If someone had told me that I’d be celebrating a 24-year old pop star for this series, I’d have laughed. I knew who she was, having watched her in Victorius and then Sam & Cat with my niece. Cat was goofy, often daft, but always sweet. But I wasn’t going to start listening to her music.
I went on with my suburban life while Ariana went on tour, building a legion of young fans. And then, after what I’m sure was like any other wildly successful concert, a terrorist blew himself up outside the arena, taking 22 lives and injuring more than a hundred. Fans – many 16 and under – scrambled and shrieked as they (mostly) escaped. Not old enough to drive, they were made the target of madmen seeking to wreak havoc and destroy whatever they could. Victims included young women and men, parents, and a police officer.
One can never truly know how they’d respond. But I can see myself taking a month – or 3 – to recover from a trauma like that, if for nothing else than fear that someone would try again. Ariana chose a different path. She visited with victims, expressed her horror, and then, two weeks later, despite yet another attack in London, took to the stage once more, this time with an even bigger purpose.
The concert she organized had a name – “One Love Manchester” – and it resonated throughout the show. More than once she looked like she might not make it through, but she held her head high and sang with the kind of emotion that reached far beyond her target demo. She brought in a high-energy team of pop stars, from Pharrell and Katy Perry to Niall Horan and The Black-eyed Peas. Oh, and Justin Bieber, who I’d previously thought of mostly as an example of not handling fame very well.
He made me cry.
Ariana was more than the concert organizer. She was the lynchpin of the event, joining friends on stage, talking about the need for peace, and serving as a beautiful example of what humans can be – a poignant counterpoint to the disregard for life that had brought her there. Standing with her arm around the young and tearful lead singer from Manchester’s Paris Wood High School choir, she took on the role, as comforter, that she surely hadn’t expected.
I remember another concert, decades ago, that brought together the biggest stars alive to raise awareness and money for AIDS. I watched hours of coverage and marveled at the effort. The passion left a similar impression. To me, the timeframe, her age, and the personal trauma make Ariana Grande’s amazing act of kindness perhaps even more remarkable.
By the time the first few bars of her last song played, I was in tears. Few songs are as wistful, hopeful, and sorrowful all at once as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She performed it as though directly to those who had lost their lives, and as a message of healing to those they left behind.
In a time of uncertainty, when radicalism and hate can reach across the world, powerlessness can seem like the prevailing (and permanent) state of being. But as long as we have artists who will stand up and declare our resistance to the messages of hate, we retain our humanity. As Grande told the crowd:
“I think the kind of love and unity you are displaying is the medicine the world needs right now. So thank you for being just that.”