The pink balloons, floating above the maelstrom of panicked concertgoers, are what struck me first. Images of innocence, bumping along above hordes of shrieking children, many of whom refused to release their balloons even as they fled the arena.
Do you remember your first pop concert? That first time you watched a female hero belt it out onstage without apologies? I was in eighth grade when my dad agreed to drive me and my best friend to see Garbage, a Scottish pop band led by the coolest woman of all time, Shirley Manson. Her anger, confidence and sexuality stood in for stirrings of teenage passion that I had no way to express. I was awkward and insecure – weren’t we all? – but when I stood in the presence of a woman who stared down the system with a growl in her voice, I forgot about how weird it felt to be 13.
The confusion and shame of adolescence leaves almost no woman unscathed. So where do you go when it becomes too much? What helps release it all? What can you turn to when you want to expend the nervous energy of childhood giving way to womanhood?
Enter Ariana Grande: A pint-size powerhouse with a sensuous voice that bursts from her diaphragm. At five feet three inches, with her high ponytail, winged eyeliner and Nickelodeon channel beginnings, Ariana Grande appears both womanly and childlike.
Her music reflects this, if not always in lyrics then in tone. Evasive, inexperienced, daring and unapologetic — these are the emotional threads a lost, lonely or uncomfortable girl might cling on to while trying to channel confidence of her own.
Among the 22 people killed and 59 injured at Grande’s concert at the Manchester Arena were an eight-year-old girl and an 18-year-old woman. The young woman, Georgina Callander, was a fan of Disney and Harry Potter. She got to meet Ariana Grande two years ago, at another concert at the Manchester Arena. By some combination of luck and effort, she got a hug and a compliment from the tiny pop diva.
How can I describe the giddiness of dancing to your favourite music with your best friends as a 13-year-old girl? Moving your body, if not confidently, then with goofy abandon, to the sounds of a woman who says to you and for you: “You’re powerful! You need not live on anyone else’s terms!”
These are not lies, but they also don’t tell the whole truth — that as you become a woman, you will often have less power than the men you know, that female life, by its very definition, is not shaped by individual terms alone.
Still, pop concerts once felt like safe spaces for girls to express anger, joy, confidence and defiance with their friends, in the presence of their idols, without judgement or repercussions.
Back in eighth grade, I begged my dad not to come to the Garbage concert with me, even though he had to drive me an hour to get there. He compromised with his irrational, newly-teenage daughter by melting into the crowd for most of the set. For a little more than an hour, my best friend and I embraced an illusion of independence, dancing to the songs we knew so well.
There is no evidence that the attacker who bombed Manchester Arena was targeting women. But what is undeniable is that it’s a hard world for little girls. And an Ariana Grande concert is where they go to dance silly, belt out lyrics and flail their awkward limbs together, glorying in loud music, flashing lights and luminous pink balloons.
As scared girls searched for friends, sisters and parents, those childish decorations floated serenely above the carnage and chaos — mementos of an innocence that was present only moments before.