She sat near me, up and to the left of the stage at Rod Laver, and I’ll never forget her: a young girl of 12 or so who turned to me and squealed, by way of introduction I suppose, “I’M SO EXCITED!”
I was just shy of my 21st birthday when I attended my first real pop concert – the Melbourne leg of Avril Lavigne’s Try To Shut Me Up tour – and I immediately regretted not having done it sooner, for there is no better way to experience the transcendent nature of pop music than in a cavernous arena filled with screaming young girls.
I thought of those sweet girls as soon as I read news of the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena on Monday night. How many others turned to the person next to them, strangers turned best friends by the life-affirming power of pop music, and expressed their excitement at what was to come?
Later, good samaritans used stock from the merchandise tables – t-shirts that hours earlier would have been purchased with pocket money – as makeshift tourniquets. I wanted to dig my Avril Lavigne hoodie out of storage and hold it tight.
We may never know if the bomber picked Manchester Arena simply because he knew, given its capacity, it would provide the maximum number of casualties, or because he was aware that it was the type of big pop show that would be full of girls and young women. The possibility of the latter is almost too much to bear.
Acts of terrorism such as the one that befell the concertgoers in Manchester make it too easy to spout trite soundbites like “They hate us for our freedom!” – but if you’ve been to a big arena show either as a young girl or with one, you’ll know that there is no place as free, as life-affirming and as precious as a pop concert.
Take American rock critic Ann Powers’ beautiful evocation of the pop concert as a sacred space, written after Monday’s attack:
Telling your mom it’s okay and you’ll meet her right after the show, running toward the front hand in hand with your best friend like you don’t even have a mom right now, flirting with the kid who sells you a soda, dancing experimentally, looking at the woman onstage and thinking maybe one day you’ll be sexy and confident like her, realizing that right this moment you are sexy and confident like her, matching your voice to the sound, loving the sound, falling into the sound. This is truth. Young girls loving music, whatever kind of music, are truth. I believe in them and nothing can annihilate their truth.
The Avril show wasn’t my first concert per se; that happened way back in 1992, when I thrilled to the blockbuster lineup of Jimmy Barnes, John Farnham, Diesel, Nathan Cavallieri AND The Tin Lids, all in the one night! I was a tween girl attending a pop concert and a fan, yes, but though I still recall the thrill of being there alongside my very patient mum, the Barnesy audience wasn’t my demographic; that concert wasn’t made with me in mind. It wasn’t until a decade later, on a similarly chilly night at Rod Laver, that I really understood what it was to be a teen girl stepping into her first arena show.
I understood in part because I came late to popular music (and at 20 and ¾ was barely out of my teens myself), but more crucially, because I was surrounded by young girls.
Everywhere I looked, little groups of teens and tweens excitedly discussed the impending event. “What’s a ‘mosh pit’?” one asked her friends after a PA announcement warning attendees against getting too rowdy. More than one young girl was held aloft by a willing adult guardian so she could better see the stage. Little girls cried during ‘I’m With You’ and ‘Anything But Ordinary’, and so did I.
Ever since, whenever I need a jolt of giddy adrenaline, or to remember why I first started writing about music, I go to a big show.
If you know a young girl and there’s a big pop tour coming up you think she’d like to go to, take her. Now, more than ever, she’ll need it.
Working as a music critic for more than a decade, I was too often privy to the special brand of sneering rockist cynicism that my colleagues seemed to reserve solely for pop, especially the stuff that seemed tailormade for young girls. It was a tiny victory every time I declared Avril, Britney, Jessie or Miley to have recorded ‘Single of The Week’ and not one of the seemingly endless parades of indie troubadours singing about their deep well of male pain.
Young girls are unlike any other audience in music; generous with their love but exacting in their criticism in a way that the bolted-on fans of dad rock bands churning out tired facsimiles of their first album can never be.
“There’s no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it?” Harry Styles told Cameron Crowe in last month’s Rolling Stone.
“They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”
But there is something extra special about the connection young girls have with their female pop heroes. Stars like Ariana Grande become surrogate big sisters and mentors, and their often generous presence in concert can be life-changing, whether they’re expressing feminist sentiments, encouraging self-love, or introducing their young fans to other artists by way of a few well-chosen covers.
It’s all of this that gives the Manchester attack an additional veil of tragedy: how could this happen on the happiest, biggest night of their young lives?
“The unnaturalness of terrorism is its essence. It means to strike out of a clear blue sky,” Mancunian novelist Howard Jacobson wrote for The New York Times. “It means to shatter those bonds of commonality we have to take for granted or we cannot live. So, this is terrorism’s perfect expression: the random massacre of kids coming out of a pop concert they’d no doubt been looking forward to and talking animatedly about for weeks, kids united only moments before in music and fun.”
It may be that the Manchester attack leads many to stay away from big arenas, frightened of a repeat of the atrocity. Already there are reports of kids and young people who feel scared to attend arena shows they have tickets to.
But look back over the past decade: we got back on planes, and the tube and double decker buses, and returned to cafes. Human beings have a marvellously stubborn way of refusing to be cowed by senseless cruelty.
So, if you know a young girl and there’s a big pop tour coming up you think she’d like to go to, take her. Now, more than ever, she’ll need it. You might need it, too.