When Coachella finally announced their hotly anticipated lineup for 2019, it was impossible not to zero in one name: Ariana Grande. Considering the dominance of rock in the ’90s and early 2000s, and the emphasis on “indie” all the way up through today, it’s hard to imagine the old school paradigm about pop as an empty, shallow, and worthless genre has shifted enough that a festival typified as the harbinger of cool would anchor one of its headlining slots with a full-fledged pop star. (Beyonce barely counts, her cultural moment has long eclipsed the role of simply “pop star,” though certainly, her booking paved the way for Ari, as did Gaga’s graceful decision to fill in during the Beyonce pregnancy year). It was hard to call the booking surprising, but it was still something of an adjustment in thinking.
Ari coming through for Coachella was also quite a coup for them — her Sweetener world tour had already been announced, “Thank U, Next” was the biggest single of her career (and some argued, the biggest song of the year), and a brand new follow-up album was going to drop just a few months before Coachella would take place. Of course, in the ensuing weeks, that album would become one of the most highly-touted records of 2019 — even though the year had just begun — and the festival boasting her on the lineup made their books look almost prescient of her continued success.
And if you take a look at the rest of the festival’s extensive daily schedule, Ariana Grande at the top isn’t the only place the event doubled down on including pop music — particularly made by women — in their programming. My own personal must-see list began as early as Friday at 4:15 PM with King Princess at the Mojave tent. Following that up with the Korean girl-group sensation Blackpink at 8 PM at the Sahara tent, and Sophie in a borderline headliner slot at 9:10 PM also in Mojave meant there was plenty of pop to be found on the fest’s first day. And yes, Coachella has peppered pop acts into ther schedule before, but catching a rising queer, female star and an international pop act in the first several hours of day one indicated more than just a token inclusion.
Saturday was similarly packed, with Billie Eilish basically playing a headlining set of her own at 9:35 PM on the Outdoor Theatre stage. Given this set was late by about a half hour during weekend one, fans had to choose between Tame Impala, who began at 10:35 PM on the main stage, or Billie — and plenty of them opted for the goth-pop teen girl over an established, relatively stoic psych-rock set. But before Billie, Maggie Rogers blew the f*cking top off a 7:20 PM set at the Gobi tent, as plenty of fans wondered aloud why she hadn’t been given a bigger venue, eyeing the spilling over crowd from the back of the venue. Even with her co-sign from Pharrell, plenty of indie-leaning corners of the industry still turned up their nose at Rogers’ wide-eyed synth pop, but the attendees themselves were beyond appreciative of a little brightness on a day filled with lots of darker programming.
Finally, before Ariana Grande more than lived up to expectations with a near-perfect closing set, Sunday saw Khalid take the main stage right before her, another act that the indie world can’t quite seem to wrap their head around because of his predilection for trying all things pop. But, same as with Rogers, teens were packed around the stage, swaying and singing to even the brand new songs, remarking to one another how happy they were to get the chance to see him live. Plus, an earlier Lizzo set had fans screaming so loud, the solemn atmosphere of a formal seated dinner I was partaking in was almost eclipsed.
What Coachella has learned before other festivals of their ilk is that while poptimism may be catching on with older millennials and Gen Xers, it’s a way of life for the coming crop of music fans. Pop sits comfortably next to hip-hop, EDM, indie and even country (Kacey Musgraves was also a crowded main stage set on Friday), there is no hierarchy of cool, and no need to dismiss pop artists out of hand, like generations of the past seemed to do almost subconsciously. Coachella sets the tone for its peers and competitors and dictates trends throughout the year, so given their early lean toward booking pop acts right alongside rappers and rockers, the rest of the industry — and its stars — will soon be following in their footsteps.