Every April, the city of Los Angeles is comprised of two types of people. The first are people who are attending Coachella and cannot wait to make the pilgrimage to the desert. The second are people who are incredibly excited everyone is heading out to the desert and making space in LA for two consecutive weekends of traffic-free freeways and easy to get reservations at the hottest restaurants in the city. I am always the former. Coachella 2019 marked my ninth Coachella. Upon returning from the desert, here is what was on my mind…
Globalism & The New Language of The Festival Line Up
In 2008, Coachella billed Café Tacuba, a Mexican alternative rock band, as the fourth name on the Saturday bill, making for one of the festival’s highest billed international acts in its history. Upon the announcement, Coachella founder Paul Tollett defended the booking, noting the festival’s heralded history as a landmark of global culture. In the ten years since 2008, a small handful of acts such as Stromae and Los Ángeles Azules had shared similar poster real estate as Café Tacuba but it wasn’t until this year where Coachella finally made good on its 2008 promise of being a festival for a global audience.
Sitting pretty on the second lines of the 2019 poster were Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin and South Korean girl group Blackpink. The former is a clear continuation on the narrative that strings back to Café Tacuba and Coachella’s undeniable connection to Latin culture (let’s remember that the name Coachella comes from the Spanish word Conchilla, meaning “little shell”). The latter, however, was a bit of a left-field booking when the line-up was announced in January. Although the event marked the K-Pop band’s first American show (a fairly big deal when you really think about it), booking Blackpink was dismissed as yet another sell-out booking by Tollett. Thankfully, both played out as two of the festival’s most impressive sets. Not only did the two acts get primetime stage bookings (J Balvin played the festival’s largest stage Saturday night and Blackpink played the festival’s second largest stage Friday night), but they were also two of the weekend’s most talked about sets. And now, only a week later, the three official videos Coachella has posted of Blackpink’s performance have earned a combined 7 million views, millions more than any of the other artist videos the festival has uploaded. These artists are building the cultural moments that are not to be missed, while EDM acts that used to run the show (remember when Calvin Harris headlined Coachella?) are being left on the cutting room floor.
But, let’s be honest, Coachella is playing catch up. It’s been nearly two years since “Despacito” was released, almost a year since BTS became the first K-Pop group to have a number 1 album in the States and almost seven years since Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became the first K-Pop song to reach the top five in the States. And, let’s not forget, Beyoncé brought out J Balvin during her Coachella set last year. For Coachella to give these artists high billing and then follow through with key timeslots during the festival has been in the making for years but looking around at the rest of the country’s biggest festivals, the international market is rarely represented (the only other major festival this year that has booked J Balvin is Lollapalooza). This problem is furthered by smaller yet incredibly impressive global acts like Rosalía and Perfume being completely absent on the US festival circuit. As the US festival industry continues to decline, one can only hope for more of these international artists to get booked and bring new audiences into the fold. Trust me, there were a lot of people there just for J Balvin. A LOT. Booking more acts like him may be the key to the festival market’s survival.
Collective Optimism & The Black Experience
When it was announced in early April that Kanye West was bringing his Sunday Service platform to Coachella, it was met with skepticism and a bit of a collective eye-roll. I doubt I need to remind anyone, but Kanye has had a rough past 2 years. So, as Sunday of Weekend Two approached, there was a lot of conversation at Coachella around what to expect and if people would even show up. Walking around the festival on Saturday I overheard a lot of “god, he’s just going to rant” and “we know what to expect; let’s sleep in.”
Since 2013’s Yeezus, Kanye’s work has been defined by darkness and ego. The Yeezus Tour was quite literally about the end of the world and the Saint Pablo Tour featured Kanye on a floating stage while his fans moshed beneath him. But as we walked into Sunday Service on Easter Sunday at 9am, I immediately noticed something starkly different from what Kanye’s artistry had consisted of over the last six years: brightness. Not a single cloud was in the sky and not a single monitor was set up to help the 50,000 people who had congregated for the earliest morning in Coachella history to witness the moment. We had all effectively abandoned the ego, left the darkness and started a new day.
And then, almost in a comical turn of events, Sunday Service was rarely about Kanye. In fact, he only rapped a handful of times. Due to the lack of monitors, the audience rarely saw him. Instead, Sunday Service was about feeling alive and embracing one another through gospel music. The nearly three hour event began with an organ overture, consisted of multiple Kanye songs reimagined as hymns and chants, classic gospel songs covered by the choir and Kanye disciples like Teyana Taylor, DMX offering a spoken-word prayer, and the now infamous church clothes (none of which made any mention of Kanye) that were sold for the congregation to wear during the event. It was indeed a religious experience. Thankfully, the god we were worshipping wasn’t Kanye, it was the music. And, like the best religious experiences, we left feeling lifted and filled with joy.
But Kanye wasn’t alone in bringing the joy. Earlier in the weekend, Janelle Monaé and Childish Gambino had brought their work to the desert for a Friday night back-to-back to behold. Janelle served up a tour de force performance that made space for Black Girl Magic, queer acceptance and some pretty funky dance moves. Childish Gambino smoked joints and took selfies with audience members between songs, all the while asking audience members to put down their phones and to feel the power of the community. Later in the weekend, YG used his set to celebrate the life of the recently deceased Nipsey Hussle to an enormous crowd while Lizzo brought her message of body positivity and self-love to a packed Mojave Tent. YG spoke briefly about hoping to inspire his fans to make the world a better place through his music and how he hoped Nipsey’s passing could serve as a reminder of how much change is left to be done. It seems like a no brainer, but anyone who’s been to Coachella knows that the Sahara tent rarely hosts calls for social change. And while both YG and Janelle vehemently spoke out against the current president, the overall message of all these sets were simple: stay together, work together, create change together.
This narrative isn’t very different than what Beyoncé brought to Coachella last year. It should not be surprising to anyone that Beyoncé’s Homecoming left a mark on the festival. And although her sister dropped out last minute from this year’s festival, seeing this crop of artists take a stand and make bold, positive statements was a far cry from the emptiness of both OutKast’s 2014 and Drake’s 2015 headlining sets. To see Black artists utilizing the platform of Coachella, one usually reserved for spring break tendencies, to create optimism inside of the Black experience is hopefully the beginning of a new reality where festivals can become ground zero for change.
Billie Eilish & What We Need To Remember About Gen Z
Let’s stop talking about millennials. We had our moment, we had our chance, it’s over for us. We gave you EDM and a failed attempt to turn our government around. In 2019, we are the old kids at the festival. We don’t take photos in front of the art, we don’t care about fireworks, we are tired. Walking around Coachella this year, I really began to see the next generation of festival goers take center stage. My friends and I joked about how we worried for the high schoolers who were clearly at their first Coachella, eyes wide and mouths agape, but as I watched them move through the crowd and learn the ways of the land, I became intrigued… Who were they here to see?
The answer: Billie Eilish.
Every few years there is a non-headline act that draws an insane crowd and serves as a precursor for what to expect in the coming years. Last year it was undoubtedly Cardi B who, outside of Beyoncé, drew the biggest crowd of the weekend. In 2015 it was The Weeknd, who then went on to headline a mere three years later. This year, it was Billie Eilish.
Cut to: half of the entire Coachella crowd standing at Coachella’s third biggest stage on Saturday night awaiting the arrival of Billie. She isn’t even on stage yet and the crowd is louder than any I’ve heard all weekend. Every few seconds we hear one of those high pitch screams that should be reserved for emergencies only. An army of phones are already in the air, ready to record. Teenagers with complete disregard for us push past to get as close as they can. I can hear a girl ten feet away from me crying (hopefully out of excitement). I can hear a guy turn to his friend and say he’d rather die than miss this show. I imagine this is what it must’ve been like when The Beatles came to America.
And then it begins.
Images of monsters resembling the Slenderman, bright white eyes with dilated pupils and claw marks flash brightly on the screen as the opening synths of “Bad Guy” begin to swirl. More people around me burst into tears. And the screaming… you’d think we were in a war zone. Tracks like “Copycat” and “You Should See Me In A Crown” breed mosh pits while tracks like “When The Party’s Over” and “Bellyache” leave friends hugging and crying. It’s a mind-blowing experience. All at the hands of a 17 year old girl.
Alongside other young women like King Princess, Rosalía and Maggie Rogers, Billie is a torch bearer for this generation of young people whose lives are defined by the internet, domestic terrorism, radical queerness, and prescription drugs. The dark imagery that encapsulates Billie’s work is not a fiction, it’s the truth of an entire generation. A generation unable to focus on the care-free aspects of childhood, Gen Z knows better than to blindly trust brands due to simply their “cool factor.” Due to this, they hold artists and brands accountable to inform, inspire, and create products and marketing that are honest about the world they live in and facilitate avenues towards the world they want. They will most likely never own TVs but, rather, they’ll screen-project from their phones and take turns VJing content streams. They’ll push you out of the way to get as close to Billie as possible. Not because they see her as a god, but because they see her as a friend.
Couchella & The Curated Experience
On a dark, stormy night in April of 2011, I was in my NYU dorm live streaming Kanye West’s set live from Coachella. My roommate was asleep and I was having my mind blown. Before 2011, there were ways to see bits and pieces of Coachella via branded content through social media but when Coachella launched its partnership with YouTube, everything shifted. Suddenly, I no longer needed to fly home from college to take part in the annual pilgrimage. Couchella was born.
It’s unsurprising, then, that a year after the livestream launched, Coachella announced it was going to add a second weekend. Demand had never been higher because visibility had never been higher. As we all know, there’s the reality that the bigger something is the harder it is to ignore. Coachella had ballooned from a two day festival in 2006 to a two week extravaganza in 2012 with no signs of slowing down. The experience once reserved for a meager 80,000 people suddenly became a shared live experience between 250,000 people attending over two weekends and the additional hundreds of thousands who tuned in to the live stream from all over the world. The livestream also allowed Coachella to curate the experience for those at home, pointing the internet in the direction of earth-shattering moments like the Tupac hologram. Most importantly, the livestream created an opportunity to attract a younger audience (ah Gen Z, we meet again) before their parents would allow them to attend so that when the time came, they would already be invested in the Coachella brand.
When I returned to my hotel from Sunday Service, I couldn’t help but chuckle when I found out the whole thing was live streamed through a pinhole lens, as if the viewer was looking through a telescope. Kanye had benefitted from the live stream in 2011 when it was fresh and exciting. Last year, Beyoncé had thought through nearly every shot and frame so that the audience at home would have an experience arguably better than those who actually witnessed it live. In 2019, however, Kanye knew better than to allow everyone at home a chance to get the whole experience. He had already done two unthinkable things: made people come to Coachella at 9am and, more importantly, he had made Weekend Two desirable. This year marked the first time YouTube was live streaming both weekends, most likely due to the demand last year after 500,000 tuned in to watch Beyoncé headline (also interesting to note: this year was the first time you could not see how many people were tuning in to the live stream). People were suddenly tuning in again only one week after they already tuned in.
So, I can’t help but laugh when I hear people tell me they think Coachella is irrelevant. How can someone say that when Coachella is everywhere? It’s on your Instagram feed, it’s on every single rack in every vintage store in America, it’s dripping from every pore of hotel chains like The Ace, it’s on YouTube for two consecutive weekends, it’s a mentality and headspace that every person under the age of 20 across the country wants to be a part of.
And now they all are.
Wait… Is This Still Working?
All this being said, there was a bit of concern washing over me throughout the weekend. Things seemed a bit quieter between sets, more people were staring at their phones than at the stage, even the fashion seemed a bit dialed in. Most jarring, however, was how cheap tickets for Weekend Two were going in the week between festivals, with some major music publications reporting tickets were going for almost 30% under face value. As we watch more and more festivals across the country fade into cancellation, I can’t helped but be concerned about whether or not the festival era is coming to an end.
Although Coachella has signed a deal with its landlords to continue through 2030, it’s become increasingly clear how festivals in America are at a tipping point. Both Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, two of the country’s biggest festivals, are struggling to sell tickets. Los Angeles’s FYF Festival, Houston’s Day For Night and Seattle’s Sasquatch have all been indefinitely cancelled. Just today, the 50th anniversary of Woodstock also got the ax. The only festivals seemingly thriving are those geared at an older audience like Bottlerock and Kaboo. And while Coachella has no problem selling out its 250,000 tickets, it doesn’t come without a few eyebrow raising realities. Billie Eilish was selling packages on her website that included tickets to both weekends in March, tickets for Weekend Two were released upon the announcement of Sunday Service at the beginning of April, and tickets were seemingly available from more brands than ever before. Make no mistake, Coachella is still profitable, it makes over $115 million dollars annually, but it’s also in need of a face-lift.
Some things that don’t work: Headliners like Ariana Grande who sell tickets but don’t breed excitement, as most attendees were seated during her Sunday night headlining gig. Bands like Tame Impala headlining without a new record which creates a bit of déjà vu for attendees (outside of production value and two new songs, the band’s set was eerily similar to their massive 2016 world tour). Even the art has become predictable. What was once seemingly groundbreaking installation work by Poetic Kinetics (who are responsible for iconic moving pieces like 2015’s astronaut) have become predictable (their piece this year? …an astronaut).
But it’s not all bad. The festival has always highlighted the best food in the SoCal region and this year was no exception. While waiting between sets on Sunday afternoon I had one of the best fried chicken sandwiches of my life from David Chang’s Fuku. The crowd has never been more diverse, with attendees consisting of more people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community than ever before, making for a more realistic representation of the outside world once inside Coachella’s gates. Finally, there was a palpable kindness. Outside of Billie’s set, rarely was I pushed around by people and never did I smile at someone or say hello and not have it be reciprocated. Coachella is somehow still a beacon of happiness, a destination where people come to escape their daily lives and experience something unique together.
So, who is to say what Coachella will look like next year. But, as always, I’m glad I went. So, until next year, thanks for the memories and for my new found obsession with Billie Eilish.