Final thoughts on Lollapalooza 2014

Is the biggest music festival in Chicago too big? We ponder ways to improve the eroding Lollapalooza

Photograph: cousindaniel.com
Grant Park is one big party as tens of thousands attend Lollapalooza 2014, August 3.

I'm going to offer up two statements to gauge your interest in Lollapalooza. See how you react.

Lorde is curating the Mockingjay – Part 1 soundtrack.

Keep Calm and Chive On.

If you had to tab over to Google to understand any of that, Lollapalooza is probably not the music festival for you. If one or both of those sentences elicited a "Fuck, yeah!" either verbally or deep within your myelinating brain cells, dude, you are so going to rage in Grant Park.

As I wrote in my final thoughts in 2013, Lollapalooza has largely become a festival for high school and college students. I criticized C3, the company that puts on the fest, for not recognizing that. This year, the promotors wisely catered more to adolescents. There was an official tank top for sale that read OFF TO LOLLA LAND, a hashtag slogan decided upon via a Twitter contest. The row of food vendors along Columbus Drive, dubbed "Chow Town," eschewed the watermelon gazpacho of the past to focus more on burgers, pizza and cheese fries. In fact, I'm pretty certain they could shovel out nothing but cheese fries from a cauldron with few complaints.

Likewise, it's more and more of a pizza-and-cheese-fries bill, musically. There are very of-the-moment pop acts from the upper echelon of the current iTunes chart like Lorde, Iggy Azalea, Bleachers, Kongos, Childish Gambino. The first two could have and should have been headlining. Is there any doubt Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Ariana Grande or Magic! could have drawn a larger crowd than, say, Spoon or Interpol, those veteran indie rock acts that struggle to fill the field past the sound booth? I'm not saying that would make Lollapalooza better musically, but it would cater more to the little-drawstring-backpacks demographic.

But the specific identities of the performers overlook the larger issue—there are too many of them. Lollapalooza is too damn big.

Jim DeRogatis, the local rock writer who has been the festival's most vocal critic, likens Lollapalooza to Walmart. That's not quite apt as an analogy. It's closer to a multiplex. Imagine if you went to a movie theater—and I'm talking one of those 24-screen modern monsters—and AMC or Cinemark or whatever charged $75 to enter the building. Now, once inside, you could watch as much as you wanted for ten hours. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Guardians of the Galaxy and Transformers 4 are on massive IMAX screens in 3D. Also, way down the hallway, around the corner, past the dark and unused concession stand, Magic in the Moonlight and I Origins are playing in the smallest rooms. Some might peek their head in for a bit to see Emma Stone, far more might only watch Transformers for the explosive climax, but how many people are sitting through I Origins? Oh, also, there is no roof and the sun shines in.

This is not how Hollywood works (and I hope I didn't just give them an idea), but it is the gist of a summer music festival. The movie industry already squeezes out the small indies, so that this week's blockbuster can sit on four, five screens when it opens. This is why art house cinema (Pitchfork Music Festival) exists. This is why you can find yourself in a small, sparsely attended copse watching, say, jazz musician Jon Batiste while hundreds more wave their arms in the rain in the hopes that Lena Dunham comes out to watch her boyfriend sing "I Wanna Get Better" (which is a fantastic tune, by the way). Lollapalooza can often feel like a festival within a festival—like a Blues Festival in the parking lot outside a Beyoncé + Jay Z concert. The 2014 iteration of Lollapalooza is akin to taking the 1994 iteration of Lollapalooza and adding five stages filled with the likes of Chalk FarM, Dada, School of Fish, the Grays, Terrorvision, Wax, Cop Shoot Chop, the Refreshments… (You'll have to trust me that those were all real major-label acts.)

So my question is: Why does Lollapalooza need to be a survey of ALL CURRENT MUSIC? How much better was it when we collectively got to watch Green Day and the Beastie Boys in their prime? Because Lollapalooza can still produce transcendent, beautiful festival moments. Like when Outkast broke into "Hey Ya!" Or even at all times at Perry's Stage, which was doused in adult-repellant (or was that just urine?), but at least captured the joyous spirit of communal concertgoing. Why bother with the stuff that a fraction of Lollapalooza ticket-buyers give a shit about?

I'm going to do that annoying politician thing where I share an anecdote about Real Working Americans. On Sunday morning, I was awaiting a Metra train with a couple. They were dressed for a day at the horse races, bedecked in sun hats, linen dresses and coolers. The scheduled Metra train, the only one in a window of three hours, did not stop at our station. It was at capacity, and had been for at least five stops north. This couple was unaware of, or at least forgot about, Lollapalooza. They missed their connecting train to Arlington. Lollapalooza literally ruined this couple's weekend. If you were not attending the festival, ask yourself if you wanted to go anywhere near downtown this weekend. Let's set aside the fact that the public transportation infrastructure has still not figured out how to accommodate this event.

I have no data to back up this assertation, but I'd wager that Lollapalooza scares away at least as much money as it brings in. In the weeks running up to Lolla, at other festivals or via communications at work, I'll ask my friends in the music industry if they are attending Lollapalooza. They all react as if I had asked them, "Hey, want to scarf an entire White Castle 'Crave Case' and go ride a rollercoaster without the safety bar down?" These are people whose job it is to promote, review, photograph, produce, market and enjoy musicians. Of course, most of them, like me, are over 30.

I want to want to go to Lollapalooza.

I realize that I have been skirting the line of sounding like an old crank. You are an asshole if you can't see how fun it can be. There were times during this year's fest when I beamed, swept away in the kind of moments only Lollapalooza can deliver. Bouncing up and down during Outkast. Watching Alex Turner comb his hair between massive Arctic Monkeys riffs. Hearing a random band cover the Strokes. Spoon, Lorde, Temples, Jenny Lewis, Lykke Li, Cage the Elephant, Chromeo, Courtney Barnett, Broken Bells, Chvrches, Parquet Courts, Jungle… all sounded fantastic. I wish it were not physically impossible to see more, like of Cut Copy, the 1975, Jagwar Ma, Run the Jewels, Gesaffelstein…

What I'm saying is, wouldn't it be better for everyone—from C3 to the Parks department to the poor foreign tourists who were trying to get into the Modern Wing to the VIPs to the ticket-buying teens in jorts to Jon Batiste—if we cut this bill back down to its original 2005 size?

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