Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Lollapaloser

By Jim Ridley

AUGUST 25, 1997:  Before we get into a discussion of why this year's Lollapalooza sucked on every conceivable level, let me just get this observation out of the way: I have nothing against bands selling out. Avoiding the influence of global conglomerates is a lot harder than it used to be, as Southern Baptists have learned in their shadow-boxing match against Disney. If groups can make compelling, uncompromised music for Engulf & Devour and grab the brass ring in the process--as have R.E.M., Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and a few others--then maybe sometimes the interests of the few and the desires of the many do intersect.

But few people involved with Lollapalooza are content just to sell out. They have to deodorize the taint of money with whiffs of fake protest and unearned significance--which only makes the results reek even more. Lollapalooza limped into Starwood July 31 missing its idealism, its energy, and some of its biggest attractions. Gone were electronica elder statesmen Orbital and the German band Atari Teenage Riot. Even the second-rate shock-metal troupe Korn, which rated star billing in the festival's weak lineup, had bowed out. Due to the traffic snarl outside Starwood, I missed all the second-stage bands except Japan's funny, eccentric The Pugs--but even the second-stage lineup didn't seem nearly as interesting as it had in years past. As if music were the point anyway. Most people got what they paid $35 for--the right to say they'd been there, and the chance to buy a $23 T-shirt to prove it.

Seven years ago, the festival rode a cresting wave of new tribalism, as splintered factions of alternative rock, rap, dance, and world-music fans searched for common ground. They found it at the smartly conceived Lollapalooza, which joined the biggest names in grunge and alt.rock with like-minded rappers, reggae artists, even the odd country star like Johnny Cash. The event then shrewdly aligned itself with the indie fringe by featuring a second stage of lesser-known independent-label acts. The genre-spanning lineups all but guaranteed a large audience (and a merchandizing bonanza), and in early years you might've even seen some unusual onstage collaborations--such as event founder Perry Farrell trading vocals with Ice-T.

Now the event is the attraction, and regardless of whether the artists actually have anything in common, they've been plugged into a formula for generic diversity: some white acts, some black acts, and at least two flavors of the month--in this case electronica and mosh metal. The former was represented mainly by the vapid, derivative Prodigy, a new contender for the most forgettable million-selling act of the 1990s. Their indistinguishable prefab songs (at least the four I could take) and their sterile live act showed why electronic dance music is triggering a mainstream backlash before it's even had a lash.

Flying the mosh-metal flannel was Tool, the sorriest band I've seen at Starwood since Survivor played there almost 10 years ago. Painted half-red, lead singer Maynard James Keenan snarled, grunted, and stalked the stage, growling lyrics that showed nothing but contempt for the saps singing along with him. ("I sold my soul to make a record, dipshit," he chirps in "Hooker With a Penis," a veritable Lollapalooza anthem, "and you bought one.") I think he wanted to seem demonic, but his squatting and posing just reminded me of Austin Powers in his Union Jack undies. And then, just when you thought the band had exhumed every last metal clich, out came the drum solo.

Making noise
Prodigy; they embodied the worthlessness of this year's Lollapalooza fest
In this company, even Snoop Doggy Dogg, the tour's one certifiable superstar (he got third billing), seemed tired; he dished out a listless hour-long recitation of hits like "Gin & Juice" and "Ain't Nuthin' But a G Thang" without the juice or anger to give them much force. Snoop's epic lawman-baiting drag on a blunt would've seemed a lot more daring if he hadn't made the same gesture at every stop on the tour.

The one artist who offered a glimpse of the future was Tricky, whose too-brief late-afternoon set showed electronica a way out of Prodigy's anonymous, dehumanizing dead end. Flanked by live musicians and by chanteuse Martine, the feral British dance-music renegade bobbed on his feet like a boxer and summoned an apocalyptic torrent of sense-deranging beats and serrated punk-funk guitar. The highlight was an astonishing reading of Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" that fused metal, steely blues, rap, and trance music as boldly as Prince welded soul and acid rock on Purple Rain.

If Lollapalooza had just been a group of dull bands, that wouldn't have been so offensive. What was so galling was the pomposity and self-importance surrounding the whole setup. Consider the following quote from Lollapalooza's breathless press kit: "The festival concourse truly captures Perry Farrell's creative vision and spirit." (Translation: two separate booths for toe rings.) This year's big issues were toxic waste and meat consumption. Most emblematic was the BrainForest, a tent set up on the concourse to illustrate the evils of meat and of animal experimentation. A Robert Williams mural dramatized the issue in typically lucid, serene terms: a topless woman and a goat getting buzzsawed on an operating table surrounded by whipstitched freaks. Even so, this supposedly hardline anti-meat stance didn't deter too many people from visiting the Red Hot & Blue barbecue stand just outside.

The biggest disappointment was that there was none of the cross-cultural pollination that Lollapalooza had promoted in years past. Who wouldn't have wanted to see Tricky get it on with Snoop, or even with Tool? Maynard alone mouthed a spoonfed platitude about the diversity of music at the show, but he didn't mention the name of a single act or give any clue as to why he thought the music was worthwhile.

Of course, Lollapalooza's sovereignty among touring music festivals may be ending. Within a single month, Starwood hosted three additional music festivals--the all-soul Jamizon tour, the all-female Lilith Fair, the all-baked Smokin' Grooves. Where Lollapalooza was conceived to unite tribes, these tours bank upon the idea that everyone has found his or her own tribe now. To hell with the others. Small wonder the granddaddy of these festivals seemed so...sedate. For all the talk about diversity, I saw mostly a fraternity of nonconformists--scrawny white teens in baggy shorts mouthing Tool lyrics.

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