By Daniel Dylan Wray
The response from the city of Manchester in the wake of the May 22 terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert has been one of solidarity. The city has reacted with resilience, defiance, and pride — all of which were on display last night as Grande returned to Manchester for the One Love benefit show, along with guests including Coldplay, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Pharrell, and Miley Cyrus.
Scores of fans camped out overnight in advance of the show, and people came down to hand out free food and drinks to those who had been waiting. There was an undeniable spirit that had taken over Manchester for the occasion: The public transport taking fans to the Old Trafford Cricket Ground was free; volunteers handed out #westandtogether stickers; local buses in the city center changed their destination text to read #welovemcr; posters and t-shirts reading “I ❤️ MCR” could be seen everywhere. Arriving to the stadium, all was as it normally would be for an Ariana Grande show. Teens and preteens were sprinkled in glitter, while others sported bunny ears, the trademark Arianator look. Throughout the crowd, there was an air of palpable giddiness.
Bees were omnipresent during the event and could be seen all over people’s t-shirts, atop heads as deely boppers, and in freshly inked tattoos. The worker bee became a symbol of civic pride in Manchester during the industrial revolution, when the level of production taking place in the city was so high that textile mills were known as hives of activity; in the last two weeks, it has been adopted once more by the city in response to the attack, representing the people of Manchester's hardworking, unbroken spirit. The insects are all over the city: on posters, the side of public transport, public trash cans, and painted all over the faces of numerous children. Outside the venue, a very tough-looking tattooed man smoking a cigarette wore celebratory clip-on bee wings as he queued with a child.
The mood before the show was more Friday night than Sunday afternoon, as chants of “Manchester, la, la, la” erupted around the open-air cricket stadium. Elsewhere, kids busted out dance routines as Ed Sheeran’s music played over the P.A. Despite the weight of another domestic attack just hours before in London hanging in people’s minds, the atmosphere was buoyant. The mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, took to the stage along with other local political and religious leaders to speak to the crowd before the television broadcast went live, saying, “We are a city united and we will remain a city united,” before a moment of silence, a point of great emotion for the crowd.
U.K. pop group Take That opened the performances, which soon glided by as countless stars took to the stage one after the other in seamless transition, with several duets taking place along the way. Genres collided, with the R&B-pop gloss of Pharrell and The Black Eyed Peas rubbing up against the anthemic indie of Coldplay and the raspy Brit-rock of Liam Gallagher. All were united in a cause that was perhaps best visually displayed by Katy Perry, who performed in an outfit made up of photographs of the victims.
The stands were filled with young children who were beside themselves with excitement, visibly holding back tears of euphoria over seeing their favorite pop stars in the flesh and feeling the power of the sound through the giant speakers. Even Bieber's brief appearance as a spectator on a balcony to groove to Pharrell’s take on "Get Lucky" was met with glee. These kids were the very definition of innocence; many of them were experiencing a gig for the first time, which they told countless reporters in interviews, some of which made it to the giant screens. The grace, compassion, and kindness that Grande has displayed in the fallout of this tragedy has been truly inspirational, from visiting victims in the hospital to the lightning-fast turnaround of Sunday's event to her clear desire to include and touch as many people as possible through her words and expressions of empathy.
Throughout the evening there was a sense of emotional transaction between the performers and the estimated 50,000 people at the stadium. When Grande performed with the Parrs Wood High School Choir and one of the young choir members began to cry onstage, she was simply reflecting what many in the audience were already doing; during Grande's 10 songs, she was visibly holding back tears. The bar staff sang along in unison to the songs echoing from the stage while security staff linked arms and danced with one another, whipping up the crowd, and a police officer was filmed dancing with kids during Bieber's set. Teenagers walked around bearing signs offering “Free Hugs.” Grande’s mother, too, was spotted walking around hugging fans.
After an evening loaded with triumph and celebration, thousands of people queued for the train back to Manchester’s city center, happily squished into the packed carriage, some sharing videos recorded on their phones from hours before. Despite the emotional intensity of the night, the collective spirit was one of love and goodwill.