Posted Sep 1st, 2013 (12:42 pm) by Paul Rice
Lollapalooza 2013

Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell founded Lollapalooza as a traveling rock tour, freak show, and celebration of counterculture in 1991. It traversed America every summer from 1991 through 1997, helping launch such bands as Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against The Machine, Ministry, and basically every band ever called “grunge.” 2005 saw Lollapalooza reborn as a stationary, three-day event in Chicago's Grant Park, a form in which it has now thrived for two summers longer than the original incarnation. Then and now, it was an alternative/indie music extravaganza which consciously drew no boundaries between genre or subgenre--or era, for that matter, carefully blending new and old acts for an eclectic, unpredictable experience.


Grant Park was not designed as a music festival venue, but Lollapalooza's organizers have done an admirable job compensating for the park's inherent setbacks. Every part of the park is made to serve a purpose, from various stage/audience setups to multiple lanes of foot traffic to quiet little groves where one can take a break from the commotion. The bands this year adhered excellently to set times, without any technical difficulties to speak of (at least where I was). They've got a fast reaction time, too--rain turned some of the concert areas into mudpits on Friday, and by Saturday morning, those areas were not only clean but nicely mulched for our convenience. And they're embracing the future. Since 2011, they've offered a free smartphone app that keeps fans updated regarding schedules, maps, and general festival information, as well as more in-depth summaries of all vendors and musicians involved. The biggest logistical shortcoming this year was the bathroom situation, particularly in one corner of the festival. Perry's stage, the constant EDM party tucked away on the southwest side of the park, empties into the main north-south street, which also happens to host the majority of the food vendors. The street is constantly bottlenecked, as hungry folks (who never really have to wait in long lines!) collide with brisk foot traffic and tripping Perry's kids. Although the festival arranged eleven generous banks of port-o-johns around the festival grounds, the one bank of toilets by Perry's sported incredible lines at all times, a situation which devolved on Saturday night into a rotating barrage of savage EDM fans peeing on a fence. For hours. Not classy, Chicago. To their credit, Lollapalooza probably did have enough places to pee, but the planners must not have foreseen the demand at that one little corner of savages.



Visually, Lollapalooza is nice to look at. It has a clear brand, a sort of theme. Every stage is flanked by big, quirky banners featuring different bizarre, minimalist artwork. Elsewhere throughout the festival are various pieces of visual art which convey a sense of glorified weirdness. But the most impressive thing about Lollapalooza's brand is how they don't let their sponsors compromise it. The festival organizers tread a tricky trail by letting sponsors advertise openly at all, given the countercultural vibe Lolla tries to adhere to, but it's clear that the power isn't all in the corporations' hands--every sponsor's presence was finely tailored to Lollapalooza's aesthetic, from the Toyota Hybrid House Party offering free phone recharges and handing out silkscreen tote bags and cooling bandanas for free, to the Samsung Galaxy Experience, which offered popsicles (of course) and incorporated their little devices to enable concertgoers to make flower wreaths and personalized henna tattoos. VH1 was there offering photo shoots to turn your friends into an animated GIF. None of the sponsors were really advertising their products; they were just putting their name out there and helping improve the festival experience.


Non-Musical Entertainment

If you have kids, bring them to Lollapalooza because it's free if they're 10 and under, and they can go to the Kidzapalooza stage for a smorgasbord of kid-friendly bands, activities, freebies and entertaining events from skateboarding and tumbling to hip-hop workshops. Elsewhere, a long, diverse row of tents called Green Street offered tons of socially conscious and artistically awesome products. In one walk down the aisle, you could register to vote, buy handmade apparel and a vintage suitcase repurposed as a boom box, register to donate bone marrow, get involved with a non-profit, and buy a handpainted portrait of Dave Grohl.


Sustainability Practices

Speaking of socially conscious, a serious environmental war goes on in Grant Park during Lolla--Lollapalooza vs. drunkenness. The festival organizers really do try to be sustainable. For an extra $3 on a ticket, one can pay to balance out 200 pounds worth of emissions, in addition to the festival's other offset programs (and bio-diesel fuel generators). Every trashcan is accompanied by a recycling option (even better, a third compost option in the food areas). Eco-friendly Boxed Water is the for-sale water of choice for those who don't take advantage of the free Camelbak-sponsored refilling stations. In addition to ingredient-conscious vendors, a Farmer's Market section is off to the side, where even more local vendors offer intentional, sustainable food options. I was there with a vegetarian and someone with a corn intolerance, and both of them had dozens of dining options in spite of their limitations, whereas stereotypical carnival food would have offered them next to nothing (gluten-avoiders were in good hands, as well). But in spite of all these efforts, by late afternoon, every square inch of the park seemed to be covered in smashed beer cans and discard dinnerware. It was like a chain reaction--once one person dropped something, the whole field became a trashcan. Perhaps it was the booze, or maybe it was just a vibe of nonchalance, but it wasn't pretty. But Lollapalooza had an answer in the “Rock & Recycle” stations. Traveling Lolla representatives distributed bags to anyone interested in their offer of “Free Swag.” The deal is, fill a big green garbage bag with trash, get a free shirt. There were lots of takers, and the park appreciated it. After every performance, the crowd would leave behind a sea of debris, but there were always conscientious festivalgoers cleaning up after them. Needless to say, we were impressed.


