Lollapalooza: A Green and White Festival

The Early 21st Century North American Music Festival: I have seen it. I have sweated into my shorts as the people beside did the same, bouncing, grinning, feet hurting, high on Bud Lite and/or grass, expectant, anxious, and bored. At such an event, pop music, often the purview of highly intimate and personal listening habits, is turned into an outsize spectacle meant to shock us with both our collective mass and our individual insignificance. I found Lollapalooza suffused with a kind of helpful, clean-cut, Midwestern vibe that stands in stark contrast to the usual agoraphobia generated at these sorts of things.

At one point over the weekend, I was riding around in a golf cart with Carl of Cleaning Events, a manager working for the subcontractor hired to oversee trash pickup. Catching rides in golf carts is one of the great perks of having a media pass; it saves time and whisks you grandly through the hoi polloi who stagger from one end of the park to the other. This ride was a little slower than usual, for every so often Carl would pull over to talk to some of his volunteer workers. We would pull up to a pair of teenagers carrying trash bags, and Carl would talk in fast, Jamaican-inflected English at the clearly uncomprehending boys, ending with a quick “…just keep doing what you’re doing,” before driving off. I told him it was the cleanest festival I had ever been to, and it was. The Green-ness of Lollapalooza, like its preponderance of uplifting guitar rock, can occasionally feel a trifle saccharine in its earnestness. In spite of this, there is a refreshing lack of guilt when one enters a festival on train and foot instead of a three mile long snake of idling automobiles. The water bottles are easily crushable cardboard containers and there is a bottle redeeming program wherein one can receive a free T-shirt for recycling a plastic bag full of collected bottles. I see a lot of these t-shirts over the course of the weekend.

In addition to being friendly and cheerful, everybody is also really, really white. Even in my experience of the fairly monochrome 21st century indie rock scene (whatever that is), the racial uniformity stands out, made more stark by the fact that about 75% of the event staff is black. I imagine much of this has to do with the presumably whiter demographics of the greater Midwest, but the festival organizer’s didn’t do themselves any favors, diversity-wise, in their booking. Cypress Hill is the largest of a very few rap groups in the lineup, and they’ve been playing to mostly white kids since at least 1998. I would know. There were certainly plenty of white people around as I sidled up to the stage were Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros were playing. Before this, I had been on the fence about Edward Sharpe & Co. I was, and remain still, slightly dubious of the L.A. neo-hippy scene with which I (perhaps unfairly) associate the band. Well, on the question of the band’s merits, consider me converted. Not to put too cynical a point on it, but I’ve never seen a more massive and complete proselytism of so many consumers ever before.

image It was a good show—a damn good show. I was able to sneak into the photo pit. On this smaller stage, there are no video monitors to dominate the crowds attention here in the shaded grove of trees at the northwestern end of Grant Park. The audience is in full-on, pants-pissing, screeching, beseeching Beatlemania mode, and the singers are very adept at receiving this adoration and amplifying it back into the audience. It’s really something to see. At one point Alex “Edward” Ebert crowd surfs and gets everybody in the crowd to sit down while he sings at and among them. The guy seems to have a pretty full-blown messiah complex but damn if it doesn’t make for good theater. The other standout of the first day is Devo. Devo is like a tiny, glittery gem of new wave keyboard music amongst the muddy brown waters of guitar rock. Devo’s stage banter is banal and hilarious (“greetings Shit-cah-go. It’s 2010, and we’re here to whip it. Again”) and their costumes are nerdy art-chic, but the music is tight and urgent. The crowd gets into the set even before they break into the hits, so that when they do, the crowd greets “Girl U Want” not with the desperate relief of nostalgic fans, but with the simple and frenzied joy of people looking to dance. Over the weekend there are other standouts, both good (Phoenix, who are built for this type of setting, even though their press tent acoustic performance reminded me of chained up circus monkeys) and bad (Lady Gaga, with her aggressively monotonous Ace of Base routine, although she still brought a huge gaggle of media folks over to the corner of the press tent where they could see the stage. Why, I’ll never know). Overall, Lollapalooza seemed quite successful in it’s modest aims: to carry out a friendly, clean, and relatively inoffensive music festival in the heart of a major urban center.

Photos by Myles Pettengill. And check out our Lollapalooza gallery here.

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