How Ariana Grande's Embrace of Community at 'One Love Manchester' Made Her a Star in the U.K.
A month ago, Ariana Grande was famous in Britain, but not ubiquitous: though her 3 albums all reached the U.K. charts' top ten, most Britons hadn’t heard of her unless they listened to pop radio or had an Arianator in the family. Even when her May 22 show at Manchester Arena became the site of a suicide bombing that left 22 victims dead and 119 injured — the worst terrorist atrocity on British soil since 2005 — the public had little sense of who Grande was, beyond a name in the news.
But by the end of the One Love Manchester concert at the city’s Emirates Old Trafford cricket ground last Sunday, she was not just known but loved on a national scale. The Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling tabloid newspaper, summed up the transformation flippantly but not inaccurately: “People have gone from thinking she was a Starbucks coffee to wanting her to be Prime Minister.”
There are certain musicians who can be relied upon to shoulder an audience’s emotional weight in the aftermath of a tragedy. The likes of Bono, Springsteen and Chris Martin have consistently found the right words, gestures and songs to turn a concert into a ritual of healing. The task was a much taller order for a 23-year-old who had been perilously close to the horror, and was still surely processing her own trauma. But Grande was moved by a sense of moral obligation; as her manager Scooter Braun, who appeared onstage, recalled, she told him: “If we do nothing I can’t live with that. We must do something.”
Grande’s grace and strength were remarkable. She wisely made herself the host of the show rather than the star — the gravitational center of an A-list line-up that spoke to both her own generation (Justin Bieber, Mac Miller) and Manchester’s musical heritage (Liam Gallagher, Take That). She didn’t appear until one hour into the show, and only spoke at length towards the end of the second. Visibly moved, she described meeting the mother of one of the murdered girls, 15-year-old Olivia Campbell-Hardy. “She said to stop crying because Olivia wouldn’t have wanted me to cry,” said Grande. “And then she told me that Olivia would have wanted to hear the hits.”
Grande’s more upbeat songs felt appropriate for an event that was more a defiant celebration than a wake -- pop, like life, must go on -- but the most moving moments occurred when she bonded with other musicians, dramatizing the concert’s message of solidarity. She joined Miley Cyrus to sing Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” with its especially resonant lyric, “They come to build a wall between us/We know they won’t win,” and the Black Eyed Peas for the equally relevant “Where Is the Love?” She teamed with half of Coldplay on a cover of Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” which became Manchester’s unofficial anthem of collective grief and civic pride when it was sung spontaneously at a vigil for the victims three days after the attack. And she performed her own “My Everything” with the girls of Parrs Wood High School Choir, some of whom -- like many of the 55,000 ticket-holders -- had attended the Manchester Arena show.
Again and again, Grande presented herself as part of a community. Only at the very end, rendering “Over the Rainbow” as a secular hymn, did she stand alone. By then, she had acquired -- in a humble, sensitive way -- heroic stature, as the heart of a show that covered pop’s emotional gamut. She conveyed to anyone watching, whether in the stadium or at home, that it’s okay to be scared and upset, and it’s also okay to dance, laugh and sing. Platitudes about love conquering all came from other mouths; from Grande there was the palpable sincerity of mixed emotions.
After the bombing, many writers argued that the importance of pop concerts to young girls, as spaces for collective self-expression and liberation, was too often dismissed as lightweight and trivial. During One Love Manchester, it felt like Grande herself had been underrated. To follow Twitter during the concert was to witness a unicorn-rare phenomenon: almost unanimous acclaim for a pop star. For 3 hours, Britain’s instinctive cynicism about overt displays of emotion was suspended, and even professional trolls like Piers Morgan, who had criticized Grande for flying home after the attack, were compelled to back down. It’s debatable how many viewers became overnight converts to Grande’s music — but they all certainly know her now, and likely have nothing but massive respect for her as a human being.