The Power of Pop
When I was 16 years old I saw Christina Aguilera in Dublin. It was my first ever concert and I was surrounded mostly by young women who loved her the way I did, who whooped and cheered as her male dancer performed an elaborate striptease mid-show. It was the first time I ever let myself admire a man publicly. For this gay teenager, it was a heady experience and one of the countless times I used the pop stars I loved, both as an escape and a way to imagine something different for myself when I was older.
In an age of unlimited entertainment options there’s something that remains potent about the power of a pop concert, something that still carries a certain kind of magic, especially for many young first-time gig goers. Sadly, senseless acts of violence can happen in any crowded space, but the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, where young pop fans (some of whom were only eight years old) were injured or killed was a stark reminder of the kind of joy that’s part of the DNA of the concert space, and how cruel it is to have that ruined by a heinous act.
For many LGBT fans, particularly younger ones, the pop concert is often one of the first places you go to meet people who are like you, and that’s because of the transformative nature of music. Ariana Grande, who performs mostly to an audience of young women and LGBT people, is the latest in a long history of outspoken pop stars who have built loyal followings with fans on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. From this platform, Grande has done a fine job of talking about women’s rights (calling out the treatment of women as objects on social media and interviews) and included images of same -sex couples in her visuals on the tour that took her to Dublin just before she performed in Manchester.
Being in the same room as the person who has become a symbol of your independence, your freedom and your self-expression is a heady thing for young pop fans. The added, and generally longer-lasting connection between LGBT fans and the pop stars we adore is hard to quantify. Whether it’s the gloriously gay crowds that appear for camp stalwarts like Kylie and Madonna, the passionate lesbian audience for Pink, or the young queer audience that flock to see acts like Years and Years and Troye Sivan, for anyone who spends even a few minutes at a show packed with gay fans, the connection is palpable.
David Russell now manages Sia, one of pop’s biggest names, but in his teens he was a music-obsessed young gay man seeking a reflection of his experiences through pop. He found it at a Madonna concert in New York, during her 1993 tour ‘The Girlie Show’.
“In 1993 the LGBT community was reeling from a decade of destruction by the AIDS virus, and half of that decade spent fighting with the US government to fund treatment and research,” he says. “We were also fighting the battle of equality in the military, facing the challenge of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I had come out of the closet as a 15 year-old boy in 1991 and was obsessed with any kind of mainstream acknowledgement or endorsement of my being gay.”
That night, as Russell puts it, Madonna “came through”.
“In the show she not only dedicated a song written specifically for those living with or dying of AIDS to her best friends Martin Burgoyne and Keith Haring, both dead from the virus, but she also dedicated an entire number – in staging, theme, and performance – to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the unfairness of it all.”
Russell recalls “feeling strong, empowered and seen after that show. That it was my idol - and the biggest star in the universe - telling me it was okay to be me, to love without fear and with compassion, is something that I will never forget. It changed me. It made me stronger.”
Performers understand this very different connection with LGBT audiences too. Bette Midler performed at bathouses for queer fans in the 1970s, Madonna not only discussed AIDS and homophobia in the ’80s and ’90s, but called out the Russian government’s anti-LGBT policies on stage in 2012. Madonna and Lady Gaga, who also commented on Russia’s policies, have both faced fines for speaking up about discrimination there. After the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year, acts like Mariah Carey and Adele paid tribute to the dead during their live shows.
Vasilis Mantoulidis is a Greek pop fan and graphic designer who regularly travels the world to see his favourite stars. He pops up on the live DVDs of acts like Madonna and Miley Cyrus.
“With all the pop girls, you pretty much feel gay acceptance,” he says. “It’s always amazing to see faces of especially young fans when concerts start – but I think the past few years it has evolved to even more manic adulation and excitement.” He cites Gaga as a major turning point in fandom. “Now fans know they can be heard by their idols. They went from just observing Madonna, Kylie or Janet, and cheering or clapping, to now being able to feel a sense of interaction with them.”
That Madonna was telling me it was okay to be me, to love without fear and with compassion, is something I will never forget. It changed me. It made me stronger.”
Despite the progress made in LGBT rights and visibilty, young gay fans still crave the connection, and it’s something pop performers themselves are aware of. In her statement after the Manchester attack Grande noted that the tour was “intended to be a safe space for fans. A place for them to escape, to celebrate, to heal, to feel safe and to be themselves. To meet their friends they’ve made online. To express themselves.”
People often sneer about pop not being ‘real music’, but pop is a powerful force, and in live performance that force is concentrated on those who need it most. That power was what I needed as a 16 year-old gay boy in The Point Depot on a cold October night, as I took steps in my journey towards self-acceptance with the help of Christina Aguilera, and the pop concert is still powerful place for those making the same journey in 2017.