Lollapalooza 2014: Alone at the mega-festival

Lollapalooza 2014: Alone at the mega-festival

Erik Adams: It’s contradictory to say that anyone’s ever alone at Lollapalooza. Lolla is a massive music festival attended by hundreds of thousands of people, held in the downtown core of the United States’ third most populous city—so even if you’re in Grant Park by yourself, you’re still awash in humanity. Still, I spent a lot of Lollapalooza 2014 on my own, wandering the festival grounds in an attempt to get a grasp on an event that occupies a mile-long stretch of Chicago parkland, spread between two major thoroughfares named after a Great Lake.

Thus it hit me while watching Lykke Li on the first night of the festival: Everybody’s alone together at the mega-festival. In the event they’re there with friends, family, co-workers, or people they met online because, “Holy shit, you love Skrillex too?”, they’re still engaging in a form of isolation, like the group I stood behind while listening to the latest in Swedish-import breakup songs. This pocket of people all danced around a guy with a handle-mounted GoPro, the camera pointed at the Lake Shore stage just as frequently as it was at the crowd—more specifically, pointed at the camera owner and his small circle of acquaintances.

There’s something to be said for wanting to bring Lollapalooza down to a personal scale, to boil down the three-day weekend into something you can feel some ownership over. Is it so wrong for GoPro Guy to want a souvenir of such a fleeting experience? (With similar motivations, I once plunked down $3 of iTunes credit for a 2006 recording of Broken Social Scene playing the very stage I spent part of my Friday standing in front of.) But the way so many of us attend Lollapalooza in 2014 feels antithetical to the festival concept: Going in for the individual experience, rather than the communal one. The way the stages are dispersed throughout Grant Park, it’s like several smaller festivals roped into a larger whole—a phenomenon illustrated and accounted for by the explosive popularity of the EDM-oriented Perry’s stage. The electronically inclined fans can spend their entire Lollapalooza without ever crossing Columbus Drive, instead attending a festival-within-the-festival where the music (and the preferred chemical accompaniments) encourage a spirit of en masse camaraderie that’s rarer at the main stages.

But it’s not altogether extinct: My hands-down highlight of the whole weekend was the way the first few notes of “Hey Ya” sent a wave of excitement rippling through the crowd during Outkast’s headlining set. That’s the festival-going ideal to me, which is less and less common in our more and more stratified musical climate. Andrea, you prepared for Outkast’s ongoing reunion tour by writing 4,600-plus words about the duo’s musical output—did Big Boi and Andre 3000 live up to your expectations? And was the set the type that you could enjoy on a personal level, even if you were surrounded by people who might’ve only shown up to hear “Hey Ya” or “Ms. Jackson”?

Andrea Battleground: Well, that’s become more and more of a complicated question, as I’m still trying to work it out in my head. I got to the Samsung Galaxy stage super early for Outkast’s set. I pretty much power-walked all the way to the other end of the fest as soon as Nas was done. And it still took some major maneuvering for me to get even close to the front of the crowd. When I finally got there, I got trapped behind a trio of very young (-looking and -seeming) ladies. I have no idea of their actual ages, but they were definitely fucked up out of their minds. I began to get worried for them—and for myself. How could I possibly enjoy a motherfucking Outkast concert if I end up covered in tweaker teen vomit? If one of them passed out, what could I possibly do? We were packed like sardines down there. Will I stand behind everything I put in that Primer four months ago once this set is over? Is this really how I want to see Outkast, a band so important to my growth as a human being and as a music fan? How could this performance, this particular experience, possibly live up to my expectations? Those last two questions gnawed at me right up until the “One, two, three, four” of “B.O.B.” kicked in.

It struck me as I waited for more than an hour in that crowd, pressed so uncomfortably—especially given I have personal-space issues—against complete strangers that the first time I saw Outkast in concert was 18 years ago, also at a summer music festival. I was 16, it was the summer ATLiens was released, and it was the very first time my super strict parents had allowed me to go to a concert without their supervision. (Naturally, I played up the oldie R&B acts scheduled to perform and played down this new-ish hip-hop act I was starting to get into.) This past Saturday night, as I was screaming “Oh-yay-yer!” along with so many other people, it was like time-traveling. It wasn’t nostalgia; it was deja vu. For a few moments, I was that 16-year-old standing in a field in Charlotte, North Carolina wearing truly uncomfortable shoes. It was surprisingly moving, actually. It was like this full-circle, super personal life moment that happened with thousands of unwitting witnesses. So, Erik, to answer your question, it was odd to experience the set in that way, to see a band that has felt as if they were mine for decades, belonging to everyone else, and yet to also be surrounded by people just waiting to “shake it like a Polaroid picture.” That said, any time a crowd of people want to show Outkast some love, I’ll show up. Believe that.

