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The Return of Coachella and a Glimpse Into Our New Abnormal

The most famous music festival in America returned this past weekend, providing a preview of the strange, not-so-distant future

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Consider the cosmic-trip tank tops, the silk tuxedo sequin jumpsuits, the Lower Merion Kobe throwbacks, the translucent “can’t stop won’t stop” rompers, the “Love All Day” sheer maxi slips, the Summer of Love bras, the Schools Out body chains, the soft-bed Birkenstocks, the daydream kimonos, the felt Laurel Canyon fedoras flopping at after-parties with exclusive NFT dance floors, the camo bucket hats, the gilded rave admiral caps, the rhinestone cowboy boots, the flower-power lace-up boots, the diablo silver “statement” necklaces, the floral braid-in extensions, the Zara samurai headbands, the boho daisy crowns, the CBGB Barbie cowboy hats, enough buckskin fringe to open up a chain of Instagrammable Joshua Tree saloons. From the vacant polo fields in the serpent-choked deserts east of Los Angeles, you could almost hear the neon rumble, the ghostly absence of the blue-check specters, lamenting “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

For the past three lethal years, these sacred garments, these gaudy totems, have languished restless and moth-riddled in walk-in closets across the West Coast. The outfits and their intermittently flamboyant owners have waited with fitful patience for the return of the bleaching sunshine, asphyxiating dust clouds, and free chips inside the Lay’s Potatodome (while supplies last; Lay’s is not liable for any exposure to COVID-19 and any related loss or injury incurred during this immersive tasting experience). After nearly a million Americans died from a new infectious disease, an armed insurrection to overthrow a presidential election, and the emergence of an unregulated global shadow economy revolving around imitation Gorillaz JPEGs, Coachella has been activated once again.

John Lennon once claimed that “War is over (if you want it).” But unlike Paul McCartney, he never headlined the most iconic circus of the 21st century, so treat his wish with healthy realism. With the dual-weekend comeback of Coachella, there is a symbolic perversion of that classic Lennonist thesis. Over 125,000 attendees, the promoters from Goldenvoice, the shambling major labels, the hegemonic booking agents, and the corporate brands that underwrite the endeavor have united behind the belief that the pandemic is over, or at least economically unsustainable, if they want it to be. The Instagram and TikTok symposium may not be the first tentpole festival back in the black—Lollapalooza was resuscitated last summer—but its reemergence augurs a crossing of a threshold into whatever the new abnormal will become.

Headlined by Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and the Nordic-Canadian narco-axis of Swedish House Mafia and the Weeknd, Coachella returned with a bizarrely familiar, artificial desert bloom: a fluorescent rebirth of brilliance and cliché, wavering hope and algorithmic decline, delirious inconvenience and confounding rewards—a tragicomic encapsulation of modern folly and modest triumph. Lil Baby, Jamie xx, and Turnstile delivered legendary performances that ranked among the best to ever grace the festival. Houston DJ legend OG Ron C dropped trunk-rattling Southern rap classics and Flying Lotus unveiled his latest reinvention in a branded “experience” called the Heineken House. It was adjacent to the lunar, Earth Day–themed HP Antarctic Dome, which to my knowledge, no one has ever gotten out of alive. I did not get a chance to stop by the Postmates Plant Emporium, but according to a sign on the door, they ran out of free juice.

Coachella embodies the music festival as a splintered microcosm of spring 2022, in which the experience itself is siloed by taste, age, race, class, and follower count into a choose-your-own-adventure schematic. Those still standing at the finish line are left with the dark nü-disco seductions of a 32-year-old crooner who calls himself “Starboy.” The rest are fated to be devoured by ravenous turkey vultures outside the Revolve Festival at 4 a.m. while TMZ cameras roll.

