Music

Coachella’s Rebrand As A Pop Music Festival Has Been A Long Time Coming


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The headliners for Coachella’s 19th installment have been swirling in rumors for the past couple months. Beyonce was a given, since she had canceled her 2017 appearance due to pregnancy and vowed to return triumphantly in 2018. The Weeknd was also strongly rumored from early on, a choice that makes sense when you consider that Coachella was the first major music festival to book him in 2012, where he made his US debut at the Outdoor Theatre under the blazing hot sun, only to follow that up with a sub-headlining appearance in 2015 where he actually performed after the headliner (Jack White) and invited Kanye West out for a surprise appearance. Lastly, Eminem was a later name to enter the rumored fold, with the festival apparently looking beyond the cold reaction to Revival for a sort of legacy act that will hopefully lean on his older material.

What’s missing is obvious and has been bemoaned by vocal naysayers: Where are the rock bands? It doesn’t take a One Direction member to point out that Coachella’s rock roots cannot be understated. The first year was topped by two of the more burly members of the rock community — Rage Against The Machine and Tool — and this will mark the first year in its history where none of the headliners are rock acts. It’s particularly interesting when you consider the long-standing relationship that the festival had with local radio station KROQ, who would often help promote the lineup announcement and form a noticeable alliance in terms of hyping the event. This time around, the station’s employees were forced to reconcile with the fact that their own brand has lost its foothold into the zeitgeist.

The lack of a rock headliner at Coachella 2018 shouldn’t be hard to believe. Sure, you only need to go back to 2013 to find a time when Coachella offered four (!) rock headliners — The Stone Roses, Blur, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Phoenix. And, in fact, last year was the first time that only one of the three headliners was a rock band. For many, the shift seems sudden and from that angle, they aren’t wrong. But anyone that actually goes to Coachella knows that the shift has been coming for years.

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2013 was a notable year for the criticism Phoenix received for not really feeling like legitimate headliners (that is until they brought out R. Kelly) and for a complete lack of interest that the attendees showed for both Blur and The Stone Roses. Recent years have once again seen the turnout for big rock acts like Muse, a reunited LCD Soundsystem, and even Radiohead wane, while sets from the likes of Drake, Calvin Harris, and Lady Gaga truly capture the interest of the general attending public. When an artist like Ryan Adams shows up on the lineup, even a plush sunset outdoor slot hasn’t enticed many of the teens that attend this thing to check him out. It’s a pretty simple chicken and egg scenario — Coachella’s audience lost interest in big rock bands long before Coachella gave up on them.

For the first time ever, looking at the Coachella lineup reveals three headliners that will unquestionably attract the fashionable, selfie-taking masses, and create the sort of unifying moment that music festivals are great for. There is no weak link among the three, each own numerous songs that have become ubiquitous to our culture — even in 2018. And maybe that’s what makes for the best headliners, not necessarily the most beloved artist, but the ones that strike the most curiosity. If someone wasn’t already indoctrinated in LCD Soundsystem, it’s doubtful they would have had much curiosity in the band at all. But whether or not you listen to Beyonce on the regular, if she’s playing a concert within a few thousand feet of you, you’d probably go check it out.

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Rock fans that do go to Coachella will still have plenty to enjoy. Artists like St. Vincent, The War On Drugs, Fleet Foxes, David Byrne, A Perfect Circle, Haim, Alt-J, King Krule, and Angel Olsen all offer up wildly different takes on the genre, some swinging into pop territory while others find their landings at more idiosyncratic locations. Further down the lineup, artists like Moses Sumney, Priests, Japanese Breakfast, Cherry Glazerr, Oh Sees, Greta Van Fleet, Big Thief, and FIDLAR will all show variations on guitar music, many of which have offered up the most acclaimed albums of the last year.

But Coachella has never been concerned with genres. Instead, its long been a celebration of what they view as the most interesting and indicative of the contemporary music world. And for the past several years, that has been popular music. Sure, Madonna played in a tent last decade, but that’s not exactly what I mean. If you walk around Coachella’s festival this year, you’ll hear Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” Post Malone’s “Rockstar,” Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still,” Migos’ “Bad And Boujee,” and tons more of the biggest songs of recent years.

In music criticism, too, pop hits have become the center of the conversation of late, and it was only a matter of time before what people are actually listening to and what people are actually talking about is mirrored by the biggest music festival in the country. From the Uproxx albums of the year alone, six of our top ten (Vince Staples, SZA, Fleet Foxes, Big Thief, St. Vincent, and The War On Drugs) are playing Coachella this year, while three of the others (Lorde, Kendrick Lamar, Father John Misty) played last year. Only Jay-Z has been absent from both years, but, you know, at least his wife will be there.

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There will still be plenty of music festivals with rock headliners. In fact, that’s probably why the move feels so natural for Coachella, now that Goldenvoice has two other yearly SoCal events — FYF Fest and Arroyo Seco Weekend — to slot in more hip and more seasoned artists respectively. Those are the places where Tom Petty, Mumford And Sons, Nine Inch Nails, and The Strokes have recently fit in perfectly as headliners. Today, a festival on the other side of the country, Governors Ball, offered up Jack White and Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the top of their bill, and when mixed with the likes of Khalid, Halsey, Travis Scott, and Em, it didn’t look outdated compared to the Coachella docket.

That’s because rock has plenty of places to call home that are a natural fit, and keeping it as a focus of Coachella would be fighting a tide that’s not fair to the bands or the attendees. Coachella has always been ahead of the curve on these things, in the past they were early on the rise of indie rock and EDM, and have cooled on both now that they’ve become less of a priority. Pop and hip-hop reign in 2018, so it’s fitting that Coachella reflects just that. And when the needle shifts again and whatever is next finds either cool credibility or commercial success — or, ideally, both — Coachella will be first in line, again changing the optics of their music festival.

And there will be plenty of people complaining about that, too.

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