Following a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival will return this weekend for its 21st edition, with headliners Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and the Weeknd and Swedish House Mafia. In anticipation, we’re looking at the event’s history and the festival-industry landscape on Thursday and Friday. And check back next week for our coverage of Coachella 2022.
It’s hard to remember a time when Coachella wasn’t the sun at the center of the North American festival solar system. But 23 years ago, the idea of a two-weekend party in Indio, California, headlined by the biggest stars and attended by 100,000-plus people seemed almost impossible to imagine. Cofounded by Goldenvoice’s Paul Tollett and Rick Van Santen, the October 1999 iteration was anchored by the likes of Beck, Tool, and Rage Against the Machine, plus a host of reliable down-poster alt and indie acts, from Modest Mouse to Jurassic 5 to Super Furry Animals. It was, in many ways, a dream lineup for a certain class of music fan of the era. It was not, however, a money-maker: The inaugural edition famously lost $1 million, and Goldenvoice declined to bring the festival back the next year. In a different timeline, it doesn’t ever return, and the music landscape—or at least the concert and big-budget festival ecosystem—looks totally different in 2022.
But we live in this timeline, in which the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival not only came back, but thrived. Since its second edition in 2001, it’s been one of the most profitable and talked-about events in all of pop culture. It’s also come to represent many different things to many different types of music fans: the proving ground for breakout acts like Arcade Fire, who delivered a transcendent performance in 2005; home to countless big-time reunions, starting with the Pixies in 2004 before bringing the likes of Outkast, Guns N’ Roses, the Cure, and even Rage back together; the Big Bang of the EDM movement, and then later the host to the brightest names in the genre at its peak; the soft launch for controversial technology and the backdrop for at least one regrettable stunt. And more recently, it’s been something that seemed like a nonstarter the first few years: a venue for pop stars like Beyoncé and Kanye West to try out their biggest and boldest ideas.
With the festival’s return this weekend after two pandemic-derailed years, we wanted to assess its evolution over the past two decades and try to answer a deceptively complex question: When was the absolute apex of Coachella? Which moment stands as the ultimate oasis in the desert? In an attempt to pinpoint it to a specific set, there are a handful of factors to consider: the artistic merit of the performance, of course, but also public interest, long-lasting influence, and uniqueness to the Coachella experience. To help us determine the answer to the overarching question, we brought in two nonofficial Coachella experts: Eric Renner Brown, a writer who covers concerts for industry tracker Pollstar, and Jeff Weiss, a writer, editor, and Ringer contributor who has attended nearly every Coachella since 2003 and written about it for publications including The Fader and Vice (and, this year, will write about it for The Ringer).
Below, you’ll find six sets that could reasonably qualify as Peak Coachella. Let’s run through the cases for each and try to determine if one stands above the rest.
The Pixies Reunion (2004)
Other key performers that year: Radiohead, the Cure, the Flaming Lips, Kraftwerk
Why it mattered: Established Coachella as the place bands go to reunite; first time Coachella broke through on a national level; first time the festival sold out
The Pixies weren’t the first legendary band to reunite at Coachella; three years earlier, the festival booked Jane’s Addiction and kick-started Perry Farrell and Co.’s second act. But Kurt Cobain’s favorite indie rockers were the first act whose return became a major selling point for the weekend. Perhaps that’s because the reunion was a bit shocking. Frontman Frank Black had famously quit the band via fax in 1993, and he and bassist Kim Deal had barely spoken over the previous decade. But then Tollett and Van Santen came calling. After a 15-date warm-up tour that took them mostly through Canada and the Pacific Northwest, the quartet arrived at Indio as the most-hyped act at the festival to that point. They took the main stage around dusk on Saturday, and depending on whom you ask, nearly stole the show from headliners Radiohead.
2004 marked the then-two-day event’s first sellout, and while the band at the top of the poster may have played a role in that—Tollett told the Los Angeles Times in 2019 that “Once Radiohead gave you the stamp of approval, you’ve arrived”—the undeath of the Pixies certainly brought cachet to a festival that nearly died after its calamitous first year. (It also produced a great live album released just last year.) The irony is that the tens of thousands of people watching the Pixies that day far exceeded what the band had become accustomed to in its first life. Before their first breakup, the Pixies were more of a cult concern, typically playing clubs and small theaters outside of a run on U2’s Zoo TV tour. But in the intervening years, that cult had grown immensely, thanks to obsession with all things Cobain, a key placement in Fight Club, and the indie-rock boom that was as indebted to them as any other forebear.