Over a decade ago, the Coachella attention economy began shifting toward fortified estates and faraway desert ranches built by dead titans of commerce, where online fast-fashion swindlers, esoteric tequila startups, and soon-to-be-extinct websites throw lavish, hyper-exclusive galas with the aspiration of making as many carousel slide shows as possible. The pandemic was an accelerator, where two years of sedentary doom-scrolling spurred the proliferation of a new breed of influencers who you may not have heard of, but who will be paid a year’s worth of rent for posing at the correct hydration station. Places where you will see porn stars turned television ingenues sulking into their phones in “Sex With You Sucks” shirts, and where Tyga’s hulking bodyguards seclude him like he’s the final boss in a fabled rack city. These are the fata morganas where “global-minded, social-first” Zoomer apparel manufacturers spend $1 million to hire DJs playing EDM remixes of Eazy-E, where Ty Dolla $ign sings just one song before the cops break it up. Or Nah. You will probably not get into the parties where Timothée Chalamet is rumored to be making out with part- or even full-time models with a noble passion for reversing climate change. But even if you do, the odds of actually seeing them are almost nonexistent. There is always another velvet clout rope to cross.

There is also music. From its founding in 1999, Coachella was rooted in an artful variant of anti-pop, an outgrowth of pre-millennium rave, punk, and underground hip-hop, a reaction to the jiggy consumerism that threatened to swallow underground scenes. That’s not to say that it didn’t feature popular groups—platinum-selling, Grammy-winning iconoclasts Beck and Rage Against the Machine headlined the first iteration—but their selections signified a specific form of West Coast resistance to the MTV TRL culture in vogue. This wasn’t Woodstock ’99, whose lineup felt like a cynical cash grab to encompass everything popular at the moment. Coachella’s hip-hop bookings favored a Che-hatted purism and dusty crate-digging found only in Urb magazine: DJ Shadow, Jurassic 5, Mix Master Mike, Qbert, A-Trak, and Kool Keith. The bookers attempted to cultivate something timeless, whether by flying in Detroit techno magus the Belleville Three or Pavement, Morrissey or Gil Scott-Heron.

As the years stacked, the festival struck an ingenious balancing act. The promoters understood how to appeal to the youth without compromising their ethos. They invented the idea of a Coachella artist. Scanning the list of headliners from that first decade, it’s easy to decipher a pattern: Jane’s Addiction, Bjork, NIN, Radiohead, the Cure, and the Beastie Boys were all cult phenomena with mass appeal. They obliterated convention and pioneered sub-cultures without pandering; they disdained trends and defined their genres while refusing to be pigeonholed into a single sound. Transcending music to become ideas, they resisted one-dimensional marketing platitudes. Even their 2006 booking of Madonna—arguably the biggest pop juggernaut of the late 20th century—cohered to a platonic Coachella ideal. Who was Madonna if not someone who emerged from the downtown NYC post-disco scene to shatter reactionary boundaries of sex, religion, and race?

Beyond the palm trees, pink velvet twilights, and proximity to mid-century modern rental homes with kidney-shaped pools, Coachella became singular among American festivals because of its caliber of curation. As it expanded from two to three to six days stretching over half a month, it encompassed older outfits that embodied an eclectic spirit of innovation: the Pixies, David Byrne, Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, the Pet Shop Boys, Prince, Gang of Four, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, even Motörhead. It retained its sense of Gen X skeptical cool and countercultural taste while offering millennials an education on what they’d missed. It became a generational rite of passage and gracefully connected the gaps between eras.

But by the middle of the last decade, every sacrosanct precept started to seem antiquated. If the pervasive deterioration became unmistakable, Coachella began to reflect a societal unmooring. Even though it started to sell out before the lineups were announced, the festival seemed to adopt Jeff Bezos’s overarching philosophy: “All businesses need to be young forever. If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworth’s.”

It’s tempting to point to one specific thing that caused the degradation loop, but it’s always a bit of everything. Economic inequality, political sclerosis, the obscene cost of living, and the erosion of an independent music ecosystem made it practically impossible for musicians to survive unless they conformed to industry demands. As rents rose, DIY shrines that nurtured avant-garde musicians died. The ease of digital connection depleted the ranks of those seeking real-life community. The rise of streaming and social media terraformed audience expectations and the imagination of artists themselves. Bands became brands. The algorithm rewarded the pleasant and familiar while penalizing the weird and recondite. Major labels became stakeholders of streaming companies, which afforded them even more influence than when they bribed radio DJs with strawberry cocaine. Shameless greed and conscienceless grifting became the law of the land. The devil’s greatest trick is making you believe that there’s no such thing as selling out.