I had a similar experience while seeing Interpol, another band whose music has come to mean a lot to me over the last decade or so—mainly because I always seem to be going through a major life event when a new Interpol album comes out. These experiences got me thinking: As Erik mentioned, I also spent my entire time at the fest alone—but was I really? There’s a kinship in sitting in a crowd of people who know every lyric of “NYC” or “Not Even Jail” or “One Mic” just as well as you do. For 45 minutes or so, I was with family. But then I was back to myself and pretty much hating the idea of huge outdoor music festivals and the circumstances of having two bands you’re really into booked in the same time slot on stages nowhere near each other. But mostly hating the other people for doing it wrong. Just like with real family.

Though this wasn’t my first Lolla experience, it was definitely my first time going for entire days’ worth of performances, as opposed to just seeing a particular act or two. Sonia, you’ve mentioned that this is your first Lollapalooza. How did you find the communal versus the individual experience?

Sonia Saraiya: This was my first Lollapalooza, yes, and I too went into it alone. I didn’t expect to be writing about this tension—but that is all I thought about this weekend, as I trudged from stage to stage. Most of the people I saw at the festival were in throngs of two to 10—guzzling beer, covered in glitter, wearing very little clothing. There is something about being in a sea of people that makes you feel more alone than ever. And so much of the effort of doing Lollapalooza is hard to justify without friends—all that money and planning and running around in Grant Park, trying to find a clean-ish Port-A-Potty before the next show starts. I could tell that so many of the people there were in this for the experience of being with their group—I saw matching tattoos, couples holding hands, and girls linking arms with each other to not get lost in the crowd.

This is what I learned: Everyone at a music festival is the worst until the band comes on—and even then, they are still mostly the worst. One of the sadder experiences of my Lollapalooza was watching Spoon, not because the band didn’t bring their all, but because the crowd was largely full of bored teens waiting for the old guys to finish their set so Calvin Harris could start spinning his shit. The portion of the crowd who cared about Spoon was maybe 40 percent of the total crowd, and that number kept getting smaller as more and more scantily clad young people in various degrees of culturally appropriative outfits pushed through the crowd to camp out near the Bud Light stage. I could see the same thing happening during Interpol, which I watched from farther away. I was glad to have seen Interpol in an official Lollapalooza pre-show with you, Andrea—it was great to hear them again, but I felt like my precious moment with the band wasn’t tarnished by the whims of large groups of people.

Because that’s the thing, as you point out, Erik: Loving music is an intensely personal experience. I happen to go to concerts alone a lot because not that many of my friends share my taste in music, but honestly, going with another person is often distracting—I need to have my experience with the band without worrying about anyone else’s experience.

Lollapalooza seems to offer both the worst and best possible outcomes of that attitude. On one hand, that dedication to that one experience means cutting through huge crowds listening to another band so you can get a good spot to listen to your own. It means going up to the front of the stage, even though you’re six-and-a-half feet tall. It means staking out space with a blanket while around you others are struggling to stand. No one is at their best at a festival.

Except when it’s family, as you say, Andrea. My most magical moment at Lollapalooza was the Lorde set on Friday evening—not the headlining act, but enough of a draw that the crowd wasn’t flooded with fans waiting for the next show. I got there a good 45 minutes early and got stuck maybe 20 people back from the stage—not bad at all, but surprising. Everyone around me was essentially the worst, as they had been all weekend—a few guys stepped on me as I was sitting and waiting, and one nearly fell on top of me. Another bro spilled beer on me. A few smokers next to me were blowing nicotine in my direction. And pressed up against me was the flesh of a lot of sticky, gross people. (I think I got to second base with a few of them, entirely by accident, for which I am pretty mortified).

And as soon as the music started, none of it mattered. Lorde is incredible onstage—she is just 17 but so confident, so charismatic, so talented. I’d seen her once before in a much smaller venue—a basement club in the Lower East Side, late at night—and I thought perhaps the festival experience wouldn’t be as magical. I was wrong. It was equally magical, albeit in a different way. It changed me—from someone who hated everyone around me to someone who outright loved them. I found myself making room for a younger girl who couldn’t see over the head of the guy in front of her. I gestured her ahead of me—I, who was fighting for a spot just 20 minutes before! Earlier the beach balls had annoyed me; now they made me laugh. And the asshole spraying water or beer into the air seemed serendipitous, for once—it was pretty hot in the press of the crowd. I knew every word to every song, and so did most of the crowd. (We collectively laughed at the few suckers who left after “Royals.”) We did not all get along, but in that moment, we got each other.

Erik, I know you said Outkast’s “Hey Ya” was your highlight, but what else moved you? Did you feel like any of the performances made you feel differently about the festival weekend?

EA: I wish I could say I was moved by something unexpected—an unknown act, an unexpected new favorite—but I insulated my schedule with acts I knew I already liked, and had liked for some time. Spoon is the last act I would expect to benefit from gaining a new member, but its new five-piece lineup gives its older material a boost of muscle, all the while fraying the edges of the shinier stuff on its new record They Want My Soul. And I give much thanks to the Lolla organizers for The Grove stage, tucked away next to Perry’s and providing the appropriately homey-yet-roomy vibe for Jenny Lewis’ Saturday-night performance. The setlist could’ve made more room for Rilo Kiley songs that aren’t on Under The Blacklight, but I heard all the songs I like from 2014’s The Voyager. (Also, it’s 2014, so I should quit complaining that Lewis hasn’t made The Execution Of All Things over and over again for the last 12 years.)

