Festival Frequency is a monthly look at music festival-related topics that step beyond the shadow of the Ferris wheel, discussing everything from the performances to the inner workings that make this a global phenomenon.
It was only five years ago, in 2014, that Neko Case played Coachella. When the lineup was released that year, the indie folk icon was the tenth artist listed on Friday, sandwiched between the ascendent Haim and the inexplicable AFI, on a day buoyed by such eclectic programming as The Knife, The Replacements, Ellie Goulding, and, the headliner, Outkast. There’s a lot about that day that would never happen in 2019, but Neko Case’s set still stands out, given the plush right-before-sunset on the Outdoor Theatre slot that felt aligned with her 15 years of acclaimed output. Showing up a little late, I was able to walk right up to the railing of the stage through the sparse crowd, while the majority of her fans that claimed a spot enjoyed spreading out on the lawn, taking a seat, and watching the day slowly turn into night. The lack of general interest on the polo fields that day was undeniable.
In the years that would follow, moments like these would become rarer at Coachella. In 2015, the same kind of crowd apathy could be felt at sets from Belle & Sebastian and Ryan Adams, but by 2016, sets from mature indie artists whose core audience had largely aged out of the event were all but a memory. These were critical years for the California festival, on the heels of expanding to two weekends and witnessing a major cultural shift where indie became less bankable and pop and hip-hop flooded the public consciousness. And it was this time that Coachella really defined itself, not by the genres it featured, but by the demographic it reached.
In 2019, Coachella knows exactly what it is, and that is apparent in its lineup this year. It’s in the headliners, with Childish Gambino and Ariana Grande not just the purveyors of recent massive songs, but possessing the kind of celebrity appeal that speaks to the affluent fashionistas and tanned SoCal music junkies, where Hollywood glitz embraces the desert vibes. It’s in the inclusion of international risers like Bad Bunny, J Balvin, and Blackpink, where the festival foresees a continued globalization in the pop world and seeks to be a trendsetter by booking artists in this vein. And it’s in the undercard that includes Kacey Musgraves, The 1975, Janelle Monae, Maggie Rogers, Billie Eilish, Anderson Paak, and Pusha T, where the festival recognizes the best of recent offerings and the music that is happening right at this moment. Coachella wants to feel like a snapshot of both where music is now and where it is heading, and by accomplishing this, it’s become the most dependable music event in America.