Manchester’s heartbreak: ‘I never grasped what big pop gigs were for until I saw one through my daughter’s eyes’

Music aimed at teenage girls is derided but the likes of Ariana Grande provide the kind of empowering, transcendent experience that terrorists hate

After the initial flood of sympathy and horror and helplessness, I felt a vivid jolt of recognition in the wake of the news from Manchester. People somewhere you know well – I have been to the Manchester Arena dozens of times – murdered while doing something you regularly do. Not just going to a live show, but that kind of live show, with that kind of audience, the kind where mums and dads either have to tag along or turn up at the end to pick their children up. My daughters are 10 and seven, and I take them to pop gigs in arenas, exactly like the one that was attacked on Monday night. I don’t do it on sufferance, although there are frequently things I would rather be listening to than whatever is on offer. I do it partly because it was something I was never allowed to do myself as a kid and sorely regret being denied – I was 15 before I saw a live show. But mostly I take them because I think those big pop gigs do something incredibly important.

Or rather, I learned that big pop gigs do something incredibly important. My elder daughter unwittingly taught me, the first time I took her to one. She was seven years old then, the whole thing was a birthday treat – as many tickets bought for the Ariana Grande show doubtless were – and the star was Jessie J, although my daughter would have been just as delighted by Katy Perry or Carly Rae Jepsen or, not long after that, Jess Glynne or Meghan Trainor. A few weeks previously I had reviewed Jessie J’s second album, explaining at some length how terrible I thought it was. I had steeled myself for a long night, consoling myself with the thought that I had always made a big song and dance about not trying to influence my kids’ taste in music and now it was time to put my money where my mouth was and gamely sing along with Price Tag.

Ariana Grande performing live
Ariana Grande performing in Phoenix, Arizona, earlier this year. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation

I needn’t have worried. The whole evening was weirdly magical. Ignoring my entreaties that you really didn’t need to dress up to go to a gig, my daughter had her hair tied up with tinsel, her best party dress on and a purple sequined stole. She approached everything with Christmas-morning levels of excitement: the very fact that she was out in town, after dark, on a school night; the meal beforehand at Pizza Express, where – thrillingly – we saw people who were also going to see Jessie J and who waved at us; the unimaginable bounty of the merchandise stall; the crowd screaming; the fact that she had seen the support act, a briefly popular boyband called Lawson, on TV. That kind of excitement is incredibly infectious. I was carried along with her.

There was more to the magic than infectious enthusiasm. I have spent a not-insignificant proportion of my working life at pop gigs in arenas filled with kids and teenagers, usually in a state of mild bemusement. I have seen shows I thought were abysmal and shows I thought were impressively slick. I have seen artists treat their audience with something bordering on contempt (there is something incredibly galling about watching a singer who can’t even be bothered to pretend to mime) and artists who genuinely left me open-mouthed (Miley Cyrus, following her decision to abandon her squeaky-clean Disney image for something deliberately provocative). I could make an informed, objective critical judgment about them, but I never fully understood them, never really grasped what they were for, never really got what was going on in the audience, until I saw one through my daughter’s eyes.

It wasn’t just that she was overawed by the spectacle, although she was: stuff I took for granted – lasers, pyrotechnics, confetti cannons, all the usual bells and whistles of a big pop show – were a constant source of overwhelming sensory overload. Nor was it the way her lack of cynicism made me reconsider my own feelings, although that happened too. I have always been deeply suspicious of the kind of rhetoric that modern pop surrounds itself with: all that platitudinous “just be yourself”, “if you dream it you can do it” stuff. But my daughter took it all at face value and I ended up thinking: Well, there’s certainly worse messages you can send out to kids.

Jessie J in concert in 2013
A first glimpse at a grown-up world: Jessie J in concert in 2013. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

But mostly it was the way it gave her a first glimpse of a world that was previously outside her experience, a more adult, or at least more mature world than the one she knew, a world that would one day be her own, and how excited she was to see it, how – as she put it – grown-up it made her feel. She experienced something that transcended her pretty fickle and changeable musical allegiances. Jessie J has long been replaced in her affections – by, among others, Ariana Grande. The selfie she took that night is still on her bedroom wall. If that was true of a seven-year-old being chaperoned by her father, how much more true was it for the kids that were just old enough to be there without their parents, the ones who had relegated their mums and dads to waiting in the foyer or outside in the car?

Almost no music is as widely reviled as pop aimed at tweenage and teenage girls. It is sneered at as vacuous and bland, pap for an undemanding audience incapable of telling good from bad. Sometimes it deserves to be reviled – when the people behind it are audibly as cynical and patronising as the people who sneer at it, when the grim stench of “will this do?” permeates the whole enterprise. But it also has a function that overrides any criticism you might want to throw at it. Live, it can provide the kind of indelible, empowering experience that was so beautifully described by the American rock critic Ann Powers on social media in the aftermath of the Manchester attack: “Telling your mom it’s OK and you’ll meet her right after the show, running toward the front hand in hand with your best friend like you don’t even have a mom right now, flirting with the kid who sells you a soda, dancing experimentally, looking at the woman onstage and thinking maybe one day you’ll be sexy and confident like her, realising that right this moment you are sexy and confident like her, matching your voice to the sound, loving the sound, falling into the sound.”

Giving people their first taste of freedom and independence: that strikes me as something at the top of the chart of Incredible Things Music Can Do. It is also something that the kind of people who manipulate others into blowing themselves up in public places hate.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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