“Please visit all the booths, sign X your name where needed, and look up to the sky and enjoy yourself,” said Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, just before his group finished performing at the seven-band Lollapalooza concert festival in Fairfax, Virginia, last August. All day long the sky was grey, and the rain-dampened ground, sloshed about by the feet of over 22,000 alternative music fans, became a vast pool of mud. The soft, wet earth ruined wardrobes as hordes of concertgoers played in the brown slop. They had come to frolic and dance to their favorite songs. The show’s organizers, however, had intended to hold not a concert but a gigantic awareness-raising seminar.

The combination of polities and music is hip again—a mini-caravan of leftwing activist groups accompanied the bands on their sold-out North American tour, which concluded last September —and the soiled crowd in Fairfax represented what many people are calling a politically concerned youth counterculture. Huge murals decorated the venue, asking “Why Do You Glory In Our Subjugation?” and insisting “The Ruling Class Had Better Wise Up.” Comparisons to the 1960’s were everywhere, but the polities of Lollapalooza turned Woodstock on its head. Performers encouraged voter registration, not rebellion. They sold an attitude of disenchantment to the supposedly alienated, yet the disenchantment was entirely nonthreatening. It appeared in the form of a $23 souvenir T-shirt that read on the front, “Choices,” and on the back, “9 out of 10 kids prefer crayons to guns.” The musicians ordered adolescent angst into the voting booth. Censorship was a central point of interest, especially for the vulgar lyricists who continue to scream endlessly about the First Amendment every time somebody suggests that they should tone down their enthusiasms. Various demands for rights—for cattle, for weeds, for guncontrol lobbyists—circulated freely about the crowd, but the political wrath of this supposed counterculture stems not so much from 12 years of Reagan and Bush as it does from parents who didn’t loan out the car keys last weekend.

Several years ago the music industry decided young fans should do its political bidding. As a result, record companies began to fund organizations like Rock the Vote, which gets guitar heroes and video vamps to encourage 18-to-24-year-olds to vote. Proponents of the movement point to the declining numbers of young people participating in elections and, in a bit of Jerry Brown-style logic, suggest that “the system” is rigged to exclude them. If only more young people visited the polls, they assume, oppressive censorship movements would halt. Rock the Vote showcases these sentiments in its literature and frets over “the relentless attacks on freedom of speech and artistic expression.”

Before I had even passed through the Lollapalooza ticket gate, I encountered evidence of such paranoia. I had borrowed a friend’s ear for the day, and after locking it up and walking away, I decided that 1 had better jot down the license plate number in case of a problem. As I recorded the information, a fellow with long hair standing two ears away gave me a dazed but suspicious look and asked his friend, “Do you think he’s a narc?”

There were not any narcs at the festival, so far as I could tell. The aroma of cannabis floated everywhere. The goods were offered to me twice, unsolicited. During a song by the Jesus and Mary Chain, a shirtless, heavily tattooed man followed by two kids no older than 16 stumbled aimlessly through the crowd holding a quickly made placard that read “Will pay for acid.”

Although the drug trade resembled an unrestrained free market, every other form of commerce was controlled in a way that blended the ingenuity of capitalism with the inefficiency of socialism. Take the food vendors. At a day-long event, they were obviously of great importance, especially since the security guards would not permit anybody to enter the park with food. Once through the gates, big signs bearing the Pepsi logo sprang up everywhere: “AVOID LONG LINES. BUY FOOD AND DRINK TICKETS IN BULK NOW.” Under this system, you stand in one line to buy food tickets for a dollar apiece, and then you stand in another line if you want hot dogs, still another for watermelon wedges, and yet another for Pepsi. There is something ridiculously appropriate about this scheme, plotted by million-dollar musicians who combined with their business sponsors to endorse at least implicitly the idea of government expanding its influence into all spheres of life, save rock songs. After one irate woman’s daunting encounter with this strangeness—no doubt the closest thing to bread lines that she had ever experienced—she got a clue, held up a slice of Domino’s pizza, and declared, “This ain’t Lollapalooza! This is [expletive] corporate America taking over our minds!” Everyone ignored her.

Underneath the same tent as the food were the various radical political groups so far removed from the mainstream as to render themselves harmless. Concert-goers examined their displays primarily during set changes and felt really good about themselves afterwards. “I visited the booths to achieve consciousness,” noted one woman.

Collectibles were hot items under the political tent, and they promoted causes like animal rights (sticker; “Liberate laboratory animals”), Indian reparations (T-shirt: “500 Years of Genocide is Enough”), and communism (poster: “Phony communism is dead . . . Long live real communism”). One button pleaded for “McGovern in ’92.” Voter registration efforts, according to a worker at Rock the Vote’s table, were going wonderfully. Everybody I spoke with was either too young to vote or already registered.

Attentions throughout the day were focused mostly on the stage, where the bands played and occasionally felt compelled to inform the audience that censorship is bad. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell was so moved by this oratory that he led his group through Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” the ditty recently assailed from all corners and nearly responsible for a boycott of Time-Warner products. Cornell introduced the song by saying, “We don’t play this song because of what it’s about, but for what it stands for,” as if there were a difference. Ice Cube, the show’s sole rapper, later chimed in by remarking, “Records don’t kill people, cops do. They shouldn’t ban ‘Cop Killer,’ they should ban killer cops!” Nobody mentioned that four of the seven Lollapalooza bands are signed to the Time-Warner family.

I left the concert during a set by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the last band to perform. Big plastic spring-water bottles, emptied of their contents, covered much of the slippery ground—there were no recycling bins. After the Greens under the tent had started packing up, the only visible concern for any kind of environmentalism at all displayed itself on another large Pepsi sign placed near the park’s entrance: “EXPOSURE I’D SOUND ENVIRONMENT MAY CAUSE HEARING IMPAREMENT