Coachella clearly saw the potential of reunions in the aftermath of the Pixies’ set. Over the past 20 years, seemingly every major broken-up act you can think of—from Outkast to Guns N’ Roses to the Replacements to Rage to LCD Soundsystem—has used the festival as a place to rekindle the old flame. According to Brown, that’s a key differentiator between Coachella and other similar festivals, especially in the cases when the artists didn’t tour immediately afterward. But why do bands tend to choose Coachella instead of other festivals? “Is it because they have deep pockets and are able to give really good offers to these acts?” Brown asks rhetorically. “Is this because Paul Tollett and Goldenvoice have some secret sauce that they really know how to get these groups to reunite? Who knows?”
Well, at least in the case of the Pixies, we seem to have an answer: “We all made lots of money,” Frank Black said in Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies. “I know everyone’s made a lot of money because I’m privy to how much the checks are for. Everyone did good. For a little indie rock band, we did really good.”
Was it the peak of Coachella? The Pixies going straight into Radiohead was certainly an early peak, but future iterations of the festival would far eclipse the 2004 version in terms of popularity. (That year saw 110,000 fans come out, while the 2017 edition—the last year Goldenvoice offered numbers for—brought a record 250,000 people across two weekends and grossed $115 million.) The Pixies reunion also feels a little less special today, given that they’ve toured relentlessly in the years since—albeit without Kim Deal, which, now that we’re thinking of it, could make for a pretty intriguing Coachella reunion.
Hologram Tupac (2012)
Other key performers that year: The Black Keys, Radiohead, seemingly every notable EDM act of the era
Why it mattered: One of the most talked-about moments in the festival’s history; still a meme to this day; first time Coachella was held over two weekends
Admittedly, Google Trends isn’t the most scientific way to gauge interest in something, especially a festival that began before the widespread use of social media. But it’s useful to see the peaks and valleys of interest over a long enough timeline. Look at the graph below for searches of the word “Coachella”:
You’ll notice that the first major spike came in 2012. And surely there were many contributing factors: That year marked the first year the event was held over two weekends; it was the second year Coachella broadcasted a livestream of the event; Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, and the dubstep-industrial complex descended on the desert at the peak of the EDM era; Instagram had also just exploded in popularity and was helping turn the festival into an influencer haven. But look what happens when we also search for the word “Tupac,” shown below in red.
Now let’s also try the word “hologram,” shown in gold here:
We think you’ll notice a pattern, but in case you didn’t: The crude data seems to show that interest in Coachella hit its then-all-time high in 2012 thanks to a five-minute cameo in the middle of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s headlining set. The catch is the guest artist had been dead for 16 years and appeared courtesy an AI-generated hologram. It was an impressive technological feat, especially before the rise of deepfakes. It was also damn near the weirdest thing that’s ever happened at a major festival.
While the Tupac resurrection gets all the headlines, it overshadowed what was an otherwise special performance. The Dre-and-Snoop collab marked just the third hip-hop headlining set in the festival’s history, following Jay-Z in 2010 and Kanye West in 2011 (more on the latter later), and the first of those to tap into Coachella’s Southern California roots. The good doctor and his understudy also brought out a number of their famous living friends, including Wiz Khalifa, 50 Cent and G-Unit, Eminem, and a pre–Good Kid, m.A.A.d City Kendrick Lamar. But all anyone seems to remember is Holo ’Pac shouting, “What the fuck is up, Coachella?!?!”
“It was very controversial,” says Brown. “I’m sure that people were like, ‘It was really cool, because it was kind of the first big time that people were exposed to this concept of a hologram performance, which has cropped up in other ways since then … but it also obviously got a lot of blowback and criticism, and has been kind of a punch line ever since.”
