2023’s Music Festivals Are Embracing Pop Like Never Before, While Keeping Their Identity Intact

Just as any world-class pop star undergoes myriad reinventions over the course of their career, Coachella has evolved drastically from its 1999 roots. The first iteration of Coachella, headlined by Beck, Tool, and Rage Against the Machine, could not be further from the decidedly mainstream and, frankly, globalist lineup for this year’s festival.

On January 10, 2023, the official Coachella Twitter account revealed this summer’s lineup, a hodgepodge of the biggest names across pop, dance, and hip-hop, as well as left-of-mainstream indie darlings from the rock and alternative scenes. With a trio of headliners comprised of Frank Ocean, Bad Bunny, and BLACKPINK, this year’s Coachella lineup, alongside the recent lineup announcements of similarly massive events such as Governors Ball, music festivals have arrived at a place where they are unabashedly embracing the pop world through a selection of artists that simultaneously function as cultural touchstones and critical darlings.

A 1999 Rolling Stone article described the Coachella’s debut year as an event that “booked acts based on artistry rather than radio play,” the “anti-Woodstock,” if you will. Nearly a quarter of a century years since its inception, Coachella now boasts a line-up with no less than 23 artists who have notched entries on the Billboard Hot 100, nine of whom have earned at least one Top 10 hit. Similarly, this year’s Governors Ball lineup (which has some overlap with Coachella), houses 15 artists with Hot 100 entries, nine of whom have at least one Top 10 hit to their name. That’s not counting artists like Flo Milli and Shenseea who have garnered considerable cultural ubiquity without charting on Billboard’s main singles chart. While these lineups also feature beloved indie artists who have never touched a Billboard chart, there has been a clear shift towards mainstream pop across the festival circuit over the last decade. In their post-pandemic festival report, Vibrate revealed that Megan Thee Stallion was the most-booked festival act of the 2022 season with appearances at 25 of the world’s biggest music festivals.

The festival circuit’s embrace of more commercial pop acts has been a years-long process. After all, one of Coachella’s first major pop moments, Madonna’s iconic 2006 Confessions On A Dancefloor-themed Sahara Tent performance, happened in the midst of the rise of poptimism in music criticism circles, a movement that would usher in a new era of what Coachella could be with headlining sets from the likes of Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, and, of course, Beyoncé. Traces of poptimism can be found across this year’s major festival lineups in the sense that organizers made sure to secure acts that were pop behemoths who routinely break the mold for what traditional pop stardom looks like. To put it plainly, they weren’t looking to book pop stars who exclusively exist on Top 40 radio and adhere to the glossy blonde sheen of say Meghan Trainor or Ava Max. Instead, these lineups feature artists who expand and challenge our collective definitions of pop stardom with every release.

Lizzo, one of this year’s Governors Ball headliners, subverts traditional American pop stardom by centering the bodies of fat Black women and crafting smash hits that pull from gospel and hip-hop as much as they do from soul and R&B. Lil Nas X has several chart-conquering pop anthems to his name, but the nature of both his celebrity persona and music are essentially antithetical to the template of pop stardom that the festival circuit tends to avoid. He’s a young Black man who explicitly sings and raps about same-sex desire over soundscapes that range from marching band trap to bratty pop-rock. Reading the names of artists like Lil Nas X, Lizzo, and ROSALÍA on these festival posters makes sense because, although they are still thoroughly popular musicians, their music, stage show, and overall aesthetic are still markedly different from the most mundane versions of pop music and pop stardom. With hit songs that turn into trending TikTok sounds and vice versa, these artists are undoubtedly culturally relevant. Nonetheless, they all make music that routinely wins Grammys and gets lauded by critics because the quality of their music isn’t entirely dependent on their positioning in pop culture — it’s their positioning in pop culture that benefits from how strong their musical output is. In short, these are pop artists that have enough edge to stand out from the scores of faceless playlist filler across radio and streaming, and a level of artistic credibility and integrity that often evades their peers.

This year’s festival lineups also reveal just how globalist our understanding of pop stardom has become. In the past year, the most dominant and popular artists and songs in the world came from reggaeton, afrobeats, K-Pop, and hip-hop. In fact, this year marks the first time in Coachella’s history that every headliner is an artist of color. Now that streaming has leveled the playing field for accessibility to mainstream success for non-white and non-American artists, wildly successful genres like afrobeats and reggaeton get marquee slots at major Stateside musical festivals. At the same time, the artists chosen to represent these genres on this year’s festival circuit are incredibly layered. During his headlining set, Bad Bunny will likely perform a number of songs from Un Verano Sin Ti, an album that features tongue-in-cheek odes to a bombastic sex life (“Tití Me Preguntó”) alongside denunciations of gender-based violence (“Andrea”). Similarly, Burna Boy’s Love, Damini is likely to anchor his set list, and that album pairs an anthemic Toni Braxton rework (“Last Last”) with astute critiques on environmentalist politics (“Whiskey”). Like Lizzo and Lil Nas X, in addition to the music being critically acclaimed, Bad Bunny and Burna Boy are pop stars with something to say beyond the vapidity that’s often associated with mainstream pop.

If this year’s early lineup reveals prove anything, it’s that the music festival circuit has found a way to embrace mainstream pop while still maintaining their guiding principles of artistry over commerciality — and we get to enjoy some incredible combinations of artists as a result.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.