by Leor Galil
The megaphone-toting preacher's words stuck with me throughout Lollapalooza. In a way he was right; if hell is a place that punishes people for overindulging in something by forcing it upon them in such quantity that what they once loved becomes vile beyond recognition, then festivals can certainly be a type of hell for anyone who eats, breathes, and sleeps music. Festivals are where cherished bands perform with sound systems so shoddy or poorly run that you regret ever seeing them live. Festivals are where you go—if you're my height at least—to stand on your tiptoes to get a peek at a musician the size of a thimble from the back of the crowd. They're where you ditch any semblance of politeness to muscle your way closer to the stage—only to end up next to a meathead bigger than nearly everyone in sight who's dead set on forcing everybody smaller than him within arm's reach to crowd surf against their will, and he's looking right at you. Festivals are places that trap you for days, stick you in swarming masses of people for hours upon hours, and invade your dreams even after the headliners have finished their "impromptu" encore. Festivals are often held during the hottest months of the year—the weather's quite a bit cooler than infernal fire and brimstone, but unfortunately real.
Of course, Lollapalooza is hardly the only festival that puts fans through this sort of thing; every music fest has its issues. But Lolla is nonetheless its own special kind of nightmare. Attendees wore scannable wristbands and moved through Grant Park in packs, mindlessly cheering at any sign of excitement, which sometimes gave weight to the fear that this happy throng could turn into a headless mob without warning. (That could have happened after the festival was evacuated ahead of Saturday's torrential downpour; once the worst of the rain cleared, thousands descended upon the main entrance, and a few managed to take down a traffic pole while agitating to get back into the grounds.) The locations of most stages made it difficult to evade the sun's rays for most of each day, and the few shaded areas were sponsored by the likes of Toyota and Sony. Hyperactive tweens with an affection for EDM scurried about the park wearing bright T-shirts with drug references—like Bassnectar's neon-green "Wake and Bass" tee—or else not wearing much of anything. Saturday's storm transformed Grant Park's parched fields into mud pits and the foul stench of shit took over half the festival grounds.
The fields weren't the only shitty thing at Lollapalooza; many sets were hampered by terrible sound issues. NYC indie-pop sensations Fun. have a blissful and dynamic orchestral style, but it sounded like it'd been dragged through the mud. London postpunks Bloc Party cranked out some great dance tunes that came out muffled and marred by a tinny snare. Nashville garage rockers Jeff the Brotherhood laid down plenty of fist-pumping numbers that limped out of the stacks puzzlingly quiet. An otherwise riveting and soulful set by Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree suffered from an odd delay between different banks of speakers. The darker touches of Brooklyn indie combo White Rabbits got lost in the mix; the vibrant, uplifting melodies of New Jersey punk act Gaslight Anthem sounded squashed; and the lush tones of French electronic-pop act M83 sounded like they'd been broadcast from worlds away. At the Drive-In front man Cedric Bixler-Zavala took the opportunity to compare the sound to the smell filling the air; the reunited Texas group's posthardcore got a pretty waffly mix, but Bixler-Zavala's banter came through loud and clear, giving him the opportunity to crack jokes and make references that were probably lost on most of the crowd (the Fireside Bowl, Deicide, um, "Latin Danzig").
And yes, as with any festival, there were acts that managed to rise above. London electronic artist SBTRKT (aka Aaron Jerome) and collaborator Sampha took the producer's tight, minimalist dubstep and extended it into heady, pulsing, extended tracks juiced up with jittery samples and ecstatic live percussion. Toronto R&B enigma Abel Tesfaye brought plenty of sleek style to his set as the Weeknd, nailing his sultry songs with a buttery-sweet voice that had thousands of arms raised and swaying in time. South African rave-rap provocateurs Die Antwoord hit the mark with a performance as colorful as Yolandi Vi$$er's outfit. D.C. dance duo Nadastrom provided a welcome counterbalance to the omnipresent dubstep drops at Perry's stage, presenting a hyperaccessible version of the moombahton sound they accidentally invented—rattling drums, big thumping bass, soaring buildups, reggaeton riddims—to an unfortunately small but frequently rapturous crowd. Iceland orchestral group Sigur Ros may not have been much to look at, but their gorgeous, delicate tunes crept toward beautiful climaxes. Metal godfathers Black Sabbath were the odd band out in a bill filled with fairly tepid alternative rock, which may have helped make their set stand out; they tore through some of their heaviest material from decades past, stumbling every so often but sticking the landing with the mood and power of the songs. The shock of hearing the usually mush-mouthed Ozzy enunciate every syllable—after a while, that became almost every syllable—still feels like a festival highlight.
The rest of the fest landed somewhere in the middle. Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean hit every note just right, but his backing band sucked the life out of some of his best tracks. Metric pulled off a solid set, but its lustrous anthems could've used a little more punch. Bombay Bicycle Club and the Shins played pop tunes that sounded mellow enough to feel almost, well, boring. Justice put on a hell of a light show, but the mix fell a little flat. And whatever pleasure I might have derived from Jack White's riffing wore off after a few songs—well before he got to "Seven Nation Army."
Despite the grueling and generally unpleasant environment, I genuinely enjoyed a few brief nonmusical moments, far away from the gaudy advertisements clustered on Columbus Drive—namely the point every day when the sun dipped below the Chicago skyline. The people behind Lollapalooza like to spin the festival as a genuine part of the city's vibrant culture, but unlike the countless street fairs that fill the summer calendar, which usually feel like outgrowths of their local communities, Lolla is more like a leech that attaches itself to a section of town and crawls away after a few days of wreaking havoc. With the exception of the local acts stuck at the bottom of the each day's bill and the presence of some fine local food vendors, "Chicago" barely registered in the overall Lollapalooza brand—instead Lolla seems to adhere to a vacuous template for "alternative music festival" that can easily be dropped into any city in the world. (This weekend also brought the news that the festival is expanding to Tel Aviv in 2013, bringing the total number of cities hosting Lollapalooza to four.) Though the reality of the relationship the festival has with this city is rather tragic, it has an upside: that beautiful skyline will remain long after the last piece of trash from Lollapalooza 2012 is removed from Grant Park.