LONDON– It’s April 27th, 1990. I’m a 12-year-old, and my heart is beating faster than I can ever remember. The lights have gone down, the crowd has gone crazy, and New Kids on the Block are about to walk onto the stage. I’m at Whitley Bay Ice Rink in northern England and it’s my first ever concert. For days beforehand, I’d watched the news reports of “it’s Beatlemania again” and squealed every time Jordan Knight appeared on screen. On the night, although they were dots on a stage, I’d seen a new world, and there was no going back.
The following year I was back at the same venue with my mum to see Aussie pop star Jason Donovan. The support act was a band called Oceanic, who had had a one-hit wonder called “Insanity,” and at the show they had to play the song twice in their 25-minute set. I loved that song so much that I was overjoyed that they had to play it twice. It was the first time I’d ever heard a song live that I was so into, and I was completely overwhelmed with joy, adrenaline, endorphins – whatever chemical magic it is that happens. I can’t remember anything about the rest of the concert now, but I’ve never forgotten that feeling.
As teens, there was such joy in ditching our parents and going to concerts together when we were old enough to be allowed. I drove to Blackpool with my friend Fiona in the week of the Oasis/Blur chart battle to go and see Liam and Noel rip it up. We sat outside the Empress Ballroom for hours to make sure we could get to the front. We flirted with the boys near us in the queue and even got to chat to Noel. When the crowd surged forward when they started to play “Roll With It,” Fiona and I were crushed up against the barriers and had to be pulled out by security. Waving aside offers of help from an ambulance crew, we just asked the security guards nicely to put us back in at the front. We were 17 and thought we ruled the world.
A blossoming romance with a Londoner might never have got beyond the penpal stage had there not been a Pulp gig at Wembley for him to invite me to. I couldn’t separate my excitement about seeing the band from my excitement about seeing him – Pulp’s “Different Class” album was so charged with expectation for me every time I listened to it in the weeks leading up to the concert. The gig was everything I’d hoped for, and when Jarvis Cocker and the gang played “Something Changed,” the London boy looked at me, and I knew we were falling in love.
Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of concerts. They’ve soundtracked my relationships, my break-ups, my studies, my working life, my friends, my joy, my grief, and my inner sense of myself. Whether it’s blowing off a hangover with a really loud Placebo concert at Wembley, having my soul soothed with the gorgeous voice of Edwina Hayes or Jasmine Kennedy while lying back at a festival, or getting politically fired up listening to Grace Petrie play at the Housmans radical bookshop in Kings Cross, there is a gig for every frame of mind I find myself in.
And I’ve become an expert in identifying them and talking about them. I’ve written music reviews and features about particular artists or music industry phenomena. My Ph.D. thesis was on how women who’d experienced sexual violence used the music of Tori Amos— and the online communities built up around her— to heal from those experiences, and find comfort in each other, and in music. But today, I don’t care about being a music expert. Today my heart is broken for the children and teenagers at the Ariana Grande concert last night in Manchester. It’s broken for the 12- year-old me singing all of the rubbish words to “Insanity” at the top of my lungs and not caring who heard me because that’s the kid whose soul was at the show last night in Manchester.
The details are all still emerging – but here are some details we know without being told: It was someone’s first ever concert. During that concert, two people kissed for the first time. A shy person went to that show feeling like a misfit and realized there were other people like them. A group of girls spent hours getting ready for the concert, and that was as much fun as the show itself. A gay student left a letter for Ariana Grande backstage telling her how much “Break Free” meant to him, and asking her to play it. All of those stories, and hundreds more, are at every concert because each one is a snapshot of life. These events shape us – they change our lives, not just reflect them.
Going to see live music – whether it’s pop, rock, indie, grime, R&B, any of it – is a celebration of life. It’s where we find our tribes. It’s where we jump for joy with no shame or embarrassment. It’s where we hear the words that mean so much to us, and look around and see how much they mean to others too. It’s where we go to be the most ourselves, to be with others who get it and to just participate in life in one of the fullest and most vibrant ways we know how.
Make no mistake, what happened at Manchester Arena last night was a deliberate attack on that freedom, vibrancy, joy and love of life. It’s no coincidence that the attack happened following a concert by an artist whose audience is mainly young girls and gay men – who are always a prime target of this hateful ideology. It’s easy to be brave online, and say we have no fear, but at the next concert we go to, we’ll think about this – as we did the Bataclan in Paris – and we’ll have every right to feel fearful, to check the exits, to look at people with backpacks, and to generally not feel as free as we did.
But that fear and lack of freedom won’t last. If Daesh/ISIS thinks – if anyone thinks – that you can quell the verve of a group of teenage girls, or dent the sass of those queer Ariana Grande fanboys, well that’s just a non-starter. We’ll shake it off – at Taylor Swift, at Ed Sheeran, at Bruce Springsteen, at Stormzy – because that’s what live music does for us. We need to support those kids who went out last night to have the time of their lives, and we need to support live music. Go to a concert with your friends – dance, hug and sing along at the top of your voices. That is a life force that no one can put out.
Dr. Deborah Finding holds a Ph.D. on sexual violence narratives in popular culture from LSE’s Gender Institute. She has worked for several NGOs, including the POPPY Project, with women trafficked into the U.K. She has written for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and DIVA Magazine, among others, and also now works with companies on their people development and ethical positioning.