Was it the peak of Coachella? It’s one of the moments people most closely associated with Coachella, but it’s too creepy to be considered the apex of the event, especially considering it happened two weekends in a row. “What could jump the shark more than a hologram that you’re bringing out for a second weekend?” Weiss says. “You’re not only exhuming the dead one weekend, you’re exhuming it a second weekend.”
Other key performers that year: Roger Waters, Portishead, Jack Johnson
Why it mattered: It’s Prince
You’ll find no trace of one of the most famous sets in Coachella’s history on the original festival poster from that year. When the 2008 lineup came out, most of the buzz focused on Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who was headlining the final night of the festival, and a freshly reunited Portishead, who were on the verge of releasing their hotly anticipated comeback LP, Third. But a few weeks before the festival, Tollett got wind that someone else wanted to perform—or more accurately, he was told someone else was going to perform. He recounted the story to the Los Angeles Times in 2019:
“Three weeks before the show. I get a call from a private number, and the guy says, ‘My guy wants to talk to you.’” [Tollett] then heard Prince’s voice on the phone: “Do I have to split the T-shirt proceeds if I put the [Prince] symbol and ‘Coachella’ on a shirt?”
“I go, ‘What are you talking about? Are you playing?’ He says, ‘I’m playing the Saturday night.’”
So at the 11th hour, the Purple One was added to the Saturday-night lineup, leapfrogging Portishead on the bill while reportedly commanding $5 million for his time. And as he did seemingly every time he graced us with his presence—from the Super Bowl halftime show to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony—he transcended the trappings of the event. Prince played a 24-song set heavy on the hits (“1999,” “Little Red Corvette”), collaborations (both Sheila E. and Morris Day joined him on stage), and covers. The latter category gave Prince one of the most celebrated moments of his storied career: an eight-minute cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” in which he altered the lyrics slightly but significantly—“I wish I was special” became “I wish you were special”; “You’re so fuckin’ special” became “‘Cause I think you’re special”—and delivered a guitar solo that rendered everything else that happened that weekend inadequate in comparison. You tell us this alone isn’t worth $5 million:
The performance was something of a turning point for the event, says Brown. “Prince felt like this huge moment in terms of pivoting away from what had previously been their wheelhouse of the big old rock, indie rock and saying we’re going to embrace this bigger rock pop star,” he said.
Was it the peak of Coachella? At its baseline, Prince’s set represented the ideal version of what Weiss says Coachella did best—span generations. Other examples he points to include Paul McCartney in 2009, the Cure in 2004, and Gang of Four in 2005. “It was the kind of place where it provided a sort of musical education,” Weiss says, adding that recent lineups feel like more of “a streamingcore festival.” The set also certainly has an air of exclusivity that few others in the festival’s history have had—for years, Prince wouldn’t allow any uploads of his “Creep” performance, though he relented in 2015. So, taking those factors into consideration, plus the fact that Prince may be pound-for-pound the most talented musician who ever lived, we wouldn’t fault anyone for calling this set Coachella’s peak. However, there’s a few that may trump it in terms of sheer impact.
Kanye West (2011)
Other key performers that year: Arcade Fire coming off their Grammy win, Kings of Leon, the Strokes
Why it mattered: First hip-hop set to close the festival; reimagined festival sets as high-concept performance art; first year of Coachella’s livestream
Less than five months after Kanye West delivered his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he took the stage for what was the most elaborate set Coachella—and possibly any modern music festival—had seen to that point. Running through a collection of his hits likely would’ve been enough, but instead, he enlisted coconspirator Mike Dean to reimagine some of his best-loved songs and designer Virgil Abloh to art-direct the performance. The end result was staggering: a massive replica of the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon as a backdrop, dozens of ballerinas engulfing the stage, a stage lift once used by Michael Jackson for Kanye to hover far above the 80,000 fans watching him. Today, it feels like a preview of the legendary Yeezus and Saint Pablo tours he’d take on the road just a few years later.
