Entertainment

Coachella review – pop’s new democracy creates uneven city in the desert

With a rumoured 40,000 extra attendees at the first weekend of Coachella 2018, the three-day festival is more congested than ever. It’s especially hard to move without stepping into the frame of an influencer’s selfie as they document outfits, record friendships and pray for a feature in a Twitter moment. This culture of validation and self-affirmation makes sense given that the festival’s culture is now predicated on reaction (reflected in promoter Goldenvoice recalibrating their booking in recent years) rather than minting trends. Hence 2018’s lineup consisting largely of mainstream urban hip-hop and R&B acts, including headliners the Weeknd, Beyoncé and Eminem (each reviewed separately).

There is a progressive positive to this: Coachella is now a playground for the global democratisation of pop. If you can cross over in the age of streaming, chances are Coachella will grant you the opportunity to realise it in a setting previously inconceivable to Billboard Hot 100 entries. In a digital epoch in which the thirst for “IRL” ownership is at its peak, the market for seeing your favourite song in 3D against crisp, larger-than-life, high-definition backdrops and desert-shaking soundsystems is strong.

Take Norwegian DJ Kygo, who plays the main stage on Friday evening. He has enormo-hits that have been streamed in the hundreds of millions, despite sounding akin to getting a tooth drilled. The crowd swarm towards him like locusts. His set begins, not with sound, but with fire, as expensive pyro explosions announce that an #epic Instagram opportunity is imminent.

Left to right: St. Vincent, Beyonce, David Byrne

Left to right: St. Vincent, Beyonce, David Byrne Composite: Reuters/AFP/Getty

Over on the Outdoor stage, however, is St Vincent, currently touring her fifth album Masseduction. With her awareness of the online viewer potential (the whole weekend is being streamed live on YouTube), she unveils a new iteration of a tour that already felt like high art – until now, she had toured Masseduction solo, but tonight there’s a band. She runs through new songs such as Sugarboy, Los Ageless and Pills in a white PVC suit with projections that are intended to create discomfort and confusion (in one, she punches herself in the face). It’s one of the weekend’s finest displays of musicianship. Depressingly, the audience numbers pale by comparison with her exertions. She tells the crowd: “I hope everybody falls in love tonight with a person or a band or an idea. That’s why we’re all here.” Well, it should be.

If you look hard enough then there are people, bands and ideas to fall in love with at Coachella, but getting to them is like trying to browse the internet while battling a hundred pop-up ads. Like St Vincent, the more traditional rock acts are ironically now fighting for representation against dwindling youth market relevance.

On Friday, teenage quartet the Regrettes start a pop-punk party inside the Sonora tent, inciting moshpits and crowd singalongs. On Saturday afternoon, David Byrne plays the Outdoor stage, wearing a suit and holding a model of a brain. He puts the brain down and begins a presentation of choreographed dance and curious conversations. He plays classics such as Once in a Lifetime, and the lead track off his new album American Utopia: “We’re only tourists in this life,” he sings. “Only tourists but the view is nice.”

SZA’s set feels weighed down by expectation (following her five nominations at this year’s Grammy awards) and falls flat on Friday night. She opens for the Weeknd on the main stage and arrives 10 minutes late, which cuts several songs from her set. That’s the first indication of nerves. SZA’s spot on the lineup could be justified considering the acclaim and success of her 2017 debut Ctrl, but she’s not ready for this. She sings Supermodel on a swing in an onstage simulacra of Coachella’s backstage area. By second song Go Gina, she has undressed to a pink two-piece, singing the remainder of the track with her jeans around her ankles. The set pieces are intended to match the intimacy of the lyrics but her jitters hold her back from unleashing the full force of her voice. Her introduction to Kendrick Lamar for All the Stars markedly raises the star power: “I go by the name of Kendrick fucking Lamar,” says last year’s headliner, bringing the fanfare SZA needed.

Left to right: Tyler, The Creator, SZA, Someone in Haim and SZA doing a jump

Left to right: Tyler, The Creator, Cardi B, Danielle Haim, from Haim, and SZA doing a jump Composite: Getty/Reuters

There are so many kids chanting so-called “internet boyband” Brockhampton’s name outside the Mojave tent on Saturday afternoon it’s impossible to get anywhere near them. Those who got in use the word “inspirational” to describe what they just saw. A band like Brockhampton wouldn’t exist without Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator, whose stage is dressed like the artwork for 2017’s Flower Boy album. He darts around, sometimes with the assistance of a crane, in a hi-vis jacket, just in case you miss him among the eye-popping psychedelic backdrops. A crowd awaiting Beyoncé fails to reciprocate his volatile energy, so he mocks them.

That depleted applause continues into Haim’s second-from-headline set. The LA sisters open and close with their signature drum solos and mostly play songs from their debut Days Are Gone, which is almost five years old. They exhibit a serious amount of front, tempered by the elegance of singer/guitarist Danielle, whose virtuoso guitar solos say more than her lyrics.

Sunday brings rousing precision courtesy of jazz star Kamasi Washington, and oodles of fun via celebrity-of-the-moment Cardi B, who bounds around in a TLC-inspired white outfit that outlines her recently unveiled pregnancy. Cardi performs on the main stage as the sun is still blazing, busting out snippets of her debut album Invasion of Privacy (which hits US No 1 a few hours after her set). The Latin pop number I Like It hits like the summer 2018 anthem it’s soon to become, and the crowd raps along to singles Finesse, Cartier Bardi and Bodak Yellow, before Cardi exits: “Coachella, it’s been fucking real,” she says.

In one sense, Cardi is just as much of a Coachella ingenue as SZA. But given that the whip-smart Bronx rapper found fame on Instagram and reality show Love and Hip-Hop – and has charisma to burn – she feels like the perfect star to straddle the festival’s awkward division between bona-fide stan culture and image-led virality.

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