With unlimited treasuries built off monopolistic business practices, Live Nation and AEG (the owners of Goldenvoice) snatched up both independent venues and promotion companies, prioritizing proven national acts over rising local talent. To leapfrog into almost impenetrable echelons, independent musicians either had to land a viral hit or build cults of charisma through social media. If they were good enough, they might receive critical adulation. But as a click-based, internet-ad economy required traffic for publications to survive, it ensured a seismic shift in coverage. Web 2.0 rewarded celebrity retweets, not idiosyncratic taste-making. It dovetailed with the dominance of poptimism, a critical practice which began as a necessary corrective to the previous generation’s insistence that only long-haired white guys with guitars (and Prince) could be Serious Artists. But like all aspects of American life, it devolved into an inflexible ideology that dictates that all popular things must be good because they’re popular. And even if one timidly disagrees, the stan armies of the most worshiped humans on earth will ruthlessly attack anyone who dares to dissent from orthodoxy. It has cowed critics into submission or out of the discourse entirely. Who wants to get doxxed over a $250 thinkpiece?

This is a long way to explain how Coachella went from having Rage Against the Machine as its first headliner into having the Machine be its latest. Let’s be unequivocally clear: Harry Styles seems like a nice lad. His politics are saint simple; he believes in peace, love, equality, and every other utopian notion nearly impossible to eradicate in a world riven by cruelty, avarice, duplicity, and all the other defects hexing the human genome. His motto is “TPWK” (treat people with kindness), which is all well and good when you’re worth an estimated $80 million and dating Ted Lasso’s ex. Stevie Nicks likes him. According to his Wikipedia, he believes in karma. He does pilates and meditates. He’s a pescatarian. He endorsed Joe Biden.

But Styles’s set at Coachella revealed an artist out of his depth. If Beyoncé proved to even inveterate skeptics that a pop act headlining Coachella could supply something as imaginative and visionary as any rapper, DJ, or guitar apostle, Styles doubled as a wicker man for the retro-fried fetishization that has defined the past decade. If he was cast in a West End production of Aladdin Sane: The Musical!, there would be no cause for complaint. But closing out Friday night, the lingering shadow of all immortal predecessors loomed. Roger Waters played Dark Side of the Moon atop the same soil where Harry Styles kicked a KIDZ BOP version of the Almost Famous soundtrack.

The idea is that the former One Direction singer is the Justin Timberlake of his generation: a product who shed his boy-band assembly line past to mature into an artist capable of selling Pepsi on his own merits. The problem is that he’s closer to Robbie Williams from Take That or Donny Osmond, references surely lost on 99 percent of the relatively paltry, mostly under-25 crowd who gathered on the former polo field to listen to Styles’s set.

Harry Styles is an archetypal artist for the late capitalist drain spiral of ambient streaming and social media thirst: simply far too big and slickly packaged to fail. He rose to fame on a reality show, was coached by Simon Cowell, and made brain-fry famous as one-fifth of a boy band whose distinguishing characteristic was loving both kinds of music: boomer rock and pop. They finished in third place on the reality show, but ended up selling millions. Since he went solo he’s been managed by the son of the most powerful man in the music industry, represented by the world’s most powerful talent agency, and signed to a label owned by a multinational conglomerate that made $11 billion in net income during the first year of the pandemic.

As a child, Styles learned to make music by singing karaoke covers, and never learned how to stop. There is no such thing as a Harry Styles song. There are Hall & Oates songs, David Bowie songs, Pink Floyd songs, Elton John songs, Queen songs, and Fleetwood Mac songs, which Harry Styles and his producers and songwriters rejigger into new alignments like a Web3 reboot of Glam Rock Scrabble.

