We’re only three days into 2019 and already one of music’s biggest annual talking points has arrived. Go on social media and you’ll see countless takes about how Coachella’s 2019 is its worst ever or its best, with even a few rare evenhanded approaches that paint the latest docket as neither inherently good nor evil. The reality is that your opinion of the Coachella lineup largely depends on your opinion on the state of music in 2019. As is its power and prerogative, Coachella holds up a giant mirror to the cultural zeitgeist every year, reflecting the trends and interests back. If you don’t like what you see, it isn’t the fault of Coachella, it’s more that the music trends of the time aren’t resonating with you.
Few, if any, other festivals can do this because few have Coachella’s reach and vision. Sure, virtually any festival would love to book Lady Gaga following the Super Bowl or LCD Soundsystem’s first large-scale reunion shows or a Beyonce set that felt like it stopped the world from spinning for a couple hours. But no one else can do this, in major part because of the cultural cachet that the festival was worked so hard to build. This year will be the 20th Coachella and no other music event in the world matters in quite the same way. You don’t get there by trying to please everyone, you get there by constantly pushing forward and evolving as unapologetically as the music world at large does.
So while this list of artists that will descend on the gorgeous Southern California desert in April might just look like a list of names, we can break down what it means for the state of music as a whole, starting with a pop star who owned last year thanks to her artistry, her savviness, and a narrative that showed her to be one of the bravest and most resilient public figures to emerge in ages.
There’s no question that Ariana Grande owned 2018, and there is little inclination that she is going to slow down for 2019 thanks to an expected new album, Thank U, Next. But while songs like “No Tears Left To Cry” and the title track for her upcoming record became some of the biggest of her career (enough so that she actually gave the former song a huge live debut at Coachella last year), it felt like the booking that would make the most sense for Coachella couldn’t happen due to Grande’s gnarly tour schedule. But Grande is not going to let her moment pass her up and will complete a travel schedule that is generally unheard of for an artist of her caliber: Friday and Saturday performances in Indianapolis and St. Louis respectively, with Coachella on Sunday and then back to St. Paul for her arena tour again on Monday. For week two, it gets a little easier with her Coachella set sandwiched between stops in Denver and Salt Lake City on the days before and after. With Grande now the youngest ever Coachella headliner, she’s also showing that she might be the hardest working, too, a trait that also applies to Coachella’s second-biggest headliner.
Childish Gambino was an easy headliner to predict almost a year out. He scored the biggest musical hit of his career in 2018 with “This Is America,” was nominated for a ton of Emmys for Atlanta, starred in a Star Wars movie, and made a music video that is already an all-timer. For a festival that has long loved (and catered to) the celebrity class of southern California, getting a legitimate Hollywood star to close out a night is a no-brainer. Coupling Donald Glover with Janelle Monae on Friday, another musician/actor that represents something bigger than just a recording output, gives the festival a star quality that it has rarely seen previously.
By some reports, Tame Impala seems to be the last headliner added thanks to negotiations breaking down late in the game with Kanye West (though others are saying Ariana was last in and Tame replaced Justin Timberlake). But even without Kanye on the lineup, his presence is majorly felt. Why else would Kid Cudi be so high up on the Saturday bill? And with other slots by known Kanye associates like Pusha T and 070 Shake, the stage was set for both an epic West headlining set and possible Kanye guest appearances throughout the weekend. That’s not saying this is off the table. Kanye loves showing up unannounced (and has previously done so at Coachella on numerous occasions with the likes of Jack U and The Weeknd), so we can’t count out a MAGA hat appearance just yet. But this ultimately feels like a gift to anyone that’s a little sick of Kanye’s political ramblings, as well as to rock fans who didn’t have a headliner in their preferred genre in 2018.
And let’s not discount the presence that Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker has had across genres of late, working with the likes of Travis Scott, ASAP Rocky, Zhu, and Lady Gaga. Who knows what the band has in store for 2019, but the possibilities have never felt more open. Still, this does ultimately feel like a lost opportunity for Kanye to do something special and get himself out of the doghouse in many fan’s eyes.