It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
If Coachella had its way, Saturday night would have featured a much different lineup. First, its headliner would have been Justin Timberlake, the pop star who was forced out of performing when vocal trouble caused him to cancel dates and his rescheduled tour interfered with Coachella’s timeframe. And then there is Solange, the pop singer who just endured a disappointing surprise drop (at least by commercial standards) and backed out of her subheadlining gig after some bandmates reportedly became ill and delayed her production. Even Kid Cudi’s night-closing set in the Sahara on Saturday night oozed what-ifs, as his appearance seemingly hinged on the fact that Kanye West was originally supposed to headline the festival, too (and we’re not talking about his church service).
Instead, a couple of unlikely heroes saved Coachella’s second night from being a total wash: Tame Impala and Billie Eilish. On paper, the two wouldn’t appear to have much in common. But if you tune in at just the right time on rock radio these days, there is the very real possibility that you might be able to hear both artists back-to-back, a weird proposition when you consider how little each has to do with what most consider traditional rock.
Sure, Tame’s biggest hit, “Elephant,” is vintage psych-rock, but their newest material released in the last several weeks, “Patience” and “Borderline,” find the guitar god Kevin Parker largely ditching the instrument he made his name on. It’s a move that was hinted at on his last record Currents, but these new songs feel very different. Soft rock and chillwave are both touchstones, and Parker is impressing as much as a vocalist as he has previously through his instrumental chops and production wizardry. The band wasn’t expected to debut more new songs in their headlining set — Parker has said before that he prefers people’s first experience with his music be the recorded version — but even without many surefire hits, fans turned out in mass to groove along to the impressive laser light show and tight performance.
Tame’s vision of rock and roll isn’t based on an instrument or an ethos. Instead, they are running with the trend in hip-hop and pop to make music that is as much about the vibe as anything. Yes, Kevin Parker’s songwriting is always impressive, but he’d be just as happy to have people get lost in his grooves, caught in a neon spell that is as transportive as it is transformative. He knows that rock and roll is bigger than six strings. It’s a fluid concept, and he’s turning on the faucet.
For Billie Eilish, she has even less to do with typical definitions of guitar rock. But with the No. 1 album in the country, it’s important to remember that a big part of her success comes from the alternative radio sphere. Of course, she’s not the first woman to toe the line between the rock and pop worlds. Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and Halsey have all found varying degrees of success in the rock formats, even if none of them would necessarily identify as rock musicians. None feature much in the way of guitar, and neither does Billie, but seeing Eilish perform at Coachella revealed an artist with much more rock in her DNA than the aforementioned artists. Part of it is the abandon she shows on stage, part of it is in her ability to spike her songs with sinister undercurrents. But mostly, it’s Billie’s rebellious spirit that connects her with rock fans.
Following a year where no rock artists headlined Coachella, seeing these two artists as the marquee acts for Saturday night didn’t necessarily feel like an extension of the Sonora tent, where many guitar bands are currently relegated at the fest. No, Tame and Billie are further blurring the lines of genre, demonstrating a savviness to have their hands in many sounds at once, forging their own trail and picking up wide-ranging fans along the way. It might not have been the star power that Coachella originally envisioned, but in the end, it represented something more. On Saturday, Coachella successfully bridged its roots with its future, and painted a younger, more inclusive, and more adventurous vision for rock and roll.