In the kitchen, my daughter is dancing to a song on iTunes. Later, in the shower, her voice carries down the stairs, note-bending impressions of Zara Larsson and Little Mix. My son plays with SoccerStarz figures using various FIFA soundtracks as the background to his match. This has brought Major Lazer and Tune-Yards into his life – a bonus, for me. Every Friday night, he lies in bed, listening to his favourite pop show on the radio. Together, they watch TV chart countdowns, squabbling over number-one predictions. Their lives are full of music, but it started a long time ago. For some, memories are invoked by smell or images, but music always performs some sort of alchemy or archaeology on my brain.
Recently, I heard Ms Dynamite’s Dy-Na-Mi-Tee again and fully relived one November day, when it was playing on the car radio. I was newly pregnant and my husband was driving us to our son’s first scan. In the passenger seat, I cried, because my body had had a habit of letting me down. In the dim light of the consultant’s room (we are never more vulnerable than when we’re lying down), I am fully expecting to hear awful news. But there he is, boldly circling the screen like an aerial performer. Months later, in the dome of my belly, he turned somersaults at a Joanna Newsom gig, just as his sister did at Kraftwerk a year later (the fact that she was “there” and not him, still causes spats). Every time I hear that Ms Dynamite song, I think of him and that terrifying scan and – post-cancer – how longed for he was.
When he finally arrived, he didn’t sleep for months. I played songs to soothe him – Amiina, Sigur Rós – rowing his buggy back and forth like a boat on the waves. When he did nap, I tried to work, within the fitful timeline of his sleep bursts. Before children, I was a music journalist, a dream job for a pop-junkie kid and an indie teen who bought too many records. At 14, my older brother brought me to my first big gig (REM) and my dad came along, too. Clad in Doc Martens and a The Wonder Stuff T-shirt, I was out in the grown-up world, staring in awe at the older cool kids. I wanted to ditch him in the crowd, mortified. He has impeccable taste in music, which only dawned on me when I grew up and starting borrowing his vinyl. I’ve since atoned for that act of teen desertion by bringing him to Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Ennio Morricone gigs. He continues to pass on his love of music by making mix CDs for my children of vintage songs and film soundtracks they like.
My children. The small people that keep growing up, shockingly so. They’ve had minor music phases, picked up by osmosis: the Ramones, Vampire Weekend, Róisín Murphy. I won’t lie – my heart nearly burst the day my son asked for Wuthering Heights on repeat.
Teen girls could rule the world, with all their energy. So much effort had been put into outfits, tans and complicated face sequins
Now, at eight and 10, they're finding their own musical tastes. For Christmas, we bought them Justin Bieber tickets and they asked to see those white rectangles over and over, excited at the prospect of their first concert. Every time something new develops in them – height, new words or discarding once-loved toys that are now “for babies” – it feels like a little loss. My son walked to the shops on his own for the first time recently, and that was another. One day, I’m coaxing milk bubbles from his belly by flattening my hand on his back; the next, he is nearly as tall as me and we’re going to football matches together. Whenever these new changes come, quick as a bullet train, it feels like everything is shifting; that I will have to let them go a little further away from me every year, and that I can only protect them a certain amount.
A month ago, the world watched in horror as events unfolded at Ariana Grande’s Manchester show. A collective incomprehension at all that optimism and youth wiped out. All those happy kids and the sheer cruelty of it. From their first weeks, children learn that music is safety and security. That sung words and melodies are as protective as a wall. And now they’re learning that there are people in the world who want to shatter that. They asked lots of questions about Manchester and it’s hard to talk to people you love about an act of utter hate. Last week, as we got ready for Bieber in Dublin, they wanted to know why we couldn’t bring a rucksack or big bag. I muttered about the heat and crowd safety, because who wants to mention bombs on a night full of such smiling anticipation? We drove across the city to the same venue where I saw REM play. In the throng, my daughter nervously regarded the crowd size, but when older girls started to dance, she copied their moves, punching the air, gasping at the fireworks. Teen girls could rule the world, with all their energy. So much effort had been put into outfits, tans and complicated face sequins. These girls were elated and confident, completely unjudged. And more than that, they adore each other, roaming the toilet and ice-cream queues, all swished hair and linked arms. My daughter watched them forensically, a longing to want to be them, etched on her face. Wanting to be here with her friends, not her mum and brother. In every one of them, I see her in six or seven years’ time. Confident and in love with life and music.
The Bieber tour is called Purpose and, whether you think it’s slick marketing or tour-speak, he talked to the crowd about everyone having a purpose. “You all matter,” he said and they believed him.
Music binds us together. It is the centre point of life’s key events – birthdays, weddings and funerals; consoles us when someone stomps all over our heart; the source of spontaneous dancing with friends (as a kid or, when you’re older, after much wine). And pop, always scoffed at with its sugary vibes and auto tune, has so much to offer, especially when seen through the eyes of those who find so much to love it for.
Nothing can trump the vitality and possibility of young boys and girls watching a singer they revere. Music, as well as love, can conquer all. It is being under the lights, when a thousand phones held aloft looked like a galaxy of stars; of feeling the thunder rumble of the bass in your chest; of buying a T-shirt and wearing it until it falls apart; of counting the hours to school the next day to tell your friends that you were there, because you were – collective voices singing on the breeze of a still-bright school night. The first of many gigs, of sharing the night with strangers who love music as much as you do.
Justin Bieber’s Purpose tour arrives in the UK this weekend