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Riot Fest 2021 Raged at an Ugly Year: Festival Review

The last 18 months have been hard. Riot Fest offered a bruising catharsis.

Riot fest 2021 festival review smashing pumpkins slipknot run the jewels
Smashing Pumpkins, Run the Jewels, and Slipknot, photos by Joshua Druding
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    Riot Fest Sucks

    The unofficial fan slogan has slowly become the official slogan, and in 2021 those three words were everywhere around Riot Fest at Douglass Park in Chicago over September 16th-19th.

    A sign spelling out “Riot Fest Sucks” greeted ticketholders after they picked their way past the fairground with its Ferris wheel, its games of chance and skill, and a clown in a dunk tank insulting passerby. Once inside, via a pre-recorded video, Tom DeLonge tried to get people to chant “Riot Fest Sucks” several times a day. In the clip, DeLonge (who was not at Riot Fest this year) accused attendees of eating their own boogers.

    The videos got old, but “Riot Fest Sucks and So Does Your Tattoo,” was a gift that kept on giving: a wall of pictures documenting hundreds of questionable decisions. The winner receieved a free tattoo cover-up, and from Thursday onward, the heavy favorite was “Fuck the Rainboner.”

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    riot fest sucks and so does your tattoo 2021 recap

    Still, some people truly meant it when they screamed, “Riot Fest sucks.” I heard it in Douglass Park two or three times — real pain, from a person who thought Riot Fest was for them, only to discover that this year’s iteration isn’t what they had in mind. You don’t get that aggrievement around the all-purpose extravaganzas like Coachella or Lollapalooza.

    In a way, it’s a good problem to have. Riot Fest knows its lane, it knows its customer, and it knows a few genres inside and out: alternative, hardcore, metal, a smattering of hip-hop, and flavors of punk from pop-, to post-, to first edition. To a lot of people, that sounds like a dream. In the same way that some Game of Thrones fans bully George R. R. Martin to write faster and better, some Riot Fest fans love the concept so much, they are constantly disappointed in its execution.

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    Riot Fest 2021 was already a disappointment before it began, as fan-favorites like Nine Inch Nails, Pixies, and Faith No More pulled out of the festival due to COVID-19. The pandemic presented challenges, and in the coming weeks Chicago will find out if we’ll pay a price for the revelry.

    But all of that aside, the bacchanal felt sorely needed. A lot of anger and frustration was vented at Riot Fest this year, as artists aired grievances about the world, while some fans flung themselves into the violent pits and others kicked back with buds and beer. The last 18 months have been ugly and hard. Riot Fest offered a bruising catharsis.

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