Lollapalooza no longer tries to be edgy

August 05, 1994|By Jim Farber | Jim Farber,New York Daily News

Lollapalooza lumbers into Charles Town, W.Va., Monday with a big fat albatross around its neck. Despite a lineup that boasts some of the biggest names in the music business -- Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, etc. -- this yearly event still finds itself burdened by its original ambitions. People still expect Lollapalooza to represent an edgy, underground be-in for superfreaks.

Dream on.

Even Lollapalooza's organizers agree, four years in, that it's time to stop looking to rock's original "alternative" festival for anything alternative. "It's just a great day out," says Ted Gardner, one of the event's architects. "It's wrong to look for any hidden meaning behind Lollapalooza. It's just a long picnic."

It wasn't always that way. When Gardner, Perry Farrell and Marc Geiger first thought up Lollapalooza in 1991, the music industry was set for a shock. In the summer before Nirvana broke big -- when power-ballad bands like Bon Jovi and Poison still ruled -- Lollapalooza had both edge and the advantage of surprise.

It exorcised the latter by selling out nearly every date in a recession-worn summer. Record companies and radio got their first irrefutable evidence that a challenging new wave of rock bands, led by Farrell's group Jane's Addiction, could connect with an emerging generation. "It showed the industry a new kind of music that actually meant something," Gardner explains.

Three years later, it means something quite different. Though writers still use the hoary term "alternative rock," the industry has replaced it with a vaguer, less pretentious term that categorizes this now hugely popular music exclusively by the era in which it was made: "modern rock."

Though Gardner finds the term "unimaginative," he agrees it's useful "to differentiate this from awful old stuff like Loverboy and REO Speedwagon."

Which isn't to say these new bands hold any less commercial clout. They just haven't sacrificed their credibility to get it. If the graduates of Lollapalooza -- like Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains -- represent white rock's new orthodoxy, they also constitute the most creative ruling class in music since the '60s, when the most credible groups commonly sold the most, like the Stones, Doors or Beatles.

That's a healthy change from the early '90s. Then, record companies tipped their financial backing toward insubstantial, singles-oriented acts (from Marky Mark to Wilson Phillips to EMF, all of whom flopped with their follow-ups).

These days, companies more often put big bucks behind groups built to last -- like Counting Crows and Soundgarden -- acts that stress real songwriting and performing skills, encouraging a deeper identification with the audience. "At this point, newer bands are writing more real albums, as opposed to just singles, than they've been in years," Gardner agrees.

So the mainstream acceptance of Lollapalooza deserves more cheers than curses. To boot, Gardner says that even as the festival reaches middle age, it still has the capacity to expose younger fans to cult artists, like Nick Cave or Stereolab.

But even if the music at Lollapalooza remains vital, isn't the festival as a yearly event verging on the antique?

"If Lollapalooza got to the point where its music became like it was in the late '80s, then we would kill it," Gardner declares. "But then I'm sure something else would come along -- something leaner and newer to carry on the spirit."

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