And as much as I hated walking past the mounted officers and legions of the rolling dead each night, there is a magic to walking down Columbus at the end of a Lollapalooza day, seeing the architecture of the Loop cut a sillhouette against the sky while the disparate sounds of several stages bleed together. And then you look to the east and see this Simpsons joke come to life:



Andrea, what’s some of the music, advertisement, and youth-oriented product positioning you’ll always remember from Lollapalooza 2014?

AB: It may have gotten a bit lost in all the Outkast #FestivalKillers talk, but Nas turned in a really tight, satisfying set that nods to Illmatic’s 20th anniversary but also hit his other career sweet spots. No complaints from me about Nasty Nas. But back to Sonia’s comment for just a moment: I’ll cop to preferring Interpol’s pre-Lolla show over the festival performance, but serendipity can and does happen. I stayed for most of Lucius’ set, and before Friday, I only knew of that one song that was on an episode of New Girl. Fitz And The Tantrums also had a great one on Saturday, but that was mostly due to Head Tantrum Noelle Scaggs just owning that stage. Most of time it seemed like Fitz was trying to keep up with her. But after catching the band at a pre-show, I was curious enough about Wildcat! Wildcat! to check out a few songs, and the same goes for New Orleans singer-songwriter Benjamin Booker—two acts I had never heard of that have debut albums coming out in just a few weeks. All useful info. I even learned to embrace all the Camelbak and Red Bull everywhere if that’s what it takes to have water filling stations. Oh, and that farmers’ market was definitely right on time. I’m always the one who can eat nothing at a festival—sensitive stomach, old-person problems, etc.

As Erik touched on, there’s this disconcerting juxtaposition when walking that stretch of Columbus for those three days a year. I walk that part of the Loop several times every week, and it transforms into this other thing, still downtown Chicago, but also very… different, almost like a pilgrimage site. Yet there’s a kind of peace you have to make if you’re past a certain point in your life and attending Lollapalooza. It involves realizing that at some part of the day air quality becomes the amount to which you can smell skunk weed. It involves pushing past a gaggle of young people unapologetically wearing matching “Seniors 2015” T-shirts. There will always be someone (or, more accurately, an entire mini-population) doing something you find utterly ridiculous at Lolla, probably more so than at other fests. Even I will admit there is something inherently laugh-at-able about a man who couldn’t have possibly yet seen his 30th birthday having a tattoo of a Victrola in the area of the back known as the “tramp-stamp zone.” If that kind of resolve is not for you, then, yeah, you may walk out disillusioned before the end of the night.

SS: Me, I had a fascinating conversation with a shirtless young man wearing a full feathered headdress. This was while watching Spoon, as drunk crowds were filtering in to wait for Calvin Harris—this guy with a purple-and-black feathered First Nation war bonnet decided it made sense to stand in front of me, blocking my view not just a little bit:



I probably should have focused on Spoon, but I was morbidly fascinated by the guy, especially as he had a beaded armband to match and a friend with a viking hat. (I don’t know if there was a theme they were going for besides “hats!”) As they tried to get closer to the stage, Viking started chatting to a young woman next to me, who expressed admiration for the war bonnet. Viking, warming up his comedic material for the evening, make a crack about how they had to hunt a bird for the headdress. Then our hero turned around and Viking repeated the joke. After a moment or two of blank staring in the hot summer sun, Headdress said: “A bird? I don’t get it.”

Viking by this point had moved on to flirting a bit more with the girl, and left Headdress to his own devices. But he looked so helpless. So I leaned over and said, “It’s because it’s made of feathers,” pointing to his outfit. It took a moment still (what is in the beer, you think?), but the penny finally dropped. “Thanks,” he said. I then asked him: “So, are you Native American at all?” He looked alarmed and shook his head. “I just thought it looked nice.”

The aftermath of Lorde’s concert was when I was at my most beatific at Lollapalooza—it was just that powerful—but I didn’t regret catching any of the acts I saw. And being in the mix of things there was something incredible. Standing waiting for Cut Copy on Saturday night (there were only a few hundred faithful), I could hear Calvin Harris’ beats on one side and Outkast’s on the other, and a wayward breeze would make one or the other sound clearer. I had a makeshift dinner about 40 feet away from Jenny Lewis during the last few songs of her set. I looked at band T-shirts while eating a large cone of ice cream that somehow cost six whole dollars. I saw Blood Orange perform his mellow, unconventional sound, hours before he was attacked. And in the middle of trying to find hand sanitizer or a filling station, sometimes I’d look up and see the gorgeous Chicago skyline, with the sun setting slowly behind it, as a brief cool breeze would waft through the amassed crowds, and I would count myself very lucky to be alive.

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