What If They Gave A Festival and Nobody Cared?

What If They Gave A Festival and Nobody Cared?

As predictably as the first blossoms of Spring, the lineup for the 25th anniversary edition of Lollapalooza has arrived, though the connection between what will happen in Grant Park from July 28 to 31 and the scrappy, daylong touring alternative-rock festival that started a quarter of a century ago is merely a matter of corporate branding at these points.

This year, 170 bands will somehow squeeze into Grant Park between the countless companies tirelessly marketing themselves to the snookered demographic of (mostly) young, privileged, and horny drunks for an expanded four days of Walmart on the Lake. The headliners—and you’re forgiven for thinking you’ve heard this before, because you have, today and in years past—include Radiohead, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, LCD Soundsystem (back after a brief five-year “retirement”), and Lana Del Rey, to which I respond with a resounding: YAWN.

My objections to this most crass of musical cash machines have been well-documented in this space. These include but are by no means limited to the obnoxious two-tiered velvet-rope treatment accorded the wealthy patrons of the one percent (a four-day V.I.P. pass this year costs $2,200) and the refugee-camp experience afforded the rest of the muddy masses (who merely pay $335); the aforementioned and relentless corporate hype; the lousy sound, awful sight lines, and blistering heat or drenching rain marring the outdoor experience; the cram-’em-all-in capacity crowds, and the negative impacy the fest has on the rest of the Chicago music community, all of which combine to make Lollapalooza something to endure rather than enjoy or celebrate.

For once, I feel a little less alone in making these complaints. In an unprecedented, triple-bylined note to readers last Friday, The New York Times’ ace team of music critics—Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliff, and Jon Caramancia—announced that this year, they’re opting out of covering the big festivals. They specifically cited Coachella and Bonnaroo, not even deigning to mention Lollapalooza, though the paper has covered it in the past. And while their reasons are more tamely worded than my gripes above, that are nonetheless striking. When they cover these events, they write:

“We come back with some complaints that boil down to our area of greatest knowledge: music. Some clever person reminds us that these festivals aren’t about music. And because we are nobody’s fools, we say sure, right, of course, but then we still feel short-handed. We have lots of dialogues, internal and otherwise, about what music critics are for. They’re for, among other things, registering seismic pop events. But they’re also for not registering them, as a critical gesture.

“This year we are not registering them. Instead of covering the biggest festivals reflexively, we’ll cover a number of smaller festivals with purpose.

“In terms of numbers, festivals on the scale of Bonnaroo and Coachella are major events: 80,000 to 90,000 people for a weekend (for Coachella, two weekends in a row). They are still rites of passage for college kids. Yet they give a music critic less and less return. Their bookings used to be somewhat exciting, if exciting means special and special means rare and rare means meaningful; they aren’t anymore. Each of these festivals, as well as the many others that have sprung up in the last 15 years… has its own essence, to some degree. But that essence has more and more to do with variations in clothes, drugs, topography and regional weather, and less to do with the sounds coming from the multiple stages.”

Here, here, boys! The only thing with which I’d quibble in the passage above is that it’s not only music critics who should vote against music festivals where the music is a mere afterthought or vehicle for marketing: Any true music lover ought to consider doing the same. Because if we do, the ever-more bloated and boring mega-events may finally wither up and dies, which means we may all be able to go back to listening to music in venues where we actually can enjoy it.

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