Note to the boy trying to turn a plastic Smart Water bottle into a bong: Smoke enough of those super-heated estrogens and you're going to get in touch with your feminine side in ways you never imagined.
We're at Chicago's Lollapalooza music festival, two of thousands of sweaty fans with but a single purpose on Day One: To be as near as possible to the huge AT&T stage for Radiohead's evening performance. To that end, we showed up for the 4:15 show by Gogol Bordello [what ever happened to musicians who used their given names?], and the 6:15 show by Bloc Party [do you see a Russian theme emerging?] The boy with the bong was not likely to last until the 8:00 headliners appeared, trust me, but the rest of us were one big clot of humanity, pressing ever forward.
Let me just say that some of us clearly were home with a tummy ache the day the kindergarten teacher gave the "don't push" lesson. Did the people who shoved us out of the way think we were any less interested than they were in being able to see?
I came late to the large, outdoor, multi-day music festival, since my childhood was not one where I even thought of saying, "Hey, mom'n'dad, I want to drive to upstate New York and live in a field for a few days." Still, I looked up the Woodstock line-up before I came to Chicago, just to bookend the weekend. Those were the days - cows instead of corporate sponsors, dirt that turned into mud, not enough of anything resembling supplies or amenities. Now we have organic teas in lots of flavors, gourmet coffees, a mini-restaurant row with some of the best sweet-potato chips ever, and jumbo-trons flanking the main stages, which feature a whole new kind of protest music.
Back in the day, anti-establishment music had it comparatively easy. The targets of protest were so clear: The Vietnam War, the killings at Kent State, the Watts riots, and hey, let us not forget the 1968 Democratic Convention. Life was boldface; music was issue-specific, or inspirational, or both.
Early on Day One, the music was mostly angry, it seemed to me, and frantic, and what came through was a generalized rage, rather than ire directed at any specific topic. The audience went wild in kind. I don't know how jumping up and down became this generation's contribution to dance moves, but the pogo-stick I was standing behind looked like he was ready to deck anyone who suggested they were having trouble seeing around him.
At first it made me yearn for a little Neil Young. But by the time Radiohead took the stage, I was prepared to apologize to the young majority of the 80,000 inhabitants of Grant Park for the mess they've inherited - a bad economy, a bad recent stint in the world leader department, a bad environment, bad schools whose graduates go to colleges that are cancelling loans, and who can afford health insurance anymore? Any band that wanted to write an old-fashioned protest song would have to write dozens and dozens to begin to address all the available issues. It's overwhelming.
Then the Radiohead show started, and something else happened: The unexpected sun began to set behind a truly grand city skyline, the lake breeze came up, and the band gave us two hours of beautiful - not easy - music. The fireflies came out. The entire park was full of exhausted people, not unlike that farm way back when, and for two hours it seemed that all of the angry energy might be turned to something good. Rock the vote, indeed.
I go to school in a city where people are known for being rude, uncaring and thoughtless. Friends who live on the west coast say they'd love to live in New York if it weren't for 'the people.' For all those considering the move east but worried about the inhabitants of the city, here's a simple test: make it through Lollapalooza weekend without losing faith in humanity, and New York will be a piece of cake in comparison.
People worry about overcrowded subways during rush hour, but nothing can compare to the feeling of a shirtless torso being pushed against your back as if enough pressure will force you to move away, as if there were anywhere to move. It is difficult enough to deal with your own sweat during late July in Chicago, let alone those of the people around you, many of whom you get to know far more intimately than you ever anticipated.
I have an odd rule about men going shirtless. My mother mocks me for it, and I understand it's rather harsh, but I feel that the world would be a happier place if it could just be implemented. I allow for a shirt-free zone extending five blocks beyond a beach. Anywhere past that, I don't want to see anyone without a shirt who doesn't make me wonder how many crunches they do a day to stay that fit.
I've heard the excuse: Shirts are removed to prevent tan lines from forming during exposure to the sun. But when it's obvious that every one of the seven stacked cups of beer was going directly to the gut of the man standing six feet away, it becomes hard to embrace a love for all shirtless. At least he was happy to dance away in his own, self-contained beer-fueled world. Despite the beads, or rather balls of sweat rolling down his back, he was far preferable to the tall man who snapped "This is a wall" when I tried to move into the grassy opening in front of him, as if I could have blocked his view standing on my tip toes, let alone flat footed.
But as we wormed our way into the center during Bloc Party to secure a spot for Radiohead, all that changed. We were surrounded by people who had the same idea as us: Get a good spot early and then stay there through the lull between acts, hopefully even moving forward if enough people vacated their spots in search of food, drink or restrooms.
Suddenly there was a sense of camaraderie, I admit for some people built around an offering of illegal substances, but also around a love for the band that was about to play. Being in the relative front fostered a sense of unity, as if our position alone was a platform for friendship. Never mind that even though we were in front of the AT&T stage there was no cell phone reception. Never mind that the heat seemed to be worse, not better. Neither of these factors seemed to matter since I was surrounded by a group of people all intent on getting the most out of their Radiohead experience.
This was not like it was earlier in the day, where people wandered up to bands they had never heard of to take a listen. Every one of those people around me knew Radiohead, some extremely well, some just enough to blurt out a song name or two, to assert some sort of knowledge. And they didn't disappoint. I'll admit, the idea of two encores, one that went on for forty minutes was a bit on the unusual side, but the setlist definitely appealed to the audience who erupted in cheers every time they identified a song. As the fireworks went off under the monitors during Everything In Its Right Place it seemed as if that were in fact the case. You forgot the lack of a breeze, the lack of room, the tiredness of your feet after a long day of not sitting down. Instead you felt what before I wasn't sure my generation was capable of feeling: a sense of overwhelming unity.
Karen Stabiner and Sarah Dietz are mother/daughter music fans attending the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago.