The defining thing about Lollapalooza: it’s really hot and really big. Set up along the Chicago lakefront, it borders an area that could tuck several Pitchfork Music Festivals into its grounds. (For comparison, imagine a New York music festival that stretched from 14th St. to Penn Station, between 6th and 8th Ave. Yeah, that big.) It’s my first year attending, and I’m fairly indebted to a fine publication like BULLETT for allowing me to disregard that cumbersome ticket price. I’m not entirely sure where I need to go, but the second I hit downtown Chicago all I have to do is follow the stream of carefree kids in shutter shades and shirts like “young, wild and free” heading toward the lake.
I’m apparently casual college acquaintances with the members of White Panda, which is why a friend all but drags me to their set at Perry’s, the dance music stage. I’m well past the point of enjoying mashup music, but I’m fairly astonished at how large their reception is; at 1 o’clock on the first day of the festival, they’ve amassed a crowd that dwarfs all but the headliner crowds at Pitchfork. People are primed to party, too, moving with such youthful abandon that they don’t seem to realize they’re dancing to 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite.” I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for this post-Girl Talk world. If Pitchfork’s lineup reflects indie world relevance, Lollapalooza is about the big picture — and nothing is bigger picture in 2012 than dance music, despite the mewling hesitations of rock critics.
Lollapalooza’s size leads to a horrible hedging of bets when it comes to scheduling: Do you walk fifteen minutes across the festival to see one act, or get lazy in the shade and stay where you are? I find the motivation to walk from the very swanky press tent, which is located at the southmost part of the festival, all the way up north to catch The War on Drugs rumble through a set of hazy, catchy songs. (Pressed further to describe their sound, I call it “fast and rocking.” The lexicon of music criticism!) A little while away, Sharon Van Etten delivers a solemn take on her sad, understated singer-songwriter fare; the crowd is small, but every word of songs like “Leonard” and “Save Yourself” is rapturously received.
I’m not sure if Die Antwoord ever admitted to being a public art project, but they’re still deeply committed to their South Africa-meets-meth lab aesthetic. Lead rapper Ninja comes out and immediately begins gyrating his crotch with violent speed, prompting plenty of “Oh my GOD” cries from around me. Yolandi Vi$$er’s voice is a sugar-shrill chirp of a thing, and she changes clothes like two or three times, finally settling on a neon pink ensemble that’s somehow the least ridiculous outfit of the night. I’m a little unsure of how long a joke can run before it stops being funny, but the crowd is alarmingly excited to be here. The band runs through “hits” like “I Fink U Freaky” and “Evil Boy,” then amusingly try to encourage an encore without realizing that people will just leave their set if no one’s playing. Perhaps made cognizant of this by some harried tour manager, they quickly come back out to play “Enter the Ninja,” their first and still-biggest single. Irony, or something like it, still reigns supreme.
I’m aware that everyone is affording Passion Pit a lot of credit these days, especially in the wake of Larry Fitzmaurice’s excellent profile on frontman Michael Angelakos’s struggle with mental health. But their bombastic, synth-laden arena pop has never really done it for me, though I suppose when you’ve written a song as unequivocally excellent as “Sleepyhead” it doesn’t really matter what the rest of your output is like. They’re about ten minutes late, which is only notable because every other band so far has been on-the-dot when it comes to scheduled start times. They open with “Take a Walk,” the opening single off their newest album, Gossamer, but I’m quickly uninvested and retreat back to the media tent. (For a second, I walk over to see The Shins before remembering that when my friends were seeing Garden State and putting “New Slang” on their mixtapes, I was making fun of my friends for seeing Garden State and putting “New Slang” on their mixtapes. Teenagers can be idiots for no reason.)
M83 is finally beginning to get real world popular, which nicely coincides with their continued ascent toward sounding like Phil Collins-era Genesis. (This is not a complaint, because all forms of Genesis are awesome.) I do notice an annoying habit here that’s replicated at almost every other band I see; even close up, people are talking throughout the set with such enthusiasm that it dilutes the actual sound of the music. Not to make assumptions about anyone’s level of etiquette, but come on! M83’s set is heavy on songs from last year’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming — frontman Anthony Gonzalez introduces “Midnight City” by pointing out the absolutely gorgeous Chicago skyline drenched in burnt orange and purple tones, and the crowd responds by going seismic-level insane for the “city is my church” refrain. People do go hog wild on playing the air saxophone, by the way. Behind us, there’s a Lollapalooza logo-branded balloon that’s been lit and sent into the sky, resembling the moon. It’s kind of freaky.
