How well Bieber will negotiate the hurdles of postadolescent fame remains to be seen, but there was plenty here to indicate that he's more than just a passing fad. And anyway, you had to appreciate the work ethic and chutzpah of the first boy idol since Peter Brady willing to weather the agony of voice crack in public. The last word came in an exit tunnel as we left the Garden: "That was way better than the Jonas Brothers," one young expert asserted, her sniffy tone brooking no debate. How quickly they grow up.
Bigger U Smile (with Boyz II Men)
On Bended Knee (with Boyz II Men)
Never Let You Go
One Less Lonely Girl
Stuck in the Moment (on video)
Somebody to Love (with Usher)
Overboard (with Miley Cyrus)
Never Say Never (with Jaden Smith)
backing vocalists' medley
That Should Be Me
dancers' spotlights / Walk This Way riff (with band solos)
Eenie Meenie (with Sean Kingston)
Down to Earth
Encore: Baby (with Ludacris)
Most of the purported MSG videos posted on YouTube this morning are actually from elsewhere—during the Boyz II Men–less "U Smile," you actually hear Bieber say, "C'mon, Toronto"—but here's a genuine fan-shot clip of Miley Cyrus's dramatic guest appearance in "Overboard." A note of warning: Turn the audio down before the singing starts, or risk having your eardrum perforated by one especially ecstatic fan.