Photography by Natalie Somekh
Beyond the Gates: Each year, tens of thousands of eager festivalgoers descend on Coachella Valley for three days of music and free-spirited fun. While Weekend Two usually hosts a more laid-back crowd of festival veterans and music lovers, Weekend One tends to lure the endlessly self-indulgent masses of social media influencers and other 21st century caricatures. Given this year’s lineup — with headliners The Weeknd, Beyoncé, and Eminem headlining the event and pop figures like Migos, Cardi B, and Post Malone occupying its second lines — the crowd was slated to be Coachella’s most sybaritic showing yet. Coachella’s prevailing “selfie culture” is predicated on its focus on shock value, on capturing the moment. Walk through the festival’s daytime crowds, and you’re bound to interrupt a number of attempted picturesque moments, catching the vexed stare of 20-somethings adorned head to toe in the latest fashions.
Best Bites: If you’re willing to fork over $18 for something a little less than a full meal, Coachella’s Main Lobster rolls or Lobster Mac N’ Cheese might suite your fancy. Or, for something succulent but more budget friendly, perhaps Seabird’s avocado tacos are more your flavor. There was no