April 8, 2016


Get (Fans) Off The Stage: Bieber, 5SOS & Performative Apathy

Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Justin Bieber isn't who he once was. Whatever squeaky-clean image he once held was defenestrated the moment in January 2014 when he was arrested on a DUI charge. He was 19, impossibly rich, overly confident in the face of the law (in the two years prior, Bieber managed to bypass any real trouble, collecting misdemeanors for reckless driving and vandalism). But this was a big red mark. If he were to return to any sort of limelight, he'd have to say he's "Sorry."

And so he did. Purpose is an apology album, to his fans, to his lost love Selena Gomez, to his family, perhaps even to himself. Having a bad boy image? Well, that's an appearance a hell of a lot easier to maintain than actual legal delinquency. It just so happens that Purpose is also a beautiful, complicated pop album, one with three singles bigger than most of 2015's other musical outpouring. It's been an interesting transition to watch, as Bieber's move from problematic teen to earnest young adult has been one with a cool factor partially dependent on mystery.

It's why at the beginning on March, when Biebs removed "One Less Lonely Girl" from his Purpose set list, the subtle move was more than just Justin focusing on his future self—it was him casting away his past. What truly bothered everyone about the gesture was that, when performed live, Bieber used to invite a female fan on stage, from the audience, to serenade her. For a few seconds, there truly was one less lonely girl. Now there's not.

Giving fans just enough and nothing more is a methodology of cool that's been instituted in the indie/underground for so long, but is strange to see in the giant pop arena. It works on paper, but at the detriment to a very large, very prominent group of fans—the ones who love collecting information the most: young people, specifically, young women. The same girls that love "Baby"-era Bieber will remain loyal to him forever, but they crave some illusion of access. They feel like they know the pop star, intimately; they feel they deserve some reciprocation. Purpose-Bieber's mysterious cool guy schtick, to them, can appear lazy and unfortunate, especially when told to get off the stage, to leave that physical space.

It could very well be a move for safety. With new levels of fame come new levels of responsibility, and there's no question why a band like One Direction couldn't do something similar. But Justin has since taken this separation to another level: He's cancelled his daily meet and greets, an event that sets back every participating Belieber $2,000. His reasoning? Depression and exhaustion. He wrote:

"Love u guys.. I'm going to be canceling my meet and greets. I enjoy meeting such incredible people but I end up feeling so drained and filled with so much of other people's spiritual energy that I end up so drained and unhappy.. Want to make people smile and happy but not at my expense and I always leave feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted to the point of depression .. The pressure of meeting people's expectations of what I'm supposed to be is so much for me to handle and a lot on my shoulders. Never want to disappoint but I feel I would rather give you guys the show and my albums as promised. Can't tell you how sorry I am, and wish it wasn't so hard on me.. And I want to stay in the healthy mindset I'm in to give you the best show you have ever seen ;)"

We'd never trivialize the severity of mental difference in any capacity, under any circumstance, but the solution to the missing M&Gs was pretty unsettling: At the first cancelled session, in Las Vegas, Bieber was replaced by a cardboard cutout. Actual paper. If fans wanted a refund, they'd have to forfeit their concert ticket. As you can imagine, it wasn't a popular choice. Surely there has to be some middle ground. The question now becomes, is this a trend? Can we expect the same behavior out of someone like, say, Zayn Malik, whose departure from One Direction has him carrying a similar aloofness-as-maturation aesthetic

It's not just solo pop acts, either. It's much too early to tell if this is a permanent fixture, but 5 Seconds of Summer, too, have stopped bringing fans on stage. At least, they haven't for the Asian and European leg of their current Sounds Live Feels Live tour (the latter of which just began.) It's their second headlining arena world tour, and their first promoting sophomore LP Sounds Good Feels Good. Last year, during their Rock Out With Your Socks Out Tour, the Aussie lads would pull a member from the audience to play guitar with them during the angst anthem "Rejects."

It appears as though the song has been removed from their set list, and with it, the gesture that Green Day made famous. Unlike Bieber, however, 5SOS have a rigorous meet-and-greet schedule, often hosting more than one a day. There's still that sort of intimate, physical space. They also maintain a certain illusion of access, like in their most recent music video for "Jet Black Heart." The short visual manages to democratize the fan experience by placing both the band and the fans on the same platform. But still, that's a different space than the live show setting.

This isn't so much a criticism of deciding not to allow fans on stage, but a questioning of it, and a fear of what it signifies. If it's easier to create a cool-guy mystique by distancing yourself in a physical space, what is lost? It's up the fans to decide if anything is missing, and for now, all we can do is enjoy the show.