One Love Manchester was a remarkable and unforgettable concert, a night of love, unity and music. John Doyle writes about it for the Globe and Mail:
Respect. Respect is due to the people of Manchester in England and to Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Coldplay, Usher, Pharrell Williams, Little Mix, Robbie Williams, The Black Eyed Peas, Niall Horan and all the pop-music stars that performed at the televised One Love Manchester concert on Sunday. Mostly, respect is due to Ariana Grande.
It was an extraordinarily powerful and cathartic three hours. The star-studded concert, broadcast live by the BBC and in 50 countries around the world (in Canada on CTV) was organized to raise money for those affected by the suicide bombing at the end of Ms. Grande’s performance at the Manchester Arena 13 days earlier. It was, however, so much more than that.
The evening concert for 50,000 people stood as a glorious act of defiance. It illuminated the solace of endurance and the primacy of public, uninhibited joy.
Hastily arranged by Ms. Grande and her management, it was always going to be a cleansing act. But it became even more poignant and powerful when it unfolded just hours after another terrorist attack in England, this time on Saturday night in London as, again, ordinary people enjoying casual revelry were killed and horribly injured.
“We cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said in a televised statement on Sunday morning after Saturday’s attack. She meant that there will be further efforts to combat terrorism and monitor suspects. But some things must – absolutely must – continue as they are. That is how ordinary people endure and remain unbeaten – by continuing to laugh, dance and sing. And behave as before – as tender, passionate and bawdy as they like.
What happened at the end of Ms. Grande’s concert at the Manchester Arena on May 22 is unimaginable. A suicide bomber detonated a nail bomb in an exit foyer, killing 22 people and injuring 116 others. The bodies of teenage girls and mothers strewn in this place where pop music is performed and girls sing along in innocent, joyous appreciation. It was a direct assault on the young and guileless and an assault on public performance itself.
Ms. Grande, a mere 23 years old and known mainly for a kid’s TV show and a tiny oeuvre of balmy love songs, would have been forgiven for getting out of sight and putting the notoriety of the horrific concert behind her. Instead, she and her managers corralled a who’s who of pop music to perform free to raise funds for victims. There was a pure, charitable motive, but for Ms. Grande – who spoke and performed with admirable grace and dignity on Sunday – and the other performers, it was a collective assertion that music matters in a way that no terrorist act can subdue or demean.
Before the concert began, a BBC crew talked to some of the kids attending who had also been at Ms. Grande’s May 22 concert. Most were not eloquent but they said things that mattered, such as, “Everybody should be looking after everybody.” And that was one of the concert’s themes: Everybody sing, embrace and sustain each other no matter how nervous or spooked by terrorist attacks.
Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons opened with Timshel, a song of great spiritual temerity – “And death is at your doorstep / And it will steal your innocence / But it will not steal your substance / And you are not alone in this.” The grave silence in the crowd as these words were sung was heartrending. Then came a series of emotional highs as performer after performer invoked the spirit of mass singing and enjoyment. The entire event was fully captured, in a way, when Robbie Williams, now middle-aged but once one of the brightest of cheeky-chap pop stars that England churns out, changed the lyrics of his 1998 hit, Strong, to a chorus of “Manchester, we’re strong, we’re stro-ong, we’re stro-o-o-ong,” and the ensuing mass singalong made the hairs stand on your head.
Never did Pharrell Williams’s song Happy, performed in a duet with Miley Cyrus, seem so electrifyingly important. Katy Perry referring to love as “our greatest power” and Justin Bieber, alone with his guitar singing “love, love, love” as many thousand sang with him, seemed terribly relevant. Coldplay joined Ariana Grande to sing Oasis’s Don’t Look Back In Anger, and frontman Chris Martin had the grace to acknowledge some of Manchester’s pop-music history by doing part of the James song Sit Down. The appearance by Oasis singer Liam Gallagher was a surprise and he was as snarly and uncompromising as ever, closing a short set with the fiery Oasis hit Live Forever.
While all of this played out, CNN and Fox News continued their steady, predictable coverage of Saturday night’s terrorist attack in London: Blame laid here and there, warnings issued and their pundits nudging toward authoritarian stands against terrorism.
But what happened at the One Love Manchester concert resonated with greater force. A person would have to be dull of spirit and infected with pointless cynicism not to see the brave effrontery of it. These were not elderly hippies trying to awaken some cant about world peace; these were not even millennials trying to conjure an imagined tolerance. The audience, who mattered far more than the performers, rallied in the face of horrific attacks by summoning the indomitable spirit of love, youth, popular culture, Manchester and the joy of music itself. Respect is due to these kids.