Ariana Grande is “overwhelmed”, and way too brief, at Manchester Pride Live

Grande delivers an emotional headline performance at Manchester Pride Live, while pop hero Olly Alexander renames Years & Years ‘Queers & Queers’

Towards the end of her highly anticipated Manchester Pride Live Sunday evening (August 25) headline set, Ariana Grande looks visibly moved as she addresses the crowd. 

“I love you Manchester. Thank you so much for having me back and I’m so happy to be here with you,” she says, shaking. “It means the world so thank you for having me and yeah, thank you so much. I’m sorry – I’m so nervous. I have so much more to say but I’m very overwhelmed so thank you and I love you and happy, happy, happy Pride.” 

Though she did not directly address the spectre of previous events, her first appearance in the city since her One Love benefit concert in 2017 was always destined to be emotional. 

After the senseless tragedy of the Arena attack, she has a unique and close bond with the city – and was even made an honorary citizen of Manchester. That the bomb callously targeted young women and gay men – Ariana’s core fanbase – adds an extra layer of poignancy and means that the safe space love-bubble of Pride, where glittery rainbow flag-daubed faces smile and topless men in trademark Ariana bunny masks dance together feels like an act of defiance, and proof that love and acceptance will always triumph. 

Even so, the announcement that she would headline Pride Live – which took place in a  new location of the Mayfield Depot, a former railway station, away from the traditional setting of the gay village – did not pass without controversy. Much of this can be seen as part of a wider debate about the commercialisation of Prides in general and whether they should be a party or a protest (although you could argue those two things are not mutually exclusive). 

Some were angered by price hikes – at £70 for a weekend ticket, it was nearly double the cost of the previous year, with fears that it could be pricing people out of Pride. Others questioned whether a straight performer should be headlining a gay event – a position that ignores the special connection that queer fans have with pop icons (get the alchemy right like Kylie and you have the most loyal fans in the world; misstep and you’re like Taylor Swift tone-deafly equating homophobia to internet trolls in the reductive ‘You Need To Calm Down’).  Some fretted that it would also dilute the LGBT+ aspect of Pride by attracting straight people who just saw it as a chance to see a pop gig (others on the weekend bill included Cheryl, Tulisa, Kim Petras and Emeli Sandé) – especially as there’s no Manchester date, apart from this, on her ‘Sweetener’ world tour. 

Tonight does little to quell the backlash. Such is the demand to see Ariana on the main outdoor Yard stage that it’s one-in-one-out by the time Pride warhorses Bananarama have taken to the stage at 7pm. “WHY ARE WE WAITING?” sings the snaking queue, before they then start chanting “LET US IN!”. Regular ticket holders complain of not being able to leave to go to the toilet without having to re-join the queue. After not being allowed in, some – in a fit of apoplectic pique – took to social media to compare it to Fyre Festival. 

Then there’s the fact that, despite being the weekend’s overall headliner, she only plays a brief 35-minute set, arriving onstage at 10.25pm and finishing by the 11pm curfew. Considering Britney and Kylie have previously mounted full shows at Brighton Pride, people might have expected Ariana to follow suit. 

Still – however truncated  – her actual performance is mesmeric. Opening with the transcendent nu-Donna Summer disco of  ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, she’s flanked by umbrella-wielding dancers. She vogues to ‘Be Alright’ and performs chair-based choreography to ‘Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’, but the real star is her voice: divested of the usual distracting arena set pieces means all the attention is on her soaring powerhouse vocals. 

Throughout, she pays tribute to the gay community. “Are you having a good time tonight? Do you mind if we change real fast?” she asks before the sassy, ‘The Sound of Music’-filching ‘7 Rings’ as she and her troupe don pink jackets. “We thought you know, we’d switch it up a little, do something a little more Pride – a little sparklier, a little brighter,” and she dances with an oversized Pride flag during ‘Break Free’. 

