Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Guardian, August 29th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Lollapalooza means a bizarre happening. Lollapalooza is a mobile rock festival currently traversing the US, a package of seven alternative bands (including Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Colour, and Butthole Surfers) headlined by Jane’s Addiction, the Los Angeles-based art metal group who dreamed the whole thing up. Recession has led to the collapse of many of this summer’s US tours; Lollapalooza is one of the few that’s selling out, even adding shows in some of the 21 cities on its itinerary.

The more sanguine US commentators have dubbed it as “Woodstock for the Lost Generation”. That sounds fanciful, but although none of the shows pull more than twenty thousand kids, if you factor in the 26 performances being played you get a combined audience of nearly a half a million -- close to the number who attended Woodstock. The difference is that for Woodstock, Sixties youth traveled huge distances for the sake of an ideal; with Lollapalooza, the festival comes to the kids.

The festival was the brainchild of Jane’s Addiction’s charismatic singer Perry Farrell and drummer Stephen Perkins. The idea was conceived when the band attended the UK’s Reading Festival, a three day “alternative” rock jamboree, and, impressed, began to wonder why there was nothing like it in America. Farrell immediately saw an opportunity to create an event that was more than just a budget-price opportunity for kids to check out a load of bands. So each Lollapalooza performance comes with a sideshow of booths and displays operated by political, ecological and human rights organizations: Handgun Control Inc, Refuse and Resist, national Abortion Rights Action League, Rock the Vote (an MTV sponsored group that encourage young people to register to vote) and more. There’s also an “art tent” featuring work by local artists selected by Farrell (himself a Renaissance man, who sculpts, paints and has a full-length movie under his belt).

Lollapalooza is a riposte to the “twentysomething” debate that raged through the US media earlier this year. A number of critics and commentators characterized Eighties post-punk youth as a lost and defeated generation, impotent, directionless, and scared of political and emotional commitment. Overall, it was argued that the “twentysomethings” have failed to come up with a distinctive culture of their own to rival the baby boomer generation’s contributions (the counter culture and punk rock).

Lollapalooza is an attempt to rally the twentysomethings, to restore a sense of rock as a counter-culture rather than an over-the-counter leisure industry. “I predict a very strong youth movement will grown out of Lollapalooza,” Farrell told me in May. “I want there to be a sense of confrontation. But I’m not declaring myself left or right wing. I want to bring both sides into it.”

So how did it pan out in reality? I went to the New York area’s date (a couple of hours drive out to Waterloo Village in the wilds of New Jersey) with high hopes. But problems, or at least realities, intruded. One of the reasons the twentysomething generation seems to lack an identity is that it has too many cultural options, so that you either become a partisan of one subculture or you succumb to a schizoid eclecticism.

Lollapalooza’s bill reflects the fragmented nature of modern left-field music, ranging from Nine Inch Nails’ overblown electro-theatre to Butthole Surfers’ acid rock buffoonery to Sioxuse’s Goth and Ice T’s gangsta rap. Most of these groups attempt to reconcile or transcend genres, in order to achieve “crossover”. Living Colour blend metal, funk, jazz, soul et al into a polite, ungainly fusion with impecceable left-liberal credentials but little sense of danger. Ice T (now a superstar thanks to his role in the movie New Jack City) tried a more interesting gambit--not fusion, but fission, a split persona. For the first half of his set, he was “black”, a baleful rap hoodlum; for the second half, he tore off his cap, let loose flowing locks and rocked out as a “white” headbanger in his very own metal combo Body Count.

The counter cultural element of the festival was a shambles. The art was tediously “taboo-breaking” stuff (computer warped images, art made of detritus and found material), while the political aspect was more piously right-on than Perry Farrell had hoped. Overall, the event was marred by disorganization. Bringing your own food or water was forbidden, but they didn’t provided enough food concessions to cope with the demand.

What actually unites the youth of today was never really articulated. Most performers swore a lot, which went down well with the crowd, and there were various platitudinous expressions of opposition to censorship. But the most pronounced unifying aspect of the twentysomethings is a kind of voyeurism. This is typified by one of the groups participating in the cultural sideshow element of Lollapalooza--Amok, a publisher and distributor of “extremist information”; magazines and books by or about serial killers, conspiracy theorists, crackpots, and weird cults, plus video compliations of atrocities and autopsies.

Jane’s Addiction themselves are a great band languishing for the lack of a cultural context that would make them a world-historical force. (Hence Lollapalooza). After two brilliant major label albums--Nothing’s Shocking and 1990’s Ritual De Lo Habitual--they’ve built up a huge cult following, through reinvoking a sense of rock as an underground--a dark haven of deviant and transgressive behaviour. Jane’s Addiction are like an intellectual cousin to Guns “n’Roses.

Even performing below their transcendent best, Jane’s Addictoin fuse idioms (heavy rock, funk, ethnic music, psychedelia, Goth) in a far more volatile and incendiary fashion than Living Colour or anybody else in the “funk’n’roll” genre. Clearly, Farrell desperately wants his audience to live out their fantasies, rather than live through Jane’s Addiction vicariously. For Farrell, the only sins are self-denial, boredom and nostalgia. As the encore “Classic Girl” goes: “they may say, ‘those were the days’, but you know, for us, these are the days.” I was left feeling that the twentysomething generation, listless and impassive, doesn’t deserve Jane’s Addiction.

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