To his credit, Styles made a valiant effort. Wearing a sequin harem outfit that looked made out of a souvenir disco ball from Studio 54, the former One Directionist skipped across the stage, shimmied, and hoisted his microphone to the heavens. He had the moves down as if he’d purchased hundreds of music documentaries on Amazon Prime (and maybe even a few Blu-rays that aren’t available on streaming). He blew kisses to the crowd, cheerfully plinked at a guitar, and holistically indicted boyfriends. He told us that our only job was to have as much fun as possible, and to be whoever we were. But it’s unclear if he even knew what that meant for himself. Over a belabored piano vamp, he bellowed “WOOOMAAAAN,” somewhere between Mike Myers’s beatnik poetry in So I Married an Axe Murderer and Russell Brand’s Jeffrey-puffing rock goofball from Get Him to the Greek. He finished with a song called “Sign of the Times,” which was somehow not a Prince cover. It sounded created for a Disney biopic about Rod Stewart, which has yet to be cast.

It’s reductive to depict Day 2’s headliner, Billie Eilish, as the antithesis of Harry Styles. For one, the pistons and turbines of the major label machine have ceaselessly pumped to boost her stature since before she was old enough to drive. Still eight months short of her 21st birthday, Eilish has become the token artist who people like me will tout to acquit themselves of accusations that they’re averse to all Gen Z pop sensations. But across all facets of her public-facing existence, the Highland Park–raised artist exhibits taste, self-awareness, style, and a belief in the absurdity of this constant spectacle. In an era when every act of insurrection has been exploited and commodified, she stays moving counterclockwise, writing and producing her albums entirely with her brother, Finneas, who joined her for a few songs mid-set.

It’s fair to acknowledge that after only two albums, Eilish lacks the catalog to match her headline predecessors, but she’s smart and modest enough to understand her limitations. “This is so weird,” she told the crowd shortly after coming on stage. “I should not be headlining this shit.” At the end of the set, she apologized for not being Beyoncé. But at this point in her career, it’s not unreasonable to cast her as the Zoomer antecedent of Björk, Beth Gibbons of Portishead, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, or Gwen Stefani. If the comparisons are premature, it seems ridiculous to expect much more from someone a decade or more younger than almost every act to ever appear in large font at the top of the poster. It’s hard not to admire an artist born a dozen years after 3 Feet High and Rising, who insisted upon bringing Posdnuos from De La Soul to one of the biggest stages in the world, to perform his verse on “Feel Good Inc,” next to the Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn.

Wearing a baggy pajama shirt and a silvery nest of chains, Eilish radiated preternatural intensity and stage command, wielding negative space like a threat. At times, she softened her voice into a wispy chemtrails vapor. At other moments, she belted a Blu Cantrell bounce over beats that sound last heard on a Wax Tailor album from 2005 (this is a compliment).

She’s at her strongest when she diverges from the gossamer pop formula of thundering hooks and Valkyrie drums, or the Nightmare Before Christmas balladry. On “Oxytocin,” she brought out marching battalions of red-suited female dancers who looked like space-age extras from the video for “Oops! … I Did It Again.” Nicking techno, trip-hop, and chromatic pop, Eilish gestured toward a fin de siècle futurism that never actually occurred. The stage design was replete with floating cages, factories belching smoke, laser light shows, and static beamed on the 100-foot LED screens built to be seen by 100,000, and millions more on the livestream. She ended with “Happier Than Ever,” as the cameras showed her running off the stage, blowing kisses to the crowd. It was a precocious set that fulfilled her advance billing, with an endearing rawness that reminded you that she’s actually just begun.

It was a natural contrast to the final night’s performance from the Weeknd, who replaced Kanye at the last minute. Over a decade after his orgy-at-the-after-party debut House of Balloons, the melancholic Toronto hedonist has become a consummate professional. There is nothing left to say about a Weeknd performance except to laud its consistency. He’s already headlined Coachella once and played the Super Bowl halftime show. With meticulous drive, he’s refined his falsetto to a Michael Jackson weightlessness and become Max Martin’s most idealized vessel since Britney Spears. Shrewdly seeking balance, he’s repeatedly collaborated with Oneohtrix Point Never to ensure a pro forma eccentricity.

