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Manchester, ritual emotion and the healing power of song

Ariana Grande performs at the One Love Manchester concert. EPA/NIGEL RODDIS

Manchester, ritual emotion and the healing power of song

On Sunday, Ariana Grande played to a packed house of 60,000 fans at Manchester’s Old Trafford Cricket Ground, in tribute to the 22 people killed at Grande’s Dangerous Woman concert in the same city two weeks ago. She was joined on stage by pop stars including Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Pharrell Williams.

One Love Manchester aimed to counter the effects of terrorism by spreading messages of unity and love through music, harnessing pop as a personal and collective coping mechanism in the face of tragedy. But in troubled times, can music really heal?

The Manchester bombing is the latest in a line of assaults on entertainment venues, including the attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert at Paris’s Bataclan Theatre in 2015, and at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last year. These are seemingly inspired by a desire to curtail Western liberal freedoms, and specifically the freedom of women, the gay community and the young people who are celebrated in pop music.

Given the sentiment of the event, Grande drew some backlash on Twitter for performing her risqué song Side to Side. But as she revealed during the concert, she had changed her set list after talking with the mother of 15-year-old Olivia, who was killed in the bombing. During their emotional meeting, Olivia’s mum said that she “would’ve wanted to hear the hits”.

Evidence shows that bereaved families increasingly choose to commemorate loved ones with contemporary songs with which they, or the deceased, personally identify. An Australian funeral services provider reported Queen’s The Show Must Go On or Another One Bites the Dust were increasingly popular funeral songs. In the same way, pop concerts are built on a known repertoire of songs, which the audience predicts. This assists in the ritual communication of emotion.

It was music’s capacity to arouse different emotions that allowed One Love Manchester to achieve Grande’s aim for her concerts to be, “a place for them to escape, to celebrate, to heal, to feel safe and to be themselves.” It is now well established that mechanisms such as rhythm, shared emotions and the memory of specific events make music a powerful tool for connecting with other people.

Pharrell Williams’ upbeat Happy embodied the concert’s defiant stance on terrorism, suggesting that fear can be triumphantly overcome through the enactment of happiness and joy. Coldplay’s touching performance of Fix You allowed for the expression of mourning and collective grief.

Robbie Williams led the audience in a version of his song Strong, changing the lyrics to, “Manchester we’re strong, we’re strong”. Cultural studies theorist Graeme Turner has argued that this sort of sharing brings with it a temporary experience of equality and comradeship between many people.

Black Eyed Peas’ Where is the Love?, inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, has become an anthem for countering terrorism and related anti-Islamic sentiment. It provided the Manchester audience with an emotional bridge to the larger, global community of those affected by terrorism.

We need to do more research to understand how these shared emotions and experiences can be galvanised to create longer-term resilience and solidarity. But for this night, One Love Manchester demonstrated the power of music to heal an urban community and bring people together.