Teenagers aren’t typically known for being on time, but the crowd waiting to enter Lollapalooza on Thursday morning proved that generalization wrong. “By 11:30 a.m., it was already poppin’, and usually it’s dead then,” a 25-year-old woman told her friends while waiting for Jimmy Eat World to take the stage. She was right. Thousands of fans arrived early this year in hopes of staking out good sightlines, posing for photo ops, and roaming their first music festival in two years. Wearing fishnet stockings and cowboy hats galore, this crowd was eager to celebrate. Who better to lead the charge than the woman who’s given America more than one of its greatest party anthems?
For months, the thought of Lollapalooza actually taking place felt like a fever dream. Instead of delaying the event for a second time in response to growing fears around the new Covid-19 strain, organizers mandated vaccination cards and negative tests for entry into the festival and opened the gates. What appeared to be the entire festival population squished onto Grant Park’s Hutchinson Field to queue for Miley Cyrus’ headlining set on Night One, shoulders touching as they held phones and cameras in the air.
“It’s our party/We can do what we want” — the distorted vocal clip that opens “We Can’t Stop” — rang out to youthful screams from the audience, setting the tone for a carefree evening. Cyrus quickly segued into the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?,” the first of many cover songs. During quarantine, Cyrus earned a huge career break when her cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” at iHeart Festival went viral, winning over jaded listeners and classic rock aficionados alike. Say what you will about her, she is one hell of a singer. Her Lollapalooza rendition was equally sharp. Utilizing the full-bodied depth of her raspy voice, Cyrus sang like she had something to prove, sending a chill down listeners’ spines as she scaled each note in sync with Debbie Harry’s original delivery.
Miley showed off her continuing clout in the music business by bringing out a string of unexpected guest stars. Billy Idol joined her for Plastic Hearts track “Night Crawling” and a faithful rendition of “White Wedding” that energized the crowd. Next came Chicago’s own G Herbo for “Love Money Party,” followed by Wiz Khalifa & Juicy J for Mike WiLL Made-It’s “23.” She even brought out rising Australian star The Kid LAROI to perform his breakout single “Without You.” These cameos were so casual that Cyrus often introduced her guests as they exited the stage, as if they’d been too caught up in the moment to remember to exchange names.
Despite all the famous friends coming and going, it was the overarching power of Miley’s voice that stole the show. She can belt loud enough to fill a city skyline and slide into falsettos with ease without damaging her vocal cords. That range helped tie together what might otherwise have been the most divergent parts of her set: Covers of Cher and Temple of the Dog were authoritative, her teenage hits sounded mature and passionate, and even her pallid Wayne Coyne collaboration sounded purposeful onstage.
Midway through her performance, I found myself questioning if Miley Cyrus is underappreciated. Maybe that’s a foolish question, considering her lifelong fame and success, but it seemed to be on the crowd’s mind, too: As she kicked into each new song, onlookers let out excited gasps, as if they’d forgotten she was responsible for so many hits.
A performance filled with goosebump-raising tributes, unexpected stars, and Radio Disney staples might have been the ideal scenario for Lollapalooza’s big first night back. By hopping from cheery pop to edgy hip-hop to breezy folk, and, now, to throwback glam-rock, Cyrus has forgone what might have been a top spot on the pop ladder — but that career path has given her a deep catalog of pleasantly omnipresent singles that are perfect for a festival setting.
As she launched into older singles like “The Climb” and “7 Things,” I saw two sets of strangers on either side of me grasping their friends’ hands, squealing in unison, and recounting the precise years and places those songs transported them back to, often jumping in unison as if bouncing on their childhood bed during a sleepover. For these fans, Cyrus’ music was associated with positive memories and carefree feelings, a particularly soothing balm compared to the routine anxiety of pandemic life.
After interviewing dozens of attendees about their vaccination checkpoint experiences, one 19-year-old fan from Indiana stuck out in particular. His friend, he said, had been denied entry after she couldn’t prove that her 15-minute Covid-19 test results belonged to her; she darted across the city to find a suitable replacement test and returned, more than an hour later, with a new negative result in hand. Watching Cyrus’ performance, I understood why so many fans like her had scrambled to get into the festival as soon as possible. Experiencing an unpredictable moment in music history as a collective group, unanimously rapt with attention and joy, is a unique type of high that music fans crave. Last night, Miley Cyrus gave that crowd what it needed.
Miley Cyrus Lollapalooza 2021 Set List
1. “We Can’t Stop”
2. “Where Is My Mind?” (Pixies cover)
3. “WTF Do I Know”
4. “Plastic Hearts”
5. “Night Crawling” (with Billy Idol)
6. “White Wedding” (with Billy Idol)
7. “Heart of Glass” (Blondie cover)
8. “SMS (Bangerz)”
9. “Doo It!”
10. “Love Money Party” (with G Herbo)
11. “23” (with Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J)
13. “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart”
14. “Slide Away”
15. “7 Things”
16. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” (Cher cover)
17. “See You Again”
18. “Without You” (with The Kid Laroi)
19. “Midnight Sky”
20. “The Climb”
21. “Angels Like You”
22. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” (Temple of the Dog cover)
23. “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Sinead O’Connor cover)
24. “Wrecking Ball”
25. “Can’t Be Tamed”
26. “Party in the U.S.A.”