A virtual Lollapalooza has its virtues

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

Nothing will ever replace the in-person 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 like 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.

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