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Ariana Grande’s One Love Manchester concert demonstrated the defiant empathy of pop

When music venues are deliberately made unsafe, the fact that pop concerts continue to be held is a statement in itself. 

“This show, more than anything else, was intended to be a safe space for my fans. A place for them to escape, to celebrate, to heal, to feel safe and to be themselves. To meet their friends they’ve made online. To express themselves.” These were the words of the pop artist Ariana Grande after a terror attack at her concert in Manchester resulted in the deaths of 22 people. In the same statement, she announced she would be organising and holding a benefit concert in honour of the victims, and to raise money for their families. One Love Manchester, which went ahead last night, saw an array of musicians pay their respects, including Katy Perry, Little Mix, One Direction’s Niall Horan, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Pharrell, Take That, Robbie Williams, Liam Gallagher – and of course Grande herself.

Benefit concerts are a difficult thing. Often hovering somewhere between indulgent virtue-signalling (with vague goals like “raising awareness”) and genuinely financially valuable work (thanks to the star power often involved), they are, let’s say, unreliable in terms of their actual “benefit”. Even Wikipedia openly flounders with the concept in its basic definition. “Benefit concerts can have both subjective and concrete objectives” the page reads. “Subjective objectives include raising awareness about an issue” such as, quote, “misery in Africa”. Inextricably associated with the atmospheric egos of white knight “fusion philanthropists” (gag), it’s not surprising that charity gigs so often leave us squirming in our seats.

But last night’s One Love Manchester concert would always exist in a very different sphere. The terror attack at Ariana Grande’s concert at the Manchester Arena last month was a specific assault on pop music: its emotion, its liberation, the joy it brings its young, experimenting fan base. To her fans, Ariana Grande concerts are already a site of radical acceptance – as many told me after the attack, her gigs are a place to express themselves. “People were being themselves,” one told me of her most recent concert experience. “If that meant showing up in drag, they did.” But when music venues are deliberately made unsafe, the continued existence of pop concerts take on a defiant posture.

That thousands of people gathered so fearlessly and joyfully in Manchester, so soon after the attacks, is a statement. Like protests and marches, the sheer number of bodies in one place takes on undeniable political significance. If an Ariana Grande concert already celebrates women, children, girls, and LGBTQ youth, then the One Love Manchester concert explicitly rejects violence against these groups. It tells them they are loved, that they have the right to feel safe. The context of the One Love Manchester concert meant its very existence would always be radical. Words of love and the power of music – platitudes at any other benefit – become unquestionably meaningful: gestures of mourning, solidarity and hope in a time of violence and discord.

But this particular concert managed to rise above clichés in content as well as context, as it was so fiercely grounded in the demographics of its audience. So many of the artists performing had a genuine relationship with either teenage fandom, or the Manchester music scene. Many moments demonstrated a keen awareness of the community. Robbie Williams repurposing the lyrics to “Strong”: “Manchester we’re strong… We’re still singing our songs.” The Manchester-based Parrs Wood High School choir singing “My Everything” with Ariana Grande. Justin Bieber leading the crowd in chanting “We honour you, we love you” to the victims of the attack. Liam Gallagher’s rendition of “Live Forever” with its stark lyrics about fearing, and perhaps overcoming, death.

Perhaps the moment that moved me most was Ariana Grande’s vaguely embarrassed giggle before performing her most shamelessly sexual hit, “Side to Side”. “I had the pleasure of meeting Olivia's mummy a few days ago,” she explained, referencing 18-year-old victim Olivia Campbell.  “As soon as I met her I started crying and gave her a big hug. She told me to stop crying as Olivia wouldn’t want me to cry and then she told me Olivia would have wanted to hear the hits.

“So, that being said, we had a totally different show planned and we had a rehearsal yesterday but changed everything.”

Perhaps it can feel inappropriate to perform energetically sexual songs at a concert of mourning and memorial – but when it seems likely that Grande’s music was targeted precisely because of its joyful, unabashed attitude to young women and gay men embracing and feeling empowered by their sexualities, lyrics about a “dick bicycle” and screwing so hard you can’t walk feel amusingly appropriate. This is a concert that never lost sight of the power of laughter and fun “Tonight has been filled with love and fun and bright energy,” Grande gushed. “So thank you for that.”

Pop music’s power lies in its ability to move people in numbers. Pop is judged on popularity and longevity. The greatest pop songs in living memory are the ones that move the biggest number of people – be it to tears or to dancing – repeatedly, over years and even decades. Essentially, pop music lives and dies on its ability to tap in to the feelings of other people – and its ability to bring people together in shared feeling. In that light, pop music begins to sounds a lot like empathy. And as One Love Manchester demonstrates, empathy is our most important means of peace and unity. It’s all we have.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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Val McDermid Q&A: “I have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon”

The crime writer on her heroes, joining a band and winning Mastermind. 

Val McDermid is the author of 39 books, the majority being crime fiction. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She also sponsors the McDermid Stand at Raith Rovers’s football ground, named  in honour of her father, a club scout.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on my father’s shoulders in the town square in Kirkcaldy at Christmas time. I remember the impossibly tall Christmas tree covered in lights. And there was a coin-operated machine about the size of a table football game that featured plastic figures of pipers and drummers moving back and forth to the tinny sound of “Scotland the Brave”.

Who was your childhood hero?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were my heroes. I’m not much given to hero worship, but I still admire them both.

What political figure, past or present,do you look up to?

I had considerable admiration for the late John Smith. I think he would have made very different choices from those of Tony Blair. And I do have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opened my eyes to the reality of life for many of the immigrants who come to this country; the price they pay and the persistence they show in trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families. It puts a human face on the empty posturing of so many politicians.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life of Christopher Marlowe – the same as it was last time, when I won.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m happy where I am. Chances are, any other time or place, I’d be a lowly peasant with no way out.

What TV show could you not live without?

It’s a toss-up between University Challenge and Only Connect.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m currently sitting for a longitudinal drawing by Audrey Grant, an Edinburgh artist. It’s a fascinating process.

What’s your theme tune?

“First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen. It’s got energy and indomitability. It’s about not giving up or giving in.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Early in my career, I asked Sara Paretsky for advice. She said: “Never do anything that isn’t tax deductible.” I’ve done my best to stick to that.

What’s currently bugging you?

How long have you got? Almost every element of Westminster politics, for starters…

What single thing would make your life better?

A clone to do the stuff I don’t want to.

When were you happiest?

I’ve never been happier than I am now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to think I could have been a singer-songwriter. I’ve recently started performing again in a band with a bunch of friends – Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.

Are we all doomed?

It’s hard not to think so, but I remain optimistic.

“Insidious Intent” by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear