In the search for unifying themes to sum up this year’s Coachella festival and where it sits on the festival’s evolutionary chart, the easy commentary is a) how much bigger it has become and b) how indie-oriented rock—once the signature sound of the fest (with electronic music close behind)—has largely fallen out of favor with festivalgoers.
With regards to the former phenomenon, while it wasn’t known at press time exactly how much the attendance grew over 100,000, it just felt like a substantially larger crowd at the Empire Polo fields, even accounting for the 20-acre footprint expansion. Crowds overwhelmed around the EDM-heavy Sahara tent, especially when big names like Empire of the Sun, Martin Garrix and DJ Khaled held court there.
And as far as the musical shift goes: It’s generational, it’s cultural, it’s cyclical—it’s all been said before. But one thing that stuck out more than genre parity was the unabashed earnestness of Coachella’s musical slate.
You could see it all over the Coachella lineup poster, from strident alt-pop acts like Bastille and Grouplove, to emotive electronic music acts like Porter Robinson & Madeon and Tycho, to the hip-hop grit of Future and Travis Scott, to the indie solemnity of Bon Iver and The xx, to fight-the-power pioneers like T.S.O.L. and Toots and the Maytals.
You could see it in Radiohead’s headlining Friday set because, well, they’re Radiohead—which is essentially the joke Thom Yorke made after failing to find humor in the three sound outages the band endured. It proceeded to play masterfully despite the loss of momentum and audience.
You could see it in Saturday headliner Lady Gaga’s gushing love fest with her audience, as well as in syrupy songs like “The Cure” (which she debuted live) and “Million Reasons”—neither as enjoyable or compelling as when she charged through uptempo dance anthems “Telephone” (featuring the person Gaga had replaced on the bill, Beyoncé, though only in recorded form), “Born This Way” and “Bad Romance.”
You could see it in the pre-sunset Sunday performance of Future Islands and especially its lead singer Sam Herring, who sang about the human condition against a sonic backdrop of dramatic new wave synths, innervating 4/4 beats and strident post-punk basslines. And while his famously awkward dance moves and heavy sentimentalism grew wince-worthy at times, there was no questioning his intentions or dedication.
You could see it in the way Thundercat beamed as guest performer Michael McDonald played keys on three songs—including The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes”—during the bassist/singer’s engrossing Saturday set.
You could see it in the way tens of thousands of people cheered and sang along to the lyrics of “Circle of Life” during The Lion King segment of Hans Zimmer’s triumphant orchestral set on Sunday.
And you could see it in the Sunday’s searing headlining set by Kendrick Lamar, who did not shy away from serious topics—especially race and police violence, but also spiritual crisis—during the newer “XXX” and older “m.A.A.d. city” Ironically, none of Lamar’s production bells and whistles were more effective than his irreverent “Kung Fu Kenny” video skits. It would seem that after a weekend overflowing with sincerity and urgency, both Lamar and the audience earned a bit of levity.