There’s a strange caricature to Black Sabbath’s presence. Squeezed into a taut black leotard with a glittering cross speckled on his chest, Ozzy Osbourne slightly comes off as a dad playing dress up — and, because I came of age at the beginning of the millennium, the image I associate him with is yelling at his wife and kids on The Osbournes. But the second I get to their stage, the teenage rockist in me comes alive to giddily slam his head to songs like “War Pigs” and “Sweet Leaf,” all of which are so heavy in a basic way that reminds you that Sabbath wrote the template for stoner rock, which means they can get away with simplicity. That said, the crowd is definitely a little mixed — despite my friend’s promise of “Black Sabbath bros,” it’s fairly easy to push my way up close even though I’ve arrived late because of M83’s set. (As I get closer to the increasingly loud stage, different parts of my body begin to ache from the noise. Did you know collarbones can get sore?)
(There’s also an uncomfortably noticeable police presence for their set, and at the festival in general. I’ve seen some people being arrested, but the droves of cops at Sabbath seems a bit premature; this heavy metal crowd might’ve been dangerous in 1970, but certainly not today.)
When Ozzy announces “Electric Funeral,” someone near me cheers wildly and before tacking on, “We’re the only ones that care!” I look around, and while individuals are certainly getting into their headbanging, the crowd as a whole isn’t moving with much excitement. I’m not expecting Perry’s-level delirium, but there isn’t much cooperative cohesion going on. I’ve never thought about it, but Sabbath has always been a little under-the-radar in terms of classic rock — which seems an insane thing to say, given that they’re Black Sabbath, but it’s true. As a seminal listening experience for adolescents, they’ve never gotten the daps that The Beatles and Rolling Stones and Zeppelin have acquired through years of VH1 programming and graphic tee slinging, and I wonder what most of the unacquainted in the audience must be thinking as they watch these old guys shred. And, despite the ugly saga regarding original drummer Bill Ward (he was replaced with some young gun over a contract dispute), Sabbath shred. They do something during “Iron Man” that nine out of ten bands would turn into Beavis and Butthead level parody — Ozzy vocalizes the first half of the iconic riff before sending it back to the audience to sing along to the second part, rendering it into an unholy chorus that summons an awesome feeling of dread. “I love you all, God bless you!” Ozzy yells toward the end, flipping the switch between demonic frontman and excited dad, punctuated when he tries to push the audience to wave their arms from side to side. No one does after about twenty seconds because that’s silly as hell; they mostly stick to headbanging. But it was a nice effort, and an overall great set.
* * *
Budding Chicago rap superstar Chief Keef has been added to the bill at the last minute, and opens the second day at Perry’s. It’s an odd pairing, and his addition was so abrupt that it isn’t even reflected on the printed-out schedules, but there’s still a decent-sized crowd on hand to do the cooking dance and fire off imaginary guns to every “bang bang” ad lib. I’m still not entirely comfortable with Keef’s unapologetic glorification of turf violence given Chicago’s very real murder epidemic, but I suppose he’s dealing with different realities in his mostly black, mostly poor neighborhood than I do in my mostly white, mostly affluent neighborhood. It’s an issue that’s definitely too entangled to unknot during a festival recap, so back to it: Keef’s set is shambolic and all over the place in a charming way, as I count no less than 19 dudes on stage along with him. (Seriously!) Everyone is here for “I Don’t Like,” his lumbering grizzly bear of a statement single, and the mostly white crowd raps along every word despite like a fifth of those words being “nigga.” It’s a little disconcerting but when everyone’s having a blast (myself included), it’s time to apply the brakes to the care bus.
Afterwards, my friend and I decamp to the media tent to wipe our already-soaked brows and replenish our body fluids with sorely needed Vitamin Water — a drink that costs a shocking $4 at the drink stands, though it’s comped for press. That might seem unfair, but I guarantee 83% of the people attending Lollapalooza do or will make more money than the average music writer in their lifetime. Let us have this one.