Music is one of the most constant and persistent things in life. It's playing in lobbies and elevators, on in the background while you are out to eat, blaring from the car that just drove by and even just constantly stuck in your head. Music fluctuates in importance or impact depending on the situation or way it is presented. The connection between those expertly arranged sounds and emotions are something that science has basically explained but still makes little-to-no sense the more one thinks about it. Music can save lives, cause aggression or even all but transport the mind to a completely different time and place. If it is already so consistently present and accessible in our lives would someone pay a large sum of money to go see it recreated in a live setting when our phone or computer can easily find almost any song in fantastic quality? This is the question and argument I hear most often of people who just don’t “get” live music or the appeal. Well, maybe by focusing on one magical weekend in the summer and why I feel it is so important I can attempt to answer that question.
Music festivals have been around a long time; like most things they can be traced back to ancient Greece. They have evolved and become some of the largest spectacles around. The larger ones have taken a cue from Woodstock and featured art and food as well as the music as main attractions. They have been called outdated and dying by many critics throughout the years but yet somehow, like many genres of music they promote, they persevere. There’s one music festival in particular that truly holds a special place in my heart and mind: Lollapalooza.
Lollapalooza started as a traveling festival in 1991, conceived by Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction. It took some years off and hit some hiccups but started to become what it is today in 2005 when it was decided to hold it in one single venue, Grant Park in Chicago, one weekend each year. I began my journey with the festival in 2013 by going two out of the three days, but it only took me the first to know this was going to be something special for me every year. My love of live music comes from my parents, as a lot of things do, as my Dad took me to my first proper concert at the ripe old age of 5 (The concert was KISS and I obviously had face-paint on). I didn’t attend sporting events or go on real normal vacations as much as people around me growing up; instead I went to a lot of concerts. The love of live music basically became part of everyday life, going more than a couple months without a concert just didn’t feel right. I especially enjoyed my uncanny ability to navigate large and densely packed crowds by about the age of ten and it’s never stopped coming in handy. So Lollapalooza wasn’t technically my first festival but it was definitely a big step up in scale. Now, after four straight years of being there, I feel like a veteran and think I can finally explain why it’s so special to me and in general and, Spoiler Alert: it’s not just because of the music.
Lollapalooza (I’m going to refer to it as “Lolla” for the rest of the article, sorry grammar police) for me and a lot of people who attend doesn’t start at the festival gates, no, it starts at Metra train stations throughout the Chicago suburbs. Unlike most music festivals which are situated in the middle of nowhere in fields or other large empty areas, Lolla is situated in a park in the “center” of downtown Chicago. The views and backdrop of the Chicago skyline are one of the highlights of the weekend and it’s hard not to get chills watching the sun go down while music is wafting through the air. This setting also allows for many different forms of transportation for festival-goers and the trains are arguably the most popular. There’s an immediate bond between the people going to Lolla on the train, as we are a pretty noticeable bunch. The excitement is almost visible and for someone who normally travels alone, almost without fail I am able to meet someone new on the hour-long ride and end up talking about the festival and music the entire time. This is where the bonds are formed, the excitement builds and the general positive energy starts to become noticeable.
The energy of going to a concert is hard to explain to someone who has never been to one. There’s something palpable about this certain bond you have with thousands of other people watching and listening to the same thing you are. It’s something that almost every performer made mention of during their sets during Lolla, some more explicit than others. It comes in different forms as well, when a more “hardcore” rapper like A$AP Ferg plays one of his more booming songs and various people are dancing and moshing with an almost primal aggression, some people call that anger a bad thing, but I disagree. I watched (and at times joined in) as people of different races and cultures jumped into each other and pushed but at the end hugged and high-fived and just generally shared positive vibes with complete strangers. Though it looks completely different, this is the same positive energy that I felt when J Cole paused a song to talk about the state of the world and how all the hate was bringing him down and how the one thing he wanted us to do was put our arms around the people next to us, no matter who they were. That showing of unity was strong and showed that no matter how different, music can be the great equalizer. That energy can be felt when thousands of people are singing along with Third Eye Blind as the main singer tells security to put a man in a wheelchair, who had just crowd-surfed his way to the front, on the stage.
I watched as people shared their water with complete strangers because it was hot and no one wanted to leave their spot and share umbrellas and ponchos when the rain began to pour. People danced like no one was watching (*cough* Malia *cough*) and sang like they were trying to release every demon inside of them. This is nothing new; I’ve witnessed and been a part of it for four years now and for most of my life, because this is not just a Lolla thing. This energy can be felt listening to a no-name band play a Tuesday night at a bar. The energy at Lolla is just on a whole different level I believe and something I truly can’t fully recreate for myself anywhere else. There’s a reason that on the way home there were fifty-plus people stopping and dancing to a three-piece funk cover band playing on the sidewalk. No one wanted that positive energy to be gone; everyone wanted to keep on dancing and singing and living life in a more joyful way. I listened as an entire train car sang “Sweet Caroline” later in the night, it was a Sunday night after four days of walking and dancing and standing; everyone had to have been exhausted but that bond still wasn’t broken, we just wanted to celebrate life and unity some more.
(I didn’t know a single person in this picture, but over the course of three-plus hours of being by each other, sharing water, stories and making sure none of us lost our respective spots, we bonded enough to want to take a picture together. One person was from Texas, another London and even another from Spain. We sang and danced together and when Ellie Goulding told us to hug the person next to us; we didn’t thing twice. I will never see these people again but I also won’t forget these moments. This is the type of story and situation concerts can create.)
Now, I know music festivals aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. There’s still fights and the drugs and alcohol and general debauchery that comes with a lot of people in one area trying to party. I promise you, however, that it isn’t as bad as a lot of outlets want you to believe. The positives of the experience will almost always outweigh the negatives. So when people wonder why myself or 400,000 other people decide to spend money to go stand in a crowded park and listen to music, I guess my answer would have to be positivity. Music makes you feel a certain type of way, the sights and location are incredible but at the end of the day, I truly believe it’s the bond and the positive energy that keeps people coming back. Especially in today’s climate, with the hatred, violence and racism seemingly becoming a daily routine, live music offers an almost scientifically unexplainable escape from it all. It’s a reminder that most of us aren’t that different after all, we all love to sing and dance and “party like it’s 1999.”