CHICAGO — Lollapalooza is always a study in contrasts. In any given hour you can go from hardcore EDM to folk to country, hip-hop and indie rock, all within a mile on the scenic Chicago lakefront.
But the final two hours of Friday night's kickoff of the 2013 festival was as stark an example of musical night and day as you're likely to get. While polarizing crooner Lana Del Rey was soothing the audience's tired minds and feet with her throwback lounge pop at a small stage set among trees, rebooted Lolla veterans Nine Inch Nails were sowing their legendary path of destruction just a few hundred yards away on the main stage.
On a day when attendees slogged through the muddy fields to hear the dark techno throb of Crystal Castles, the plaintive folk of Father John Misty, Icona Pop's grin-inducing "I Love It" and Imagine Dragons' thundering rock anthems, the strange thing was that both Del Rey and NIN appeared to have a similar effect on fans. They each found a way to lull (or shove) their admirers into a sing-along trance to lyrics about love, hate, dreams and destruction.
NIN's Trent Reznor got things started by casually strolling onto the stage in shorts and a cut-off black t-shirt and plunking out the simple beat of the new song "Copy of A." The beats and keyboard clatter amped up for "Sanctified," with tall, spooky images of the players projected as shadows on the moving screens behind them.
Another new song from the upcoming Hesitation Marks album, first single "Came Back Haunted," continued the spare, Kraftwerk-like machine rhythms, bleeding into the buzzsaw guitars of "1,000,000." In case that furnace blast of nihilism and talk of not feeling anything at all was getting to you, a stroll over to the Grove Stage was the right prescription.
There, Del Rey, wearing a flowing red gown with gold piping and a white floral headdress, sauntered out like a silent picture star, well after her band was in place, a cigarette in one hand and the stage lights creating a warm glow around her.
She opened with the sugar daddy anthem, "Cola," moving around the stage as if in slow motion, then stepping down into the photo pit to sign some albums, posters and pose for pictures with her rabid fans.
After some shaky performances in early 2012 in the U.S., Del Rey has spent much of the past year touring overseas. She's has clearly worked on her presentation, as evidenced by the high, clear operatic wail on "Blue Jeans," and her confidence working the stage. She's still channeling that "Great Gatsby"-era fragile socialite vibe, but the combination of home movies and sepia-toned stock footage playing behind her and the string section beefing up tragic love songs like "Young and Beautiful" gave her set a cohesive vibe.
Fittingly, "Beautiful," from the recent remake of "The Great Gatsby," has turned into a kind of empowerment anthem for some of Del Rey's rabid young female admirers. "Will you still love me when I'm no longer young and beautiful," many of them sang, their fists held high in the air. As a bonus, it also provoked a lot of reassuring hugs and some deep kisses from their boyfriends and girlfriends.
Del Rey's tunes, including the leave-it-all-behind "Ride," don't so much grab you as wash over like a warm, wet wave. Her audience clearly appreciated the subtlety in favorites like "Summertime Sadness" and "Video Games," which seemed to cure their summertime blues by allowing them to join in a kind of collective bummer sing-along. Walking away, all you could hear was the crowd collectively sighing, "I heard that you like the bad girls, honey, is that true?"
Going from that soft light, old Hollywood scene back to the futuristic robopacalypse of NIN felt like whiplash. Whereas Del Rey was bathed in warm, flattering tones, Reznor was just a shrouded outline against a series of black and white lines as he howled the lyrics to "Only."
You could barely see him among the flashing lights and chaos during "The Hand That Feeds," as he looked to obliterate himself and offer up only shadows. The set thrashed to a close with the classic early hit "Head Like Hole," which served up a different kind of summertime sadness with fans shouting the negating chorus, "Head like a hole/Black as your soul/I'd rather die than give you control."
Pick your poison, but either way it was an exquisite bummer.
Lollapalooza is going on all weekend with sets from 2 Chainz, Icona Pop, Mumford & Sons and Lana Del Rey. Hang with us for news, pictures and interviews from the festival!