“The gays have always had my heart personally,” she explains before marshalling a spine-tinging sing-a-long to ‘Breathin’ – as it’s a song about overcoming panic attacks and anxiety (and as Ariana has admitted to suffering from PTSD), it takes on extra resonance in the city.

“I spent some of the happiest times of my teenage years singing in gay bars in New York City. I was in a Broadway show and whenever I’d finished a show, I would just go to a gay bar and sing Whitney Houston covers until someone would ask me to leave,” she giggles. “So it’s always been such a special thing for me so thank you so much for accepting and celebrating me the way I’ve always accepted you guys.” 

The positive break-up anthem ‘Thank U, Next’ follows, before she culminates with ‘One Last Time’ – a track that hasn’t been included on her recent tour and was released as a charity single after the arena bombing. “This has been so beautiful and we were told to keep this somewhat abbreviated but we couldn’t leave without doing one more special thing for you guys because obviously Manchester holds a very special place in my heart,” she says. As the communal choir rings out into the night air, it’s clearly a feeling that’s mutual. 

The previous evening (Saturday August24 ) ,Years & Years headlined the main stage, with pop evangelist frontman Olly Alexander declaring: “We are Queers & Queers!”. Clad in a sequinned crop top and black sport shorts, he jokes that he “wore such a revealing outfit” because he’s “on the hunt”.  He impressively slut-drops his way through a set that begins with the ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’-esque ‘Sanctify’ (a heart-on-sleeve, tentpole-in-pants number about the emotional minefield of an affair with a straight-identifying man) and culminates in an imperious ‘King’ in a manner that makes you feel guilty for missing #LegDay at the gym. The bangers come thick and fast: ‘Shine’, ‘Karma’, ‘Meteorite’ – about, as Olly describes, “wanting to be sexually dominated by someone”, a statement greeted by lusty approval. ‘Palo Santo’ – the Bond theme-like title track from last year’s impressive envelope-pushing album – soars live, and although they stoke a party atmosphere throughout (with Olly donning  furry rainbow deeley-boppers that have been thrown onstage and joking about wearing a “very unflattering and quite uncomfortable jockstrap”), as befits one of the most vital voices in pop and LGBTQ+ issues, Olly doesn’t lose sight of the true meaning of Pride. Halfway through, he pays tribute to those who don’t conform to gender expectations – especially important when some 41 per cent of trans people report suffering a hate crime in the last year. 

Olly Alexander of Years & Years, at Manchester Pride Live

“I personally just wanted to give some love to the incredible….because I have so many of these people in my life and I wish to say how amazing they are, but every trans person, non-binary person, gender fluid person, people who are living beyond the gender binary – that’s shit’s fucking hard, okay!,” he says. 

“That shit is so fucking hard and it’s only when you start to see how thin the boundaries of gender are and the people that go beyond that, the hate and the shit that they get….it’s absolutely outrageous. And transphobia is literally the sister of homophobia, so if you feel like it’s not a problem for you, it really is.” 

Chants of”‘Olly! Olly! Olly! Oi! Oi! Oi!” break  after the skipping-rope break-up pop of ‘If You’re Over Me’, while the backing singers are allowed a spotlight-moment by covering, fittingly, Ariana Grande’s ‘No Tears Left To Cry’ and Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ (well-judged in that not only is it a Pride anthem, but like Madge, ‘Palo Santo’ traffics in the themes of sex and religion). Unlike Ariana, we get a full shimmering pop spectacle – rather than what feels like a megamix of an arena show – and by the time of closer ‘King’, which Olly performs wrapped in a Pride flag like a cape, the audience are eating out of his hand. As he succinctly puts it earlier, “there aren’t many bands like us in the world”. 

Ariana Grande played:

‘No Tears Left to Cry’
‘Be Alright’
‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’
‘Side to Side’
‘7 Rings’
‘Break Free’
‘Thank U, Next’
‘One Last Time’

Years & Years played: 

‘Eyes Shut’
‘Palo Santo’
‘Lucky Escape’
‘All for You’
‘If You’re Over Me’