Music in the Wake of Manchester

Flowers in St Ann’s Square, Manchester.

Music in the Wake of Manchester

The suicide bombing at Manchester Arena was the second such attack at a music event in two years. What is to be the role of music in this 'age of anger', asks Toner Quinn.

I was going to surprise my daughter the next morning with some chat about Ariana Grande.

It was Monday night around 11.25pm. Winding down, I was watching a Hozier song cover and scrolling through the comments. Someone pointed to another of his covers, of Grande’s ‘Problem’.

Ariana Grande, a name I hear often. A star that compels my daughter to sit as near as possible to the TV whenever she’s on. I would listen to the cover and tell my nine-year-old about it. As I switched between Hozier, Grande singing ‘Problem’ and other YouTube suggestions, suddenly a New York Times alert flashed up in the corner of my screen: ‘Ariana Grande… bombing… Manchester.’ I thought my tired eyes had mixed up the lines on my computer screen. But no.

Don’t Look Back in Anger
Over the following days, I tuned 
in to the fallout with that returning sense of sorrow and shock. We have been here before: Westminster Bridge, Nice, Berlin, Brussels. I recalled that I was in Manchester just a month before with my son; I noticed, uncomfortably, how I rarely pay as much attention to the reports of children and families dying in Syria and Iraq; and I thought about the Northern Ireland, of the painfully slow lessons we learned about conflict and killing, and where all that learning has gone. But a suicide bombing at a children’s concert? Where do we even start?

The fact that the target had been a music event – the second time that such an event had been the focus of an attack (following the Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris in 2015) – had me thinking about music and conflict all week, about the idea that kept coming up on the airwaves, that music is meant to bring people together, that it creates togetherness and community. 

Manchester’s musical culture kept being mentioned. After the minute’s silence in St Ann’s Square in Manchester, a Mancunian began singing the Oasis song ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, and people joined in. For a moment, the common idea about music, healing and community seemed to surface.

And it was there in Grande’s statement, which she released on the Friday. In a page-long text, three lines jumped out:

Music is something that everyone on Earth can share.
Music is meant to heal us, to bring us together, to make us happy.
So that is what it will continue to do for us.

But there was still something missing.

Nothing You Can Sing
The idea of music as ‘something that everyone on Earth can share’ has been prevalent since the Beatles. Lennon/McCartney’s ‘All You Need is Love’, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, Paul McCartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’. These songwriters shaped our modern ideas about what music can be, that it can be about unity, overcoming difference, that it has a special power.

But in 1967, when Lennon sang ‘Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung’, the UK was a different place. The reality today, in a more diverse Britain, is that people don’t all sing the same songs, listen to the same music, listen to music the same way, or even know each other’s music. We assume that everyone has heard Ariana Grande and The Beatles, but how many of us listen to Islamic nasheeds? Fifty years after Sgt Pepper, we are clinging to the Beatles idea of music as a common language, but it seems no longer adequate. If the digital world has revealed anything, it is the astonishing musical diversity that is right under our noses.

So how can we think about this broad musical world in a way that increases understanding and decreases conflict?

Brave musical steps
We have access to more music than ever today, but the obsession in the tech world is to fill us up with what we know, rather than expand our listening and understanding of music and other cultures in any deep way.

In the digital rush to see what we all have in common, we overlook the significant societal, political and, yes, musical differences that exist between us. To acknowledge them is not to accentuate them. But ignoring them is wrong. How can we sensitively and carefully find the moments of cultural understanding in all our musics if we allow Facebook, YouTube and Spotify decide all our future listening for us?

Without a constant effort, we are in cultural retreat. It is becoming increasingly easy to stay within our listening bubbles, and it is just as easy for all nationalities to have facile impressions of each other’s cultures.

Music has answers
After Manchester and the Bataclan, we have to think hard about the role of music in this ‘age of anger’. There is an instinctive assumption that music can provide some of the 
answers, and that it is powerful. If this is true, musicians and composers – from all cultures – must start countering the cultural conservatism of our digital age by making brave musical steps that can increase understanding. 

In Ireland’s thirty-year conflict, rebel songs received a lot more attention globally than the peace-making sentiments of Paul Brady’s ‘The Island’, Tommy Sands’ ‘There Were Roses’ or Christy Moore’s ‘The Time Has Come’. But it was ‘The Time Has Come’ that Moore sang at ex-IRA leader Martin McGuinness’ funeral in March. And he changed the last line from ‘the suffering still goes on’ to ‘the suffering that went on’. Things can change. Conflict can end. And from the Beatles to Brady to Moore, musicians are often there where a difference is made.

Published on 28 May 2017

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

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