When Did Music Festival Surprise Guests Stop Feeling So Special?

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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.

The first time I witnessed Kanye West popping up unannounced as a special guest was the 2013 edition of Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival. Tyler was running through his set near the end of the evening and I was off buying a slice of pizza when I heard the beat to “New Slaves” drop from afar. Almost immediately, a frenzy occurred, where anyone that wasn’t within direct sight of the stage began sprinting across the yard at Exposition Park, wondering if what they were imagining was actually happening. It was. It was Kanye, at that moment the ultimate special guest, more than content to deliver a couple of his own songs during Tyler’s set and then just hang out on stage with a big grin on his face. On a night that would also feature a performance from Frank Ocean, the show had been completely stolen.

Over the year, big moments like these stand out. There’s the first time you witness someone bringing out Drake (an ASAP Mob show at the Palladium for me) or Kendrick Lamar (Miguel at Hollywood Forever Cemetery was the first that was impactful, though Dr. Dre put him on stage at Coachella years before while he was still a rising protege). These moments could make it feel like a particular concert is the only place in the world that matters, that the universe had suddenly shrunk to the confines of a single venue.

Some of the most memorable music festival sets of all-time have hinged on these “you had to be there” events. For that aforementioned 2012 Coachella headline performance, Dre and his co-headliner Snoop Dogg brought out a parade of guests, including Eminem, 50 Cent, and a Tupac hologram in addition to Kendrick. The next year, when Phoenix took the coveted headline duties on Saturday night, Daft Punk guest rumors were quickly debunked with R. Kelly appearing instead — a move that has aged particularly poorly. There’s Madonna and Drake’s kiss, Beychella’s Destiny Child reunion, Jay-Z popping up with Pearl Jam at his first Made In America festival, and Beyonce and Solange dancing around during the latter’s small stage Coachella appearance in 2014. A couple of Chella’s all-time performances, Pharrell Williams in 2014 and Disclosure in 2016, took guests to the next level and just made the sets a steady stream of unannounced appearances, aware that the primary artist is known for collaboration and giving fans a rare chance to witness their favorite songs as they were intended.

Coachella has always felt like the epicenter for surprise appearances, but music festivals, in general, provide ample opportunity for one-off collabs. It might be as simple as Paul McCartney inviting Alabama Shakes leader Brittany Howard to sing with him on “Get Back” because the band went on directly before his at Lollapalooza in Chicago, or a co-headlining tour from David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails that found each frequently sitting in with the other. At the annual biggest music performance of the year, the Super Bowl, it’s become expected for unannounced appearances to occur, even if they often leak out before the big day. This phenomenon could be performing a song that’s already a recorded collaboration, it could mean an artist ceding the stage to another to perform their own current hit, or it could be a never-before-played cover to assure the music media will be talking the next day. Surprise guests have become a way to maintain relevance in a world where so much of a concert follows the same script as the previous tour stop, as a way to make one night stand out above the others.

But being on the grounds at Coachella this year, something felt different. During an early afternoon Murda Beatz set in the Sahara tent, young fans on the rail asked the festival photographers if they heard about any guests coming out, and it struck me that the grounds that is usually a hotbed for guest rumors and speculation had been much more hushed about the potential this year. It’s not that there weren’t plenty of surprise appearances, ranging from N’Sync, Diddy, and Katy Perry on the first weekend to Kanye West, Justin Bieber, and ASAP Rocky on the second weekend, it’s just that even these major stars felt like they were barely moving the needle in 2019. An attempt by Billie Eilish to offer up Vince Staples proved memorable because of a microphone malfunction, and Ariana Grande sharing her stage with Nicki Minaj suffered a similar fate. These kinds of moments are expected at this point, to the level that a Murda Beatz set that featured Rich The Kid and ASAP Ferg could still feel disappointing because of the scale of it all.