The bangs are gone. So is the bubblegum pop. Justin Bieber is growing up.
But the 18-year-old heartthrob (who doesn't look a day over 15) still has what makes him special. On "American Idol," they call it "IT." Simon Cowell calls it the "X factor." Biebs himself calls it "swag." You and I might call it star-quality or charisma.
On Saturday night at instantly sold-out Target Center, Bieber boasted "all you gotta do is swag" during "Out of Town Girl," and as he sang that line he turned a hand-held video camera on himself, first fussing with his gelled upturned hair and then exploring his tiny arm tattoo. Sixteen thousand girls went wild!
After that song, Bieber chatted up three girls standing at his feet. "Do I remember you from the mall?" he asked them, repeating their question. "Oh, you're brides," he said, noticing their crowns with white veils and ballerina skirts. "You gotta a ring from me? Then you and me are married." Rod Stewart's got nothing on you, Justin Bieber.
The kid is a smoothie, a real charmer, a hopeless flirt who knows when to take off his vest and when to grab his crotch, when to croon a sappy lyric in a cherry picker cruising over the crowd and how to lead his 26-year-old opening act Carly Rae Jepsen around the stage, holding hands and duetting on her "Beautiful." He knows how to scurry along the runway and slap hands with fans and when to bring a girl onstage to sing to her ("One Less Lonely Girl") and then walk off, hand in hand.
He knows how to tell his fans that he wrote a song "for you, about you" ("Believe"). He knows to call his Beliebers "beautiful ladies" and acknowledge the guys in the crowd (all four dozen of them). And he knows how to acknowledge his past (with a cappella renderings of choruses of his oldies) but live in the present (he did almost every song from his best-selling 2012 "Believe" CD).
Widely recognized as the king of social media, Bieber also knows how to put together a razzle-dazzle of a concert. His 100-minute spectacle took its inspiration from Michael Jackson, Usher and even Britney Spears. Well, a PG Britney. Bieber had 12 dancers, a three-level stage, fireworks, flamethrowers, lasers, hydraulics lifts, that cherry picker, lighting trusses all over, video clips of his childhood, TV awards shows and famous haircut, costume changes and one of the grandest entrances ever by a teen idol, by flying from the stage to the runway wearing steam-punk angel wings bigger than he is.
All the bells and whistles couldn't disguise the fact that Bieber is pretty average in the talent department. Yes, he played piano, drums and guitar for a bit, but it was more about swag than musicality. Ditto for his dancing, more swag than smooth or graceful. And his singing, when it was live (there was lip-syncing on some ensemble dance numbers), it was pretty generic. Despite having the sniffles, he tried to find a soulfulness that was really more about -- you guessed it -- swag than heartfelt passion. But when you've got swag, flaunt it.
Twitter: @jonbream • 612-673-1719