When I was 14, I had one thing on my mind — and it wasn’t the forbidden “one thing” that everyone else had on theirs. In May of my eighth-grade year, I rushed to the parking lot after school, whipped my backpack into the trunk of my mother’s car, and grabbed onto her arms with urgency.
“Did we get Aerosmith tickets?”
Liking — though in reality, fawning over — Aerosmith while every other girl in my class had eyes for Chris Brown did very few favors for my popularity in school. I was bullied pretty relentlessly for liking “dad rock,” but it was something I was willing to endure because Aerosmith was the first band that ever “clicked” for me. Almost 10 years after the first time I ever paid attention to their music, my career revolves around finding out where music “clicks” for myself and other people. It may have been odd to others, but listening to Get Your Wings when I was 12 was transformative, to say the least.
When my parents and I rolled up to the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, I saw a lot of things my innocent Catholic schoolgirl eyes had never seen before: Teenagers in the parking lot smuggling in a gallon-size bag of weed; cops on go-carts; and said cops on go-carts busting said teens for said gallon-size bag of weed.
Security confiscated my “Kiss Me Steven Tyler” sign, but that didn’t dim my spirits. Before an usher could direct us to our seats, I ventured into seating Section 3 and counted the rows of seats meticulously, my awe growing as I moved closer and closer to the stage. Our final destination was eight rows away from the front and my adolescent heart peed its pants. To this day, I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the same amount of energy as I did that night, where I rebounded like a coiled spring for every song of the two-hour show.
Every teenage girl has at least one of these star-struck encounters and remembers the nitty-gritty details: The way your sweaty palms clutch your ticket with pride, carefully selecting the best merch in the booth, feeling your vocal cords shrivel up as you scream to the chorus of every song. It’s something that every girl at Monday’s Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena was looking forward to blabbing about the next day at school, and someday to their children — grandchildren even. But no fan leaving Manchester Arena on that tragic night will ever want to talk about that show, and some of them won’t ever have the chance to. The fact that the concert — a formative event for nearly every girl there — was under attack as fans left the show undermines the very sanctuary that musicians like Ariana Grande have worked to secure.
These events are meant to leave a positive and confident imprint on fans — a mini source of strength and inspiration they can pull from the back of their minds when needed — but what they got instead was a scarring and violent message of hatred. My own pocket-size source of strength came when I was 19; a few years older, but no less significant.
As magical as it was to see a then-61-year-old Steven Tyler shake his pleather-covered ass in my general direction, seeing Lady Gaga on her artRave tour remains the closest thing I’ve ever had to a spiritual experience while in the belly of a concert hall.
ARTPOP, despite its bright and colorful façade, was an album born of suffering. True to rave form, the EDM influences on most of the songs build to a point where the beat “drops,” except every drop on the album presented a breaking point of pain for the singer. The album was a culmination of trauma for Gaga, from being raped at 19 to breaking her hip onstage and cancelling the remainder of her Born This Way Ball tour in 2012.
While infectiously upbeat, the pain in the album deeply resonated with me in 2013, the year I had graduated from high school. That senior year I had become excruciatingly sick and went undiagnosed for months, causing me to suffer privately for most of the year. When the spring came, I spent most of my time in my bed or on the guidance counselor’s couch at school, curled up and wondering if I was actually going walk at graduation. With all of this so fresh to me, ARTPOP presented a source of recovery and strength, one where my idol and I had something in common and were able to bond over it. My wounds were still scabbing over, but ARTPOP eased the healing process for me.
2014 marked the first time I saw Gaga perform live at the TD Garden, and I had every intention of making it a celebratory experience. I glued real (surprisingly heavy) seashells over a skimpy top to mimic her Aphrodite seashell bikini, adorning it with fake pearls and rhinestones for extra glitz. When people asked if the seashells were real, I’d rap my knuckles on them with pride to demonstrate that they weren’t cheap-o plastic imitations. Even weeks after the show, the remnants from my outfit (namely the pearls) would turn up in my bed, my laundry, and my shoes.
Before the show, I posed with my friend in the photo booth, prominently displaying my shoddy gluegun fashion handiwork, and signed a book for fans that Gaga supposedly read after every tour.
“She wants to know what your bravest moment is,” the tour employee said to me, handing the enormous scrapbook over. I wrote an emotional note explaining my own hardships from the past year, thanked her for her strength, and signed it with a Yves Saint Laurent lipstick kiss. After telling her my secrets, I not only felt closer to her than ever, but I felt like she cared about me more than ever.
When the lights dimmed that night, I was allowed to be a lot of things in public that I usually had to keep to myself.
Even at 19, miming every word to “G.U.Y.” was the first time I had ever allowed myself to be sexy in public. I was allowed to be angry and frustrated about how I felt life had wronged me as I ground my heels into the cement and snarled during “Aura” and “Swine.” But most importantly, I was allowed to be sick and in recovery without being embarrassed or ashamed of the pitfall that had been thrust upon me in the past year.
Girls — young, old, of any age, really — probably felt on Monday night the same way as “Dangerous Woman” and “Into You” echoed in the Manchester Arena while they struggled to dance in heels for the first time.
To this day, I find myself in very few situations where it’s socially acceptable to be sick or even insinuate that you’re not doing well. It’s a reality that many young men and women of different backgrounds and identities have to face (and often, keep to themselves) on a regular basis.
As per tradition of the long line of pop stars that have come before her, Lady Gaga concerts remain a pop culture sanctuary, welcoming not only the self-described misfits, but also every other person who has a part of themselves that’s socially “improper” to tell people about. And while attending these pop shows are important for everyone involved, the impression it leaves on young girls — especially those who are taught to keep their legs crossed, back straight, and mouth closed at all times — is invaluable in being able develop and embrace who you really are and the bullshit you’ve had to push through.
As hated as the phrase has become in 2017, these concerts are meant to be “safe spaces,” both literally and figuratively for fans. With a single event on May 22, that notion has been torn to shreds, as Grande fearfully cancelled the remainder of her European tour and concertgoers are not forced to be more weary — or just skip concerts altogether out of concerns for their safety.
There are no doubt countless mothers around the world who are today deciding against allowing their young daughters to go see their heroes on stage. And those girls will be missing out on one of their life’s most transformative experiences. Everyone remembers their first concert. You’re likely thinking back on yours as you read this.
Where I and many others have the privilege to sit and recollect the details of my first and then favorite concert, the victims of last night will never be able to do the same. The survivors will always have a tarnished view of that show, and maybe even their idol. Suddenly, safety has become a luxury instead of right or expectation. This isn’t how it should be.
As many people have been forced to remind themselves recently in the turbulent climate of current events, we have to take time to emphasize that this is not normal, nor should it be. Because every girl should have the chance to smile as she wakes up the next morning with memories (not to mention pearls and rhinestones) from last night’s pop show dancing in her head.