Dating back to the beginning of his career, Kanye has, of course, been no stranger to theatrics, but Brown suspects there may have been a game of one-upmanship at play with his 2011 set. The previous year, Jay-Z became the first rapper to ever headline Coachella when he closed out the Friday-night slate by turning the festival into a giant party. Kanye, who made no bones at the time about having a little-brother complex regarding his Watch the Throne collaborator, may have been looking to outdo his onetime mentor. “It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, here’s Kanye coming out and doing all his hits,’” Brown says. “It was like, ‘We’re going to have this massive production, he’s really bringing his ethos and grafting it onto Coachella in a way that was new for headliners.’ Like a lot of Kanye stuff, it really did transcend him as a hip-hop headliner and remade what it meant to headline Coachella, period.”
Was it the peak of Coachella? We’re getting close, but not quite. Kanye’s 2011 gets docked a few points because he’s a Coachella mainstay: West also performed in 2006, made a surprise appearance during the Weeknd’s set in 2015, and joined Kid Cudi on stage and later performed with his Sunday Service choir in 2019. He was set to return as the closing headliner this year before pulling out just a week ago and forcing Goldenvoice to tap Swedish House Mafia and the Weeknd as replacements. It’s no Altar of Zeus, but it’ll do.
Other key performers that year: The Weeknd, Eminem
Why it mattered: Possibly the defining performance of Beyoncé’s career; possibly the only high-concept set to top Kanye’s from 2011; likely the most searched and streamed Coachella moment ever; subject of the Netflix documentary Homecoming
When Coachella began, Paul Tollett and Co. never anticipated hosting pop stars on their stage. In fact, when Goldenvoice got their biggest “get” to date in 2006 with Madonna, the promoters put her on the dance music stage in the Sahara Tent in an attempt to connect her with club-kid roots and maintain some credibility among the more indie-leaning festival goers. (That was not without some logistical problems, however: “There were 12 trillion people trying to see Madonna on a stage that was built for like 10,000 people,” Weiss says. “The entire festival’s there; you couldn’t see a thing.”)
Maybe it was the rise of poptimism, maybe it was the influx of celebs and influencers in later years, maybe it was the need to sell tickets for six total days over two weekends—but by the mid-2010s, Coachella had embraced pop music, full stop, with none of the caveats that the Madonna performance included. Tollett laid it out in the 2021 YouTube documentary Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert: “As the years go by, with all the dance music getting so big, and then hip-hop, and then pop not being a bad word among the indie rock people anymore, it just started feeling like this is something that Coachella really needs.” He’s certainly backed that quote up: Recent years have seen headliners such as Drake, Calvin Harris, Ariana Grande, and Lady Gaga. And then there was the biggest one of them all, possibly Goldenvoice’s biggest “get” in the festival’s history: Beyoncé.
Originally slated to headline the main stage in 2017 before her pregnancy with twins delayed her performance a year, Beyoncé closed out the 2018 Saturday-night slate with a three-act, 32-song set that reimagined her biggest hits and included a few inspired covers, all run through the lens of HBCU marching bands. She enlisted her husband, Jay-Z, plus her sister Solange, her former Destiny’s Child partners, and about 100 backing dancers for support. There’s a reason the performance has earned the name Beychella—it was bigger than the festival itself. “What Beyoncé did was the ideal thing you could expect from a pop star at a music festival,” Weiss says. “She reimagined the form in a way that I think people hadn’t seen since Prince. With Beyoncé, she managed to blur art, commerce, and spectacle in a really ingenious way.”
Not only was the performance an instant classic, it was also extremely popular. Remember the Google Trends graph from above? Look again and see where the biggest spike comes:
That would be April 2018, and it’s hard to imagine that came because of the Weeknd’s second set in four years.
Was it the peak of Coachella? Depending on how you define “peak,” yes. It’s certainly the most popular set in the event’s history. Plus, anytime Beyoncé does anything there’s a reasonable chance it’s going to be the apex of the form. But there’s one more performance we need to discuss first …
Daft Punk (2006)
Other key performers that year: Madonna, Depeche Mode, Tool, Massive Attack
Why it mattered: Aside from changing the trajectory of popular music in the 21st century, it wasn’t that big of a deal.
