(Bloomberg View) -- For a few hours on Sunday, Ariana Grande, a 23-year-old pop star from Boca Raton, Florida, was the leader of the free world. The position has been open for months. Contestants ranging from German chancellor Angela Merkel to, improbably, Chinese President Xi Jinping have been auditioning for the job.
Two weeks after 22 people were killed and more than 60 injured in a terrorist attack at her "Dangerous Woman" concert in Manchester in the U.K., Grande returned to the city to hallow the ground and soothe the survivors. In the process, she rededicated her generation to the proposition that all men -- and women, most definitely women -- are created equal.
While President Donald Trump gutter-tweeted argle-bargle and played another round of golf, Grande delivered what will likely stand as the official American response to the bombing in Manchester and to another terrorist attack, the night before the concert, in London.
Her hastily organized "One Love Manchester" benefit concert rejected fear and bitterness. Time and place, along with a leavening of good will, were sufficient to elevate sugary pop songs to public anthems. Watching the concert streaming online, it was obviously more than a good time. Tears flowed. So did joy. Yet it might also be that a good time is among the most powerful collective responses to jihadist nihilism.
Grande didn’t just replace Trump on the world stage for the day, she subtly refuted him, offering a face that was brave and kind in the wake of terror while accomplishing several useful goals -- raising money for victims, bolstering courage and making the attacks look both puny and pointless. Whatever the terrorists had hoped to produce in Manchester, it certainly wasn't this party.
Benefit concerts have a long pedigree. The history tells us something. The original, the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York, was organized by George Harrison in 1971. The performers were all male. Grande's concert, taking place on the same weekend that the female-directed "Wonder Woman" broke the $100 million barrier at the box office, was a potent showcase for young women.
Had the terrorist attacks provoked an effective, or even decent, response from the president of the United States, Grande's concert would have taken up decidedly less space. But horrific assaults like those in Manchester and London inspire a longing for connection, and a need for affirmation of liberal values, that Trump can't even understand how to meet. His leadership void opens a range of potential for cultural figures beyond the overtly political fare of "Saturday Night Live."
I asked author Elizabeth Samet, the editor of the Norton Anthology of writings on leadership, about the infiltration of cultural leadership into political terrain. She emailed:
In extraordinary circumstances, such figures can transcend their niche. Uncle Tom's Cabin gave new impetus to anti-slavery feeling in the country. Lincoln's apocryphal comment on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe -- "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war" -- tells us something about the perceived power of the novel, which did succeed in making the political realities of the day personal, immediate, dramatic.
Traditionally, reactionary regimes love to censor because they assume that culture has a powerful influence on people's politics. At the 20th-century extremes of totalitarian censorship, we have Stalin exiling Osip Mandelstam for a poem that mocked him, and the Nazis' show of "degenerate art," the catalog for which described the exhibit's purpose to "reveal the philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which follow them." There's also the attractive idea -- which not everyone endorses -- that jazz artists (black and white) contributed to integration and positively affected race relations in the U.S. We want to believe culture can have an ameliorating political influence.
Pop stars and "Wonder Woman" won't defeat Islamic State. But boisterous expressions of commercial and artistic liberty, and the signals they convey about the culture that nurtures them, have long been a crucial element of American soft power.
Trump's White House is as culturally barren as it is politically toxic. Given a president who spreads division at home and abroad, it's especially important to have visible counterpoints in politics, sports, business and the arts. At a crucial hour, the pint-sized Grande showed that America is still big. It's the White House that's gotten small.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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