Overall Festival Atmosphere

This year was my fifth Lollapalooza experience and my first since 2009. While all of its best qualities remain unchanged, I noticed an interesting trend. While the setlist has always included some relatively respectable Top 40 pop stuff, there was a little more of it this year. Maybe this is because the pop music of today is more influenced by the underground stuff than just about any time except the early '90s, when Lollapalooza was spawned, but the sheer number of mainstream successes--Imagine Dragons, Lana Del Rey, Ellie Goulding, a host of palatable singer/songwriters and borderline acts like Icona Pop, The Killers, The Lumineers, and, of course, Mumford and Sons--changed the tone of the festival from what I remembered. This year had three distinct types of festivalgoer. There was the old-school Lolla fan: the indie kid, the hipster, whatever you want to call it. Someone who appreciates obscure and eclectic music, who believes in the underlying causes that Lollapalooza supports, the free-thinking, positive atmosphere that ties Lollapalooza's music and ideals together. These fans are the best to be around. Young and old, they enjoy the shows with respect, responding appropriately, enthusiastically, but never talking down on anyone or infringing on anyone else's experience. In years past, the whole crowd seemed to be like this.

This year I noticed another group. These fans were here for a band or two, or maybe a song or two from the handful of bands they were familiar with, but they weren't really there for the music--at least, not in the same way as the first group. These are the people who would complain loudly about a band during their set before smashing a beer can underfoot, who would listen up for “I Will Wait” and yell to their friends for the rest of a set. They seemed to be there for the festival experience, but their idea of the festival experience didn't seem to have much to do with the music or the atmosphere that Lollapalooza tries to create, and as a result, they brought the whole thing down a little. Some bands attracted lots more of these than others. We learned to prioritize relatively unknown, uncool (to this demographic) bands like New Order or Local Natives just to stay in the company of a better crowd. A younger version of this type mostly showed up for Lana Del Rey: tanned teenagers (in the words of Regina Spektor, “cleavage, cleavage, cleavage”) with giant wreaths of plastic flowers in their hair who clearly respected the idea of the “hippy” but weren't really sure how to act it out, hovering detachedly through earlier acts so they could indulge their utter devotion to a specific headliner or two, or join our third group.

The ever-present Perry's crowd: love them or hate them, they mostly stick to themselves, bumping and twerking (and whatever else the kids are doing these days) ferociously at the segregated EDM stage. I've never known someone who joins that group and ever leaves it; it seems like people either avoid it completely or stick to it fanatically. To each his own--I respect Lolla's diversity in including to the festival, and EDM is definitely a relevant, thriving corner of the music industry, even if it's hard to assign to it any word like “counterculture” or “alternative” anymore. Perry's stage might as well be its own festival, but you can't blame an idealist like Perry Farrell hoping to unite them with everyone else.



Lollapalooza is changing with the times, carefully balancing continued relevance with faithfulness to its core ideals. Lolla has some shortcomings, but they're the types of shortcomings no festival of its size seems to be able to escape--the shortcomings of thousands of people letting loose in a small area, mostly. Lollapalooza is unique for the wide breadth of its bands, its appeal to all ages and musical tastes. It has something for everyone there and something for everyone to discover, too. As a weekend festival in a city that shuts down between days, there isn't that element of alternate reality that a camping festival like Bonnaroo has, but to many, it's worth it to trade that for the convenience of a city, the ability to rest and recharge before coming back for another day. The price is high but not unreasonable--if used wisely, the $200 or so one might pay for a 3-day pass buys a lot of musical value. If you're not the type of person who would see $200 worth of concerts in a year, it makes sense that Lollapalooza wouldn't appeal to you, but if you would spend that much, Lolla offers a lot of bang for your buck. But what it all comes down to, in defining what sets Lollapalooza apart, is its legacy, which is truly alive, not a memory. Everything, from its lineups to its recycling options, is chosen with care for the greater good by veteran festival organizers who are building on one of the first successful formulas ever for this sort of thing and continually improving it. It may not be perfect, but the line-ups are always great, and if a festival is more than just the line-up, Lollapalooza is easily one of the best.

Final Score: 90/100

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