The robots took over the desert. This set has been written about ad nauseam—including by yours truly—but it’s worth remembering the basics: At a relatively fallow period of their career, at a time when guitar music still ruled the day, Daft Punk hopped atop a giant LED pyramid, reworked their catalog into a set that showed the full potential of electronic music, and put on the best dance party of the young century; 40,000 people rushed the Sahara Tent (which, again, could hold roughly 10,000 people), nearly collapsing the stage. From there came a tour, a live album, and an entire EDM ecosystem that may not have existed—or at least would’ve looked entirely different—without them. Kanye came calling. Later, the duo enlisted Pharrell and Nile Rodgers for one the biggest songs of the 2010s. Along the way, they stood next to Beyoncé at a TIDAL event. Daft Punk broke up last year, but their influence looms large over the past decade-plus of music, and it can be largely traced back to this set.
A couple of Parisians in helmets upstaged everyone that weekend: Madonna, who took the Sahara Tent stage just a few hours before them; headliners Depeche Mode and Tool; anyone who doubted their genre as a worthwhile art form. In doing so, they showed the power of Coachella while delivering the set most closely associated with the festival. “It was this moment where all the stars aligned,” says Brown, “and we’re like, ‘Here’s this festival that can take this coveted group doing something completely new, both in terms of their music and their production, and present it in this way—in the middle of the desert, in a place where people might not necessarily have previously thought that it might be happening.’”
Was it the peak of Coachella? It sits, quite literally, at the top of the giant, flashing pyramid.
Will This Year’s Lineup Offer Any Peaks?
This weekend, Coachella returns for the first time since 2019 after COVID concerns caused Goldenvoice to cancel the past two years. In a vacuum, the headliners all have their strengths: Harry Styles, the boy-band member turned pop heartthrob, will make his only U.S. festival appearance this year on Friday; Billie Eilish, by any metric one of the biggest pop stars in the world, will return to Coachella on the main stage on Saturday after announcing her arrival on the Outdoor Stage in 2019; the Weeknd and a reunited Swedish House Mafia will replace Kanye as the Sunday night hammer, which brings a certain kind of nostalgia.
Taken together, however, those three acts mark a sharp change from the earlier years of the festival. While Rage Against the Machine was supposed to reunite (again) for Coachellas 2020 and ’21, they’re nowhere to be found on the 2022 lineup. And where 2019 saw Tame Impala hold down the Saturday slate, there aren’t any similar newer rock acts doing the same this year. Perhaps that’s an indictment on the state of rock music—is there an Arcade Fire equivalent that could have slotted in?—and Coachella is just following suit. “This just kind of further cements their move away from a real rock headliner, which is part of a bigger discussion about rock’s place in the music industry in the year 2022,” Brown says.
But this year’s lineup also doesn’t have any of the splashy reunions of years past, unless you count Swedish House Mafia (who, all due respect, don’t hold the same cachet as Rage or Outkast, or even the Replacements). Brown suggests there may be an obvious reason for that: “Who else is left to reunite?” he asks. “It’s like the Smiths and Talking Heads and the White Stripes—those are the big white whales.” He pauses for a moment and then offers one name that will be familiar to Coachella goers: “Daft Punk, obviously.”
The end result, in Weiss’s view, is a festival that lacks the specialness of years past, that feels very similar to its increasingly homogenized competitors. “Coachella and Lollapalooza were the alternative festivals, Bonnaroo was the jam festival,” Weiss says. “Now they’re completely indistinguishable from each other.”
Maybe the sparks will come from down-poster acts, like Turnstile, the Baltimore hardcore band that’s currently breaking big on alternative radio and playing Saturday, or Denzel Curry, the dynamic South Florida rapper who just delivered one the year’s best albums in Melt My Eyez See Your Future. Maybe Doja Cat, fresh off the most charming pee break in recent TV history, will deliver a performance that pushes her career to another stratosphere (assuming she still wants a career). Maybe Phoebe Bridgers or Megan Thee Stallion or Jamie xx emerge from the two weekends even bigger stars than they were heading into them. On the surface, this year’s card may not have an obvious contender for Peak Coachella set, but it still offers plenty if you’re willing to look for it.
“You have this for a value as a consumer if you’re willing to make the most of it,” Brown says. “You can get up close and you can see a big range of acts. This is where Coachella is a cut above.”