How does one even write about Lollapalooza nowadays?
I’ve been going to the festival since its inception in 1991, and have only missed a couple, during the fest’s darker years between 1996 and 2004. I’ve watched it grow from a single-day traveling show whose bills were filled with musical misfits into the four-day behemoth it’s become since taking root in Chicago as a destination festival in 2005. And this year’s Lollapalooza sees the whole endeavor at what I believe to be a possible turning point.
This was the year that festival fatigue caused a number of other destination events to be canceled, and while Lollapalooza is in no danger of that happening, it’s clear that the shrinking talent pool of acts that can draw throughout the day is causing a shift. I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of talented artists on the undercard, but the trend seemed to show they weren’t drawing the crowds, or even curious onlookers, like they did in previous years.
This was also the year that even Perry’s stage, a destination for drunk teenagers and 20-somethings that just want to rage, seemed tamer than usual. This could be because EDM and hip-hop is no longer constrained to appearing only on that stage, and while that’s certainly a positive thing, it means that there’s not a single central location for the kids that just want to party their faces off.
Overall, what this all means is that Lollapalooza felt curiously less crowded than in previous years (with the exception of a select few up-and-coming acts that were booked on woefully small stages compared to their current popularity). While this certainly makes for a more pleasant experience when navigating the grounds or watching bands, it just felt odd to be able to do so. On the plus side, arrests and hospitalizations were down this year, so I’m going to mark that as a big checkmark in the plus column.
And each year I am truly impressed by the small city and community that gets erected behind the fences that fans never see. Watching the massive coordination and dedicated staff it takes to pull this thing off is always inspiring to me. I don’t think attendees are necessarily aware of that portion of the fest, and that’s a shame. I admit I feel lucky to be able to experience that, since it really does offer a rounded view of how the whole weekend works.
So, what about the music?
Four days of music is a daunting stretch of time to fill, and this year made me really wish they would return to the three-day format. It will never happen—there’s too much money to be made, the new format is pretty firmly entrenched, and it is simply the new state of things—but adding the extra day does seem to have detracted from the overall experience.
And this was the year I found myself arguing for more pop acts in the headliner space than rock acts. When Bruno Mars played his crowd made the gathering to see The National look like a small club show. And even Jack White’s fans seemed skimpy when compared to ODESZA’s crowd at the other end of the park as both artists closed out the weekend. I’m officially tired of “Lolla purists” grousing about music they’re unfamiliar with; it’s time to move on from that complaint. While I’m thinking about it, I’m also done with people complaining about sponsorships and brand activations that are all over the place. Even the very first Lollapalooza had those. And, honestly, they’re so pervasive I’d be willing to bet most attendees don’t even really register them any more.
As in previous years, I tried to spend time checking out bands I wasn’t familiar with over the ones I was already a fan of. To do so I found myself hanging out with younger writers and checking out the bands they were excited about. I would have missed Greta Van Fleet had I not done this, and their mixture of Sunset Strip and just pure rock was one of the true highlights of the weekend.
Bones (UK), a trio fronted by dual guitarists, also blew me away, even though their set was on the usually quiet BMI stage. It was a passionate, political show that energized me for the rest of the day when I saw them. Heck, I even enjoyed Portugal. The Man—an act I had zero interest in seeing until another writer convinced me to give them a chance—as they mixed a healthy batch of covers with the slightly subversive party rock.
Sure, there were the usual suspects who also impressed. Carly Rae Jepsen’s show was rapturously happy, and Chromeo got a massive crowd dancing, complete with an inflatable whale being thrown around like a surreal beach ball. Franz Ferdinand played earlier in the weekend, and I suspect won over a slew of new fans unfamiliar with their blend of dance-rock. And LIZZO was the queen of the “if you missed this set, you fucked up” award.
Aside from seeing dozens of bands, though, I still found it hard at the end of each day, when in conversation with friends, to answer the question, “who was good today?” I’d have to refer to my notes, because taking in that much music is just so overwhelming that you honestly suffer some serious short-term memory loss in order to even process the band you’re currently seeing.
So, yeah, Lollapalooza is a sprawling behemoth now. But that’s not a bad thing. Overall, it’s either your thing or it’s not. Me? It’s still my thing, and I look forward to seeing more changes organizers might make in subsequent years.
And yeah, you’ll probably see me there in 2019, roaming the grounds again, looking for good music, and talking to fans.