If you’ve endured Lollapalooza, or even been in Chicago during the music festival, you know Lolla Teens. You’ve seen them in hoards, swigging vodka from a water bottle on the L or Metra; four-day wristbands dangling as they pose in crop tops, peace signs to the sky; sweating bullets at Perry’s Stage, making out or yelling or, miraculously, both at once. They descend on the Loop for four days each August. They’re the reason most Chicagoans over the age of 26 avoid downtown that week, or even skip town altogether.
But I have a confession: I was once a Lolla Teen. I didn’t wear body glitter or bare my entire butt on Michigan Avenue, but I was a teenager who went to Lollapalooza.
For city-dwelling high school and college kids, going to Lollapalooza was the thing to do between 2007 and 2010. We witnessed Late Registration–era Kanye, saw Lady Gaga on the teeny BMI stage, had our minds blown by Girl Talk mashups, and heard essentially the entire Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack live.
And yes, we were almost certainly drunk and annoying. Bag check wasn’t as thorough back then, and those with fake IDs could buy booze for the group. The fest drew more of a late 20s/early 30s crowd, who, sure, probably hated us. But that demographic made us Lolla Teens 1.0 feel deeply cool and cosmopolitan. It was an annual highlight: A special thing that was ours, a bang-for-your-buck musical experience just an L ride away. Those feelings were in part a product of being 17, when everything felt new.
But now, after four days covering Lollapalooza as an adult, my body is rocked and I don’t want to so much as look at Grant Park. In this moment, I’d like to be placed in a full-body cryogenic chamber for a full calendar year.
Recalling what it’s like to love Lollapalooza takes some intimate soul-searching. But I have friends who still go to the festival every year. Inevitably, we end up asking one another: “When we were teenagers at Lolla, were we this obnoxious?”
Of course, drawing conclusions about a generation based on a four-day music festival is lazy. Every time my jaw drops at a gawky 16-year-old in a crop-top, I remember the horror my parents’ generation felt when Britney Spears released “…Baby One More Time” in 1999. My next feeling a Chris Crocker-esque defense of Britney, and my judgment fades. Each generation of underage kids fosters its own brand of energy. They’re always going to travel in packs, not realize how bad they smell, and make out in public places. It’s true of the 2018 Lolla Teens, and was probably true of the 1969 Woodstock 1969 teens. Teens, as they say, will be teens.
Lollapalooza, on the other hand, has changed tons. When I went in the aughts, my friends and I felt vastly younger than most folks there. In retrospect, I figured I was imagining it, but it’s true: In 2006, Pitchfork reported that most of the attendees were in their late 20s and early 30s. In 2012, 27% of attendees were ages 18 to 24; in 2014, it was 37%.
This appears to be a concerted effort on the part of C3. It's electronic-heavy Perry’s stage transitioned from a tent to an open field in 2012, allocating a larger chunk of Grant Park for Lolla's younger demographic. Added to that this year were Gen-Z acts like Post Malone (age 23) and Lil Pump (17), whose crowds dwarfed those at the likes of LL Cool J and the National. Walking down Columbus Drive this weekend, I felt like a babysitter. I don’t know that a 28-year-old Lolla attendee would’ve felt that way in 2008.
What’s more, “festival culture” in its current form wasn’t really a thing a decade ago. Sure, Lolla was no Woodstock — it was still a heavily commercialized event — but the fashion hadn’t yet been commodified by Urban Outfitters. It was pre-flower crown, pre-Molly, and pre-mainstream EDM, before giants like Diplo and Skrillex had blown up. My friends and I uploaded photos Facebook after the fact, but Instagram wasn’t around yet. That means “experiential” brand immersions, now as present at Lolla as music itself, also weren't a thing:
“Thank you to the NBA!”
— NBA (@NBA) 5 August 2018
— VH1 Save The Music (@VH1SaveTheMusic) 5 August 2018
— Toyota USA (@Toyota) 5 August 2018
Personally, I’m extremely turned off by festival culture in its current form. Would I have been such a hater had it existed this way in the ‘00s? Probably. I was an asshole then, too.
But I still would’ve gone to Lollapalooza, and I probably still would’ve loved it: the festival carried a certain cache, a sense of college-age independence that late-high school me craved.
It’s tough to tell whether my contempt for Lolla today stems from growing up or from the festival itself changing. It's probably a bit of both. But in any case, returning as an adult feels odd. Lollapalooza stays pretty much the same every year: The lineup may change, but the layout is the same and the performances all feel see the same. As such, returning to Lollapalooza year after year is like going back to any other physical place that elicits strong adolescent memories — a high school, or a grandparent’s house, or a neighborhood playground. With Lolla, it's just a bit drunker, and, given the festival’s late obsession with selling something at every turn, a little more depressing.
You can revisit a place you loved as a teenager, but you can’t truly recreate the feeling of being a teenager. For most adults, that's a relief: Teenagers feel every little thing so damn intensely. And at Lollapalooza, those feelings are excitement, enthusiasm, joy. Yes, that EDM-induced zeal is annoying to adults. But stepping back into Lollapalooza each summer is the closest I get to empathizing with the fresh, overwhelming energy that only 18-year-olds exude.