Chicago’s Lollapalooza roared back for its 30th anniversary on Thursday (July 29) after taking last year off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet still, concerns over rising cases of the delta variant caused the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and other city and health officials to hold press conferences leading up to the festival assuring it’s safe to attend.
There were, of course, some measures in place — a COVID vaccine card or negative test (obtained within 72 hours) to enter, suggested mask use, and a fan health pledge — but overall, day one of Lollapalooza’s 2021 edition felt largely the same as years past.
Opening night headliner Miley Cyrus perhaps said it best when she referenced a lyric from “Malibu” — “Hoping I just stay the same and nothing will change” — after performing the track.
“The reason why that wish is outlandish and ridiculous is because everything will change — it’s inevitable,” she told the densely packed crowd at the south end of Grant Park. “And I think it was a very humbling experience for all of us to be humanized together and experience the last year and a half, where we were all experiencing the pain of being disconnected, and I think we remembered the value of having one another in our lives. And I think the masks reminded us how much a stranger’s smile could really mean to us, because sometimes, we take that s— for granted.”
The star continued to share her mantra, saying it’s “somewhat terrifying, but also peaceful and soothing once you can accept it: The worst that can happen is only the worst that can happen. And I think that all of us are strong enough to handle anything that comes our way.” She then spoke about the universal challenge of getting through quarantine alone before ending on the same note that the festival hopes to deliver across its four days: “Just know there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and Lollapalooza is that light.”
And for many, seeing Cyrus perform a two-hour set that wound through her greatest hits of the past decade-plus — with a handful of rock covers, of course, and special guests including Billy Idol and The Kid Laroi — such a statement felt easy to believe.
Here are the five best moments from her headlining gig.
The Explosive Intro
At 8:45 p.m. on the dot, the speakers started to reverberate with the iconic line “It’s our party we can do what we want to.” As it repeated, fans became more and more attentive, waiting for Miley — who hasn’t toured since 2015 — to finally stage her rightful place on a headlining stage. Seconds later, a quick burst of red sparks alerted the crowd that she is coming. And once she did — wearing a custom-made red glitzy Gucci bodysuit with thigh-high silver platform boots — she dove right into “We Can’t Stop,” a somewhat surprising though perhaps all too fitting opening song and sentiment.
Toward the song’s end, Cyrus delivered a transitional growl to sing a few lines from the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind,” before returning to “We Can’t Stop” and then ending her opening run with “WTF Do I Know?” off her latest release and Top Rock Albums No. 1, Plastic Hearts. The top of the setlist quickly answered the question of just how far into her discography she’d dig for her set — and whether or not her now famous rock covers would get any love — while also proving something even more important, that Cyrus’ long-awaited, full-blown rockstar moment was finally here.
The #FreeBritney Messaging
After telling fans “I’m going to remember this day for the rest of my life, getting back together to play live music,” Miley whipped off her shades to perform her now hit cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” The song that followed, though, proved Cyrus was aware just how monumental this moment was — and that she intended to take full advantage of her platform.
While performing “SMS Bangerz” with a glam-rock twist fitting for Cyrus’ current vocal and fashion stylings, the screens behind her flashed with #FreeBritney messaging. By the song’s end, the crowd had erupted into a loud and a supportive “free Britney” chant — and it wouldn’t be the last time, as it was repeated during her set closer.
Her Chicago Moment
Chicago rapper G Herbo filled in for Big Sean on another Bangerz track — “Love Money Party” — providing the perfect assist for the slam dunk that followed. As G Herbo exited, Cyrus welcomed Juicy J (wearing a Jordan Bulls jersey) and Wiz Khalifa to the stage for the unintentionally Chicago-rooted track “23.” Perhaps the best guest of all, though? Chicago Bulls mascot Benny the Bull, who bounced around on the center platform as the trio sang and danced to his side.
The Many Medleys
From a dance version of “Malibu” complete with a beat drop (“I want to see what you’ve been keeping inside this past year,” Cyrus instructed) to some light flashing of her goods during “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart,” it was clear Miley wasn’t interested in delivering a copy-and-paste setlist of songs that sound the same as when they arrived. It was a strategy that was most effective when revisiting favorite gems from the late 2000s in the form of a sonic sandwich: “7 Things” and “See You Again” became the bread to Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” and she later delivered a double-decker snack of “Midnight Sky” into “The Climb” into another Plastic Hearts track “Angels Like You” into “Can’t Be Tamed.”
But it was the setlist’s last cover, of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which Cyrus seamlessly flowed into “Wrecking Ball,” that hit hardest, coming across as a love letter to her fans above anyone else. As she said earlier in the night: “This gig, playing shows for this many thousands of people, can really jerk off your ego and turn you into a f—ing narcissist. But, what we had to learn was that concerts have nothing to do with the f—ing artist, because unless we’re playing music for all of you that are out here in the crowd tonight, we have f—ing nothing.”
Her On-Stage Stamina
From singing alongside a legend like Billy Idol (for their Plastic Hearts collab “Night Crawling” and “White Wedding Pt 1”) to welcoming rising star The Kid LAROI for “Without You,” Cyrus never used her guests to catch her breath. In fact, she didn’t take so much as a minute-long break throughout her set, opting instead to extend it nearly 30 minutes beyond the scheduled 10 p.m. end time.
And while fans could have likely gone all night (and surely, some did), there was a collective understanding that day one was coming to a close when the riff of “Party in the U.S.A.” started to echo across the field, satisfying the pleading chants of “U.S.A.” that any non-fan passing by could have confused for a show of Olympic support. As Miley gave the song her all, pumping new life into the 2009 hit that’s all too fitting for a crowd eager to emerge from the ongoing pandemic, it did feel like a moment of release — the one that the 100,000 fans at the park were likely in search of.