"I've been replaying this moment over and over for months and it's so much better than I could have imagined," singer-songwriter Lauv proclaimed from the Lollapalooza main stage. It was a sentiment heard over and over again at the music festival's 2021 edition, the first large-scale event to return in Chicago at full capacity in the pandemic era.
For precisely that reason, the festival garnered a level of national attention unseen in recent years. Given the heightened visibility, artists were particularly eager to put their best foot forward for their loyal fans while also seizing the opportunity to reach new ears by embracing the element of surprise.
It was a picture-perfect weekend in Chicago, and between the star-studded lineup, refreshing frozen cocktails from Cupcake, panoramic views of the Chicago skyline, and so much more, fans and artists alike were overcome with an unbridled sense of optimism and treated to the cathartic return they had dreamed of.
New Safety Standards
This year marked Lollapalooza's 30th birthday, and with it came an unexpected opportunity. It all started back in May, when mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the festival was planning to return at "or near-to full capacity." The news was met with much skepticism. At the time, the city's vaccine rollout was relatively new and many were concerned with the festival's ability to implement pandemic safety precautions at scale.
Organizers met the challenge head-on, effectively drafting the blueprint by which events of similar size can operate by in the future. With multiple checkpoints in place, attendees were asked to have their vaccine cards ready-in-hand as security validated the dates and signatures on all print-outs for vaccinated patrons. Meanwhile, unvaccinated pass-holders were required to present a negative coronavirus test upon entry and wear a mask while on the grounds of Grant Park. Rapid testing sites were easily accessible outside the gates all four days.
Organizers reportedly turned away nearly 600 attendees away on the first day alone for improper paperwork. As Fox 32 Chicago reported, even Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady was stopped at the gate while going undercover due to her inability to initially produce proper paperwork. With plenty of staff and multiple entryways, the multi-stage check-in process proved effective without causing clunky bottlenecks for festival-goers.
A Long Series of Surprises
With Lollapalooza's 2020 edition cancelled, the gap between the festival's 2019 and 2021 editions felt especially pronounced as a slew of new trends originating in both the studio environment and across social media began to translate onto the stage. TikTok is having a bigger impact than ever, punk rock is seeing a massive resurgence, and Trippie Redd and Playboi Carti's "Miss The Rage" is rapidly becoming a festival favorite among DJs.
Adding to the unpredictability was the large swathe of artists eager to conjure feelings of shock and awe. Since Lollapalooza represented the first time many artists returned to the stage in nearly two years, they were eager to pull out all the stops, and for the audience that meant unannounced special guests were awaiting at every turn.
Steve Aoki kicked things off strong opening night by inviting Darren Criss to the stage to perform their late 2019 dance music cover of "Crash Into Me" by Dave Matthews Band. But there was more in store with Aoki, who ultimately welcomed to the stage 2000s punk rock favorites All Time Low to preview an unreleased track shortly thereafter.
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The trend continued into the weekend with the Brownies & Lemonade All Stars introducing the godfather of trap, Chicago legend YehMe2, for a surprise set that balanced his recent discography with classics he helped concoct during his tenure as one half of Flosstradamus. YehMe2 even compounded the surprise by bringing along a little help from rapid-fire wordsmith Twista, who helped close the set with a bang.
SLANDER brought Saturday evening to an explosive finish with a live performance of "First Time" as well as "Love Is Gone" with Dylan Matthew, a gut-wrenching single that has been making the round heavily on TikTok. Meanwhile, Marc Rebillet was unpredictable as ever all on his own, hilariously raving about his newfound "giga-vax" status, which he defines as having received every available vaccine on the market.
Electronic Headliners Make Triumphant Return
Over the last decade no genre has come close to matching the hegemonic expansion of dance music across the Grant Park grounds. What was once a niche part of the festival—confined to a small tent and a handful of DJs—has since ballooned to the third largest stage in Grant Park, the Solana x Perry's Stage, all within the span of a handful of years. In increasingly more prevalent cases, DJs have even transcended the electronic-focused stage entirely to perform one of the festival's two main stages, and this year ILLENIUM and Marshmello, two veterans of the event, were elevated to that position.
In 2016, despite a mid-day time slot, Lollapalooza concert-goers arrived early en masse to catch Marshmello, en emerging EDM success story at the time. In 2018, ILLENIUM practically opened day two of Lollapalooza with a humble 12:40PM time slot. This year, both returned as main attractions.
On night one, ILLENIUM fans showed up decorated as firebird-emblazoned jerseys dotted the audience. Despite being slotted at the same time as Miley Cyrus, ILLENIUM fans showed their loyalty as they watched the producer play out a sizable portion of his most recent album, Fallen Embers. He came with some additional firepower to amplify his most recent emerging hits. Said The Sky joined him to perform the cathartic "Crazy Times" while iann dior took the stage to play out the hip-hop and punk-inspired "First Time."
In some ways, ILLENIUM's appearance was also a nostalgic reflection of how far dance music's popularity has ascended at Grant Park. The headbang-happy crowd especially appreciated his willingness to drop tracks from the select number of artists who had held this position at the festival before him including ODESZA's horn-heavy "Loyal" and Skrillex's iconic "Promises" remix.
Marshmello received similar love for his statement-making return. Despite experiencing some pre-performance nerves due to the magnitude of the event, he came out swinging with the confidence of an artist on top of their game. Donning a Michael Jordan Bulls jersey, Mello took fans back to where his own meteoric rise to greatness began, with "Know Me," before sampling something new and unheard with his forthcoming Ray Volpe collaboration. The night felt like a crowning moment for Marshmello, who had audiences singing along to every word of his biggest vocal hits including "Wolves," "Friends," and many more.
From a production standpoint, the arduous hours of rehearsal paid off as the combination of pyrotechnics, cinematic quality visuals, and evolving stage setup came together to create numerous explosive and heartfelt moments. Chief among them was the producer's tribute to Chicago rapper Juice WRLD, who tragically passed away in 2019. "I want you to find your best friend right now and give them a big hug," Marshmello said as the pop-rock riffs of "Come & Go" swelled into focus.
A Momentous Return
Overall, Lollapalooza 2021 was the stimulating return the music industry needed. On its 30th anniversary, the festival served as a much-needed pressure release valve for artists who were anxious to make their return to the stage as memorable as possible, and the crowd was having every second of it.
Despite mercurial restrictions, leadership delivered the premium festival product fans have come to expect over Lollapalooza's storied history, and they've written the roadmap that could allow events of similar scale to take place safely and securely in the months to come.