BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Here’s a metaphor for Lollapalooza 2014: the largest sales tents this weekend are those selling festival merchandise — T-shirts, posters, hats, and more. The teensy-tiniest kiosk, tucked into the far northwest corner of Grant Park where most people don’t travel and likely do not know is there, sells this odd little thing called music.
That’s because no one is buying. On Friday, Lollapalooza entered its 10th year as a destination festival parked on downtown Chicago’s front lawn, and this year, more than others, it is evident that the music is an afterthought to the festival’s current incarnation: A weekend blowout where the sound from the stage provides an opportunity to gather and gawk. Where Lollapalooza originally served to celebrate music that was truly left field of the mainstream, it now thrives as an all-day framing backdrop for Generation Selfie.
That’s why Lollapalooza line-ups in recent years have become more homogenous in a variety of ways, primarily dominated by EDM-based artists who work well under a wide-open sky. More than vocal power, songcraft, musicianship, or message — it’s the beat that ultimately matters at Lollapalooza. There was little challenge to the 40-minute Iggy Azalea set, other than being forced to elbow your way through the densely-packed crowd to catch a glimpse. Her current popularity outflanked the moderately-sized stage where she transformed “Black Widow,” “Beat Down,” and (finally) “Fancy” into cheerleading chants. Backed by DJ Wizz Kidd located high above the stage, and a four-woman backup cardio crew, Azalea didn’t display any skills that a quality aerobics instructor didn’t have except her sound system was much more impressive.
Female singers with minimalist backup crews and programmed beats prevailed Friday. They included Lykki Li who sang power ballads, not unlike anything from the REO Speedwagon canon, her vocals double-tracked throughout by a secondary singer. Sound bleed from the dance stage floated into much of her set, which prompted her to try and win the crowd to her side. “They’re trying to [expletive] me over, trying to get me off the stage,” she said as she whacked her microphone stand, and pretty much everything else on the stage, with a drumstick.
Friday also included a genuine link to dance music’s glory days: Amanda Sudano, the daughter of the late disco queen Donna Summer. As one-half of Johnnyswim, with partner Abner Ramirez, Sudano led the crowd through soul-folk jams that felt more organic and loose. Later that afternoon, Lauren Mayberry of the Scottish trio Chvrches provided a sharp contrast: very poised childlike crooning atop thudding beats and swirling electronics.
Lorde also presented a rhythm-heavy set, backed by only a drummer and keyboardist. This was only her second appearance in Chicago — The New Zealand native headlined the Aragon earlier this year — and she held the stage with quiet power. The crowd was larger, she noted, than “my whole town and my whole high school,” as looked over the crowd in awe. “I’m so grateful.” Despite holding the mammoth stage down on her own, Lorde presented large-scale visuals with her body: Arching forward, a mane of hair hanging down, with violent jerks of her arms hitting every clipped beat present from her multimillion-selling debut album from last year.
Earlier that day, the four-woman band Warpaint played dark psych-rock opuses, which felt strangely inappropriate under such a bright sun. Guitarist Emily Kokal sang with heavy reverb in her vocals as she played slow, slurpy licks atop a shuffling dance beat. While the songs did not ring out with obvious hooks, their sound was mesmerizing, offering a bit of ambient galaxy trips on a bill that held fast to the floor.
Of course the most noteworthy appearance by a female singer Friday was Rihanna, who ended up the special guest during Eminem’s 90-minute headlining set. The singer was not on the bill, but they are scheduled to co-headline a short stadium tour this summer starting next week. On Friday, Rihanna sang the hooks on three songs: “Love the Way You Lie,” “The Monster” and “Stan,” the 1999 hit that catapulted him to fame. She and the Detroit rapper didn’t interact much during their mini-set — he bounded back and forth during her vocal interludes.
Otherwise, Eminem presented a vintage oldies set, introduced with a video that updated the audience with his long-running (and now, quite moldy) narrative involving a stalker fan. “My Name Is,” “The Real Slim Shady,” “Lose Yourself” — They are highlights from a career that has smoothed out the rough edges. “We’re back. You miss us. We miss you,” he said. To suit the large setting, Eminem brought out a rock guitarist who fired off solos throughout “The Way I Am,” plus, collaborator/hype man Royce da 5’9” shared the stage to help beef up the menace.
Besides a visual backdrop that started as stadium-high boombox, the most jarring aspect of the set were gunshots — sound effects, of course, that served to punctuate many song endings. Unfortunately, one block from Roosevelt Road where the real South Side begins, that sound is common and the death fantasies real, especially this summer when the shootings are escalating and aren’t entertainment.