The Manchester Attack: Is Live Music Too Dangerous?

The sights and sounds of the aftermath of a terror attack have become horrifically familiar over the past few years. ’22 dead, and hundreds injured’, the news reporters chime in with grim expressions. And then there are the photos of distraught family members clutching bouquets, then the messages flooding social media of grief, anger, and most of all, confusion. While the attack at The Manchester Arena last Monday was uniquely horrible in the way it seemed to have been deliberately targeted at children, Ariana Grande’s main fan demographic, it also followed a specific pattern of association – terrorism and live music. This latest incident at Ariana Grande’s concert immediately brings to mind the 2015 shooting during an Eagles of Death Metal show at the Bataclan in Paris, which tragically took the lives of 89 gig-goers.

Terrorists have identified in live music a useful setting for violence. Crowds of people, all packed into a confined space with few exits – the convenience of this target is easy to see. It’s a situation that can be exploited. But there are also clear ideological underpinnings. After the mass shooting at the Bataclan, ISIS issued a jubilatory message which called it a ‘blessed battle’, and described the concert as a ‘profligate prostitution party’. The group has similarly taken responsibility for Monday’s attack, describing the victims as ‘shameless’ and ‘crusaders’. To extremist groups, concerts clearly aren’t just a venue chosen from convenience, but there’s also a question of sin. Wahabbi Islam strictly forbids the performance of live music, Saudi Arabia bans music apart from traditional prayer chants, and the Somali militant group Al Shabaab forbade all music, even including the ringing of schoolbells, in the territories they controlled. To be clear, Islam itself doesn’t condemn live music. Rather, different sects have different attitudes toward it, and for example the Sufis are known for their celebration of music, especially the traditional Qawwali devotional songs (the renowned Qawwali musician Rahat Fateh Ali Khan gave a much anticipated performance in Oxford just last week).

It’s the more extreme and repressive groups that are the most anti-music – and it’s little wonder. Live music is a symbol of immense freedom, which is arguably the core value on which the western world was founded. Freedom, because live music is a matter of creativity and self-expression, and the people fortunate enough to be attending a live show all share in this inspirational bolt from the blue, and through it feel connected to each-other, and to the world. A show is always chaotic and messy in its own way, but it’s that chaos that makes it wonderful. There’s a sense that anything can happen: For example, the iconic Woodstock festival of 1969, which heralded in the hippy movement, and massive changes to western culture. Or take WW1 poet Siegfried Sassoon’s description of a moment of celebration in his poem ‘Everybody Sang’: ‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing; / And I was filled with such delight / As prisoned birds must find in freedom, / Winging wildly across the white / Orchards and dark green fields; on – on – and out of sight’. Music isn’t just music, and terror groups know it.

So, how has the music world responded to these targeted attacks? With spirit. Initially, the 23-year old Ariana Grande (understandably) flew back to her home in Florida, cancelling the remaining European shows on her Dangerous Woman tour, and leaving a poignant message on her social media, in which she called herself ‘broken’. But now, she’s announced her return to Manchester on 4th June for a show raising money for the families of the victims, at which it is rumoured she will be supported by a host of celebrity musicians. Her message on social media read: ‘We won’t let hate win’. Manchester mega-star Liam Gallagher, The Charlatans, and DJ Dave Haslam have all announced similar benefit shows. The Manchester music scene have pulled together with amazing bravery in the wake of the shocking event, and appear determined to fight back. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to hold it together after having such an integral part of your community threatened, and they deserve admiration, respect, and sympathy, for defending something really worthwhile.

If you’re sitting at home, wondering whether live music is now too dangerous, and whether you should just stay home and watch Netflix – it’s not up to me to tell you what to do, and it goes without saying that you should always do what you think is right for you – but I’d implore you to think about the sacrifice you’re making. It might be bigger than you’d realised. As the saying goes, don’t let the bastards grind you down.