Terror is completely upending the relationship between musicians and their fans

A turn of the spotlight.
A turn of the spotlight.
Image: Reuters/Kevork Djansezian
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Justin Bieber fans are doing something peculiar: begging, with all their might, for the pop star not to perform.

Bieber is slated to play an open-air concert in London in July. Yet as the world reels from the violent suicide attack that killed 22 people at fellow pop singer Ariana Grande’s Manchester, England concert on May 22—of which many details are still murky—Bieber’s largely-teenage fanbase is flooding social media with desperate concerns over safety, theirs, but largely his. ”Cancel Justin’s concert in the UK, please! We want him to be safe, please,” one person, for instance, wrote on Bieber’s manager’s Instagram account.

While Bieber hasn’t yet spoken about the status of his performance, several other artists have canceled their upcoming concert dates—including Grande herself, whose managers said yesterday that she will not play any of the shows lined up on her current tour “until we can further assess the situation and pay our proper respect to those lost.” And in the hours immediately after Monday’s attack, Grande fans launched hashtags to corral their community, sent prayers her way online, and—most interestingly—hailed the singer as a symbol of symbol of freedom, the likes of which, many speculate, is what drew the bomber to target her concert in the first place.

Horrifying as it is to think, attacks at entertainment events—vast, crowded areas that are inherently hard to defend—seem to have become the new normal. Drake, who toured Europe extensively earlier this year, also noted that terror had been in the forefront of his mind when planning the trip. That merely showing up to play a show could put one’s fans in danger is something that most musicians have never had to worry about.

The idea that Grande was pointedly chosen, for her value as feminist or a champion of free expression or anything else, is completely unsubstantiated. Police are still investigating the attacker’s motives, and there is a chance his selection of venue was utterly random. But it hasn’t stopped hordes of Grande fans and others from assigning her a shining morality. (This is the same singer who, two years ago, was deemed an anti-American diva after her spiteful licking of a donut.) Grande’s fanbase of young, impressionable girls has been hit hard, and believing in a moral balance in the world is one way for them to cope.

Nor has the lack of association between Grande and the attack prevented critics from calling out Grande for not stepping up and doing more. ”Too bad [Ariana] is a spoiled brat. Would love to see her visiting fans at hospital; could be the first pop icon to truly condemn terror,” one activist wrote on Twitter.

This same automatic attribution—or demand—of goodness happened with the Eagles of Death Metal, the punk band that was performing at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November 2015 when a terrorist attack killed 89 people in the crowd. The band collected funds for victims after the attack, but saw media attention turn instantly against them when news came out that its lead singer was a Trump-supporting gun enthusiast who accused Bataclan security staff of being complicit in the attack. When the concert hall reopened in 2016, it denied entry to the singer.

Pre-internet, deaths at the Altamont Free Concert in California and other music performances that ended in bloodshed compelled artists to speak out against violence and maybe write a song or two about them—not turn into a leader or pedestaled symbol. (Then again, those were localized incidents caused by overcrowding or rowdy behavior, not targeted attacks.) The sentiment of artists giving space to mourn, needing to console their fans, suspending entertainment out of moral obligation, is a response to a new level of violence.

Musicians now collect donations for affected fans and take up causes to show their vigilance. Grande is rumored to even be contributing to Manchester victims’ funerals. Yet it’s one thing to ask musicians to cancel their shows out of public safety concerns, and another thing altogether to insist that they be paragons of freedom or morality. That’s calling artists to a duty that they never claimed they were capable of taking on.