A virtual Lollapalooza has its virtues

Yes, the raw feeling of live music is missing, but being online gave this year’s fest a better chance to emphasize women, artists of color, social change and Chicago.

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An incredible performance by Yellopain, part of the Lollapalooza stream Thursday night, included a comprehensive lesson in civics.

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If the giant, gaping hole left by the lack of live music in 2020 wasn’t already palpable enough, watching Lollapalooza 2020 kick off virtually on YouTube Thursday night made the loss feel even more devastating than perhaps any of the livestreams thus far in 2020.

It may have been the video of body-to-body fans moving in unison to Run the Jewels that gave pangs to experience even a sliver of the claustrophobia we complain about summer after summer. Or, the interludes between recorded performances that highlighted all the hardworking people behind the scenes of Lollapalooza like staff photographers who are struggling to get by in the new cultural paradigm. Or, clinging to the hidden meaning behind founder Perry Farrell’s words that he “hopes” to see us in Grant Park next summer. Hopes?

While audio sync issues early on made everything feel “off” and there was almost an automatic need to text a friend to see where they wanted to meet up at the Budweiser Stage later on, there’s reason to pause and consider why it’s not such a bad thing that the fully online Lolla2020 is like nothing we’ve ever seen in the festival’s nearly 30-year history.

In the first hour alone, women performers and artists of color were many. There also was a concerted effort to align with incredibly important organizations in the current social climate including the Equal Justice Initiative and Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote initiative; other than a prominent recycling program, it’s hard to remember a time Lollapalooza was so civically engaged.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks with Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell to introduce this year’s all-online festival.

youtube.com/lollapalooza

Not to mention the diligent effort to shine a spotlight on the festival’s home of Chicago more than ever before, kicking off with the introduction from Mayor Lori Lightfoot as thousands of international fans tuned in (nearly 20,000 at one point Thursday) — all of them seeing her awkwardly start her conversation with Perry Farrell by asking if he was wearing pants and then pivoting to having him send a message to the Lollapalooza demographic about the need to wear masks.

One of the great benefits of watching a behemoth like Lollapalooza as a livestream — beyond being able to use your own flushable toilet and getting the best unblocked view — is you don’t have the choice for which set deserves your attention in the moment. There’s no epic conflict to be tortured about, no noise bleed to contend with and — more importantly — there’s the chance for discovery of a new artist you could have been too hung over to see in that uncoveted noon time slot.

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Toni Cornell, daughter of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, sings a cover of “Black” during the virtual Lollapalooza stream.

youtube.com/lollapalooza

Without this platform, you probably would have missed Yellopain, whose incredible performance was a “Schoolhouse Rocks” for 2020 and included a full civics lesson that even history teachers would blush at.

While Lollapalooza partnered with Toyota to bring the Live From the Music Den discovery stage like it has done in years past (offering up Dominican-American artist DaniLeigh to start on Thursday), the night’s primetime programming also included the relatively unknown but deserving Chicago singer-songwriter Kaina and Toni Cornell (the daughter of the late Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell), whose impressive pipes belted out a curious cover of Pearl Jam’s hit “Black” in tribute to her dad. There was also singer-songwriter TeaMarrr, whose provocative performance probably made most parents wish there was still a Kidzapalooza area they could skirt the young ones off to quickly.

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Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes leads a 2015 performance at Lollapalooza that was included in Thursday’s livestream.

Sun-Times File

The inaugural night brought out the legends as well, such as Sir Paul McCartney who was bestowed with the longest “set” and biggest crowd (28,000 viewers at its peak). Though it was advertised as his full performance from 2015, the 50-minute recording was in fact an abbreviated version that focused far too much on Wings material and had weird time jumps, hopping from “Maybe I’m Amazed” cut straight into the middle of “We Can Work It Out.” The archival footage did hilariously leave in the infamous gaffe from the original night, when the acoustic portion of McCartney’s set was interrupted by thumping bass from Perry’s Stage, leading Sir Paul to describe the electronic dance music as “whatever s- - t they’re playing.”

It’s not the first time Lollapalooza has been dogged by the generational gap that can be equally drawn to the festivities, and it was no different in this virtual forum as commenters in YouTube’s sidebar chat took turns volleying between their excitement for McCartney and hip-hop troupe Shoreline Mafia.

Were you there? Music fans take in Tove Lo’s 2017 set at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. The video of the performance was part of the Day One virtual lineup for Lolla 2020.

Were you there? Music fans take in Tove Lo’s 2017 set at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. The video of the performance was part of the Day One virtual lineup for Lolla 2020.

YouTube/Lollapalooza

Even weirder was the night’s world premiere of a new music video from an “artist” named Miquela — who Generation Z knows as a digital avatar and Instagram influencer with 2.5 million followers. The robot garnered quite the “get off my lawn” reaction, while equilibrium was soon achieved during the Porno For Pyros’ underwhelming two-song reunion during which “more mature fans” schooled the new kids on the block that the lead singer (Farrell) is also the founder of Lollapalooza.

At least both sides found common ground in their appreciation for R&B goddess H.E.R. and LL Cool J. The rapper kicked off the first of his four-part informational series about the birth of hip-hop with a chat about the origins of break dancing, continuing the discussions throughout Day One of the importance of Black culture and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Tom Morello further echoed that message, asking for revolution for a “more just and decent country and planet” as he offered up a single acoustic number that perfectly bookended the day, which also saw Congressman and activist John Lewis laid to rest.

Nothing will ever replace the in-person Lollapalooza event: the real, raw, unfiltered, guttural performances that span more than 2-3 songs and the ability to watch it with friends (or at least more than the 10 people we’re allowed to gather with now). Archived footage of Alabama Shakes, Cypress Hill and the like tried to fill that space, but the video production in many of the recorded segments made much of the night come off as just highly edited music videos.

But while we all want that live, sweaty, in-your-face experience to come back next year (even if it will never be free again), for 2020, Lollapalooza should get some credit for pulling off the unthinkable in the mere weeks since the June cancellation announcement. Turn off that comment feed, turn up the AC and enjoy the next three days in a way you’ll never get to experience Lollapalooza again.

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.

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