The Weeknd will sing you hit after hit with a numb and faceless perfection, which is exactly what he did. If he emerged during an era when white powders prevailed, he’s shrewdly shifted to one of dissociatives. Music for you to happily float away on a pain cloud. He described January’s Dawn FM as “picture the album being like the listener is dead. And they’re stuck in this purgatory state.” Whether you love him or are merely apathetic, there’s no denying that he’s a consummate artist for the time.

It’s easy to project a similarly veiled mystery onto Lil Baby. A half-decade ago, Young Thug paid the West Atlanta native to stop hustling, lock himself in the studio, and learn how to record. Shortly thereafter, his meteoric rise in street rap circles began. The mainstream breakthrough came on his 2018 Gunna collaboration, “Drip Too Hard.” About six months before that, I had gone to Baton Rouge and taken a trip to the store where Alton Sterling was killed by police officers. Another CD vendor had replaced him, and spread out on a folding table were burned copies of mixtapes from the hottest Southern rappers who mostly flew under the national radar. Even then, Lil Baby commanded more table real estate than nearly all of his peers.

For most of the past decade, as artists in other genres largely recycled and reconfigured the DNA of the past, rap innovated at a pace that far surpassed all other popular music. But in the past several years, you can discern a technology-altered shift that has shaped its consumption and creativity. There’s always been a subjective line between influence and imitation, but the margins have become increasingly murky. If Atlanta was hip-hop’s spiritual capital in the 21st century, even it slowly seemed like it had started to produce a series of derivatives. Young Thug and Future, two of the most boundary-expanding artists of the 2010s, became genres unto themselves. In a trend that played out across music writ large, one new star after the other began to feel like a series of tape dubs—increasingly faded and weak copies of the original.

Lil Baby always seemed like the best candidate to shatter the stasis. The deluxe version of his 2020 album, My Turn, was a masterpiece. There was nothing especially novel about it, but he exhibited a two-way versatility within the narrow terrain he covered. While still clearly indebted to his mentor, he fired with an assassin’s precision, his lyrics blunt and lean, his singing voice sliding with wearied anguish. The beat selection was impeccable. His hooks couldn’t be ejected from your unconscious mind. At the peak of the 2020 protests following the killing of George Floyd, he dropped “The Bigger Picture,” arguably the most poignant protest song to emerge from that moment. It received almost unanimous praise, but some seemed surprised that an ostensibly apolitical street rapper suddenly decided to shift gears.

But only those who weren’t listening closely enough would have considered Baby apolitical. His politics are those of a survivor: who evaded brushes with death and made it out of government housing, avoided federal marshals and RICO indictments, someone who actually managed to escape and get paid. A haunting depiction of life at the bottom, the same Black American struggle depicted in different forms by Boosie, DMX, and Nipsey Hussle. Something deeper than a candidate endorsement or bumper sticker slogan. In this sense, his Friday-night main stage performance at Coachella was not merely among the best rap sets ever performed at Coachella, it was one of the most deceptively subversive.

In a sleeveless silver vest, matching designer pants, and glittering chains, Baby stood atop what looked like a prison cage. Behind it was a two-story, decaying trap apartment straight out of Section 8, which occasionally lit into flames. Bringing out troupes of male and female dancers, Baby morphed into a solemn brimstone preacher without any overwrought rhetoric. In the dark with the desert breeze blowing, Baby’s rapid-fire monotone achieved a hypnotic effect. In front of an audience that has historically treated street rap as escapism, Baby forced them to feel it. “We Paid” boomed from the speakers like a menacing spiritual. When things got too ominous, he dissolved the tension by bringing out Gunna for “pushin’ P.”

For his penultimate song, Baby rapped “The Bigger Picture,” which made the intent explicit. The nightmare seemed brutally real—a clip unleashed at killer cops, the wicked system, the brutality. He conveyed the feeling of watching everything slip away, but supplied the imperative to fight back. In a place of perilously short memories, Baby made sure that nothing could be forgotten.

