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A Different Sort Of USO Show

Ariana Grande performing
Ariana Grande in February 2017. Photo by Emma Sheehan.

Partway through the broadcast of Sunday’s magnificent One Love Manchester benefit concert, it occurred to me that this was another version of the USO road show, the sort that Bob Hope used to lead to boost the morale of troops from Berlin to Vietnam.

It might have been when Ariana Grande embraced a weeping girl as the child and the rest of her Parrs Wood High School choir performed “You Are My Everything” with Grande, who was making her first appearance since a bomber attacked fans as they exited her May 22 Manchester concert. Some of those high school choir members had attended the show that night.

Or it might have been when will.i.am, frontman for The Black Eyed Peas, shouted “What’s up, London?” as he took to the stage in Manchester, a city 160 miles to the north. Unlike some observers, apparently including Britain’s Daily Mail, I did not assume that the American was confused about his location. With less than 24 hours having passed since a separate attack that began on London Bridge and progressed to a nearby neighborhood, I understood that will.i.am was merely acknowledging that the war on terror is being fought everywhere, by schoolchildren, office workers, commuters and concertgoers as much as by soldiers, sailors and marines.

Entertainers perform countless benefit shows every year, from local fundraisers to major productions like the 1985 Live Aid concert for African famine relief. Such performances aim to help victims of misfortune, which is a different thing than aiding those who are targeted by a self-declared “state” bent on sowing mayhem and fear.

Sunday’s event was meant to boost the spirits of all those on the front lines of our current conflict, reassuring them that – as many of the performers declared – love will conquer hate. Hence the resemblance to the United Services Organization shows that began when America entered World War II, and the British equivalent, which were first organized a couple of years earlier under the name Entertainments National Service Association or ENSA (the joke was that it stood for “Every Night Something Awful”) and which continue today for Her Majesty’s forces as Combined Services Entertainment.

Generations of celebrities from both sides of the Atlantic have sacrificed personal time and professional opportunity to support the troops. Beyond a few hours’ diversion from the monotony punctuated by horror that war typically presents, such visits are meant to drive home the message that nobody fights alone.

From the moment Grande announced that she wanted to return to the city where she pronounced herself “broken” after the attack on her fans, the singer’s peers rallied to her side. Among the first were Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, both of whom know what it is like to achieve pop music icon status at as early an age as Grande did, and Katy Perry, who is a veteran of actual USO shows.

The list grew from there. The American contingent included Pharrell Williams, Grande’s boyfriend and duet partner Max Miller, and Victoria Monet, who had performed with Grande on the night of the Manchester attack. The British acts included Coldplay, Robbie Williams (who reunited with his former band Take That for the event), Ireland’s Niall Horan (of British-Irish group One Direction), vocalist Imogen Heap (whom Grande called “my idol”) and the female quartet Little Mix.

There was drama and surprise. Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons opened the show although he was not on the announced bill. Liam Gallagher, who co-founded the Manchester band Oasis before leaving it for a solo career, also made an unannounced appearance, reportedly having been persuaded by Pharrell Williams to fly to Manchester directly from a music festival in Germany. The American R&B singer Usher was on the list of artists scheduled for the event but did not appear, with no explanation immediately given for his absence according to Manchester press reports. Unlike every other artist on the stage, Bieber played without any accompanying musicians and apparently chose his songs at the last minute: “Love Yourself” and “Cold Water.”

Scooter Braun, who manages Grande and Bieber, took the stage and credited Grande for conceiving and organizing the event. While she may have played the role of commanding general, assembling and organizing the three-hour event in a regional cricket stadium, with so many stars who had so many other commitments at the height of music’s touring season, was a massive undertaking. The performance was broadcast nationally by the BBC and streamed worldwide on multiple websites and social media channels. Yet it all came off virtually flawlessly, at least as seen from my computer screen in Florida. This was testimony partly to Grande’s influence and the industry’s sense of solidarity, but even more to the professionalism of the management team and the Live Nation tour planners.

Grande closed the show with an emotional yet artistically exquisite cover of “Over the Rainbow.”

It was 71 years ago today that Allied troops landed on the Normandy beaches. USO and ENSA shows reached the continent not long afterward.

The current war against mindless terror that calls itself jihad has gone on for many years and likely will go on for many more. There will doubtless be other victims, perhaps even more benefit concerts. Entertainers are often called upon to give of their talents, and they often do so generously. But I doubt I will ever see another event quite like One Love Manchester, where so many were asked to do so much, and so quickly, to support the parents and children who are on the front lines.

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