Same as it ever was?

If Jim DeRogatis at the Chicago Sun-Times is saying Pearl Jam is anchoring Lollapalooza, I’m inclined to believe him. He was the first to break the story, but when I heard the news this morning, it was credited to, which made me initially skeptical. Last year, Billboard said “Chicago media reports” indicated that a reunited Smashing Pumpkins (as opposed to the barely-there version Corgan’s working with now) were being eyed as a headliner. It was picked up all over the place, but after a little research, I discovered it turned out to be nothing more than a third-hand rumor passed on by an editor…the same editor who wrote up that Pearl Jam piece. Hence my skepticism.

But like I said, if DeRogatis is the original source for it, it’s probably true. But this leads to another question: why would the organizers of Lollapalooza want to continue booking headliners that only harken back to Lolla’s glory days, rather than acts that help the fest stake out a new identity as the barometer for the best in music?

Let’s get a couple givens out of the way first. Pearl Jam is a more interesting, challenging, and focused band now than they were when they first played Lolla back in 1992. You could easily argue that they’re as much in their prime now as they were back then. And in some instances, I have (which is funny, since I’m not a huge fan, and the only PJ album I have is the “bootleg” live album they recorded in Hamburg).

Also, Lolla’s identity now is different than it was during PJ’s first appearance there, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Looking back at the lineups of the old Lollapalooza is like reading notes from the underground of American rock music. I’m not here to eulogize that time, or suggest that the new Lolla should try and re-capture it. They’re clearly trying to establish themselves as the place where both the casual and hardcore music fan can find a reason to justify dropping $200 on tickets, and not have to spend days in the desert to hear lots of good music. I think that’s a good thing.

So why, if I’m not the same person I was when Lolla came to the World Music Theatre in the early 90s, does Lolla seem like it’s often content to book acts who were the soundtrack to my teenage fumblings? Maybe it’s because the arena concert industry makes the most money off of the artists who were most influential during the teenage years of those who are now in their 30s.

Look at the top 5 concert draws for 2006: The Stones, Madonna, Bon Jovi, U2, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. With the exception of Tim and Faith, those are all artists whose audiences are now well into adulthood, and had their most influential years in the 1980s (even the Stones were still a viable creative entity during that time).

Pitchfork and Intonation illustrate how music listening and buying patterns have become increasingly niche-oriented. They are for people who buy and listen to music regularly, and in some cases, religiously. Even Bonnaroo still operates as one really long, large-scale club show, as evidenced by the extensive camping opportunities (which is the festival version of going back to your friend’s house, drinking a few beers and passing out on his couch after a show).

But Lolla in the mid-aughts is the ultimate example of the arena concert as an adult theme park, where everyone plays Ultimate Music Fan for a weekend. You’re overcharged for everything, have to walk a lot, and stand in long lines. There’s more artifice than reality, but in the end, if you’re patient, there are still plenty of thrills to be had. Most arena tours are constructed that way, and Lolla is the 800 pound gorilla version of it. (Coachella splits the difference between Bonnaroo and Lolla, with tents available and Palm Springs a short drive away, and if you look at their lineup, that’s a pretty good description of it right there.)

So it makes sense that if Lolla wants to re-create the arena experience on a much larger scale, then they’re going to go with artists who speak to the teenager still living inside most adult music fans. A few newer, cutting-edge thrills are fine, but they have to deliver the goods, and that means tapping into what most of the attendees remember as their primo concert experience.

Or to put it another way, while people might ride Superman: Ultimate Flight when they go to Great America, they don’t leave without hitting either The Demon or The American Eagle.

2 comments for “Same as it ever was?

  1. March 7, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    Do you really think it’s all as idealistic as that? I agree with you that PJ is a draw for thirtysomething fans such as myself.I mean, seriously. I am totally more inclined to lay down all that cash for Lolla in part, hard as it may be to admit it to myself, because I can recreate what it was like for me to see them fifteen years ago.But don’t you think getting us old-timers out there has more to do with some of the sponsors wanting to reach an even broader audience? You said so yourself when you came home from Lolla last year that everything seemed to be sponsored by everyone. Is it all really that altruistic? Am I really up at 6:30 a.m.?

  2. March 7, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    Ah, maybe I wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean to paint it as purely idealistic. Lolla wants to get as many people as possible there so they can make the $$$, so that’s why they’re picking the Pearl Jams and Red Hot Chili Peppers of the music world to headline in the last couple years. Those are the folks that have the spending habits that most big sponsors (like beer companies and AT & T) want, not the indie kids.

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