Memory might be the dominant theme of modern music, whether the nostalgia is imagined or tangible. The past is always myth, especially when it’s absorbed second-hand. Inescapable throughout the festival was a yearning for that briefly hopeful nexus between the end of the 2000s and the beginning of the last decade. It was audible on the main stage in the Sunday-night set from the Swedish House Mafia, whose big-room EDM felt dated and archaic. After all, the momentum has shifted from millennials to the Zoomers and the excess was less overt. Bludgeoning EDM was abandoned to the EDC. Once filled with epileptic lights and animatronic flashing cats, the Sahara Tent is now mostly the turf of rappers.

If you’re ever curious how to spot how many people are on molly, just count the number of glowsticks, raver paraphernalia, and neon nomads who wander through the crowd giving unsolicited electric yo-yo shows (I saw only one this year). If anything, the festival was conspicuously devoid of shirtless bros shoving their way to the front of Dillon Francis or whatever. The temperature seemed lower, the “vibes” more chill, the sybaritic lunacy kept to a minimum. It was reflective of a generation who expect to and have started to learn to live with less.

You could see this bleary romanticism in brilliant sets from Caribou and Disclosure, Hot Chip and DJ Koze, all veteran electronic producers and bands whose sensibilities betray a sadness buried beneath the euphoria of ready-for-the-floor rhythms. I have personally been going to Coachella for far too long, in a perpetual search for fleeting highs that grow rarer with each passing year. Those flickering moments of transcendence that you believe will be endless in your youth, but as time elapses you realize are extraordinarily limited, like everything else.

In 2018, there was Beyoncé. In 2017, there was Kendrick. In 2014, there was Darkside. And this year at around 10 p.m. on Sunday night, Jamie xx made the interminable lines, the influencers, and the exhaustion all seem like trivial irritations. As with any form of magic, it’s irreducible to syllables. Imagine Stop Making Sense filmed live, but instead of the Talking Heads, there is just a 33-year-old British DJ/producer, a suspended giant disco ball, and a live drummer. It started with his new single, “Let’s Do It Again,” but quickly detonated into a psychedelic collage of acid house and satin techno. The screen projected ’90s rave visuals: mustard yellows, tabloid pinks, and lush tropical green.

There is something dreamily escapist but firmly grounded in a sweating physicality. We hear “I’ll Take Care of U” from his decade-old remix album with Gil Scott-Heron, French future disco, a remix of the Kanye leak “Wash Us in the Blood,” and what sounds like a jungle edit of Ludacris’s “What’s Your Fantasy.” The screens reveal what appears to be a cadre of dancers in the front row, including a husky bearded man busting loose in a bucket hat and a Ned Flanders sweatshirt, a woman in a bra and a cropped Yankees jersey getting low. What appears to be a spontaneous dance party seems like it’s being ingeniously edited, filtered, and tinted on the fly. After so many seasons of hibernation and fear, there is this manifestation of unalloyed joy, buoyed by deep soul and Idris Muhammad samples, a reminder that for all the agony, there will be a rebirth every spring, whether we are here to see it or not.

The crystal ball rigged in the center of the stage is spitting diamonds and there are hints of the forerunners, Kraftwerk and Larry Levan, Four Tet, and Mr. Fingers. But Jamie xx has found a new door, temporarily restoring damaged nerve endings of memory and thumping house grooves that stretch into a dimly conceived golden infinity. All the strains of sound—techno, house, soul, funk, post-dubstep, jungle, 2-step, hip-hop house—are sublimated into a technicolor vision. It’s beamed back into your own mind taking you places that you can’t return to, but for a moment, all the years have collapsed into this single moment, everything that was missed is euphorically chanted over the heart of the kick drum. On the screen, to the left of you, to the right of you, there is only pure motion.

Then he shifts the gears, reeling back the years to play “Love, Peace, and Happiness,” a deep gem from the South-Central L.A. psych-soul fusionists the Chambers Brothers, released the same year as the first Woodstock took place. It appears to be the end, but Jamie xx lets it float into his teardrop dancehall 2015 collaboration with Young Thug and Popcaan, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).” For a minute, there are only those moments that existed before everything went askew, the spell is unbroken, you can exhale a sigh of relief that we’re going to be OK. And maybe even for a few seconds more you can even believe that it’s possible, no matter how much you doubt it.

Jeff Weiss is the founder and editor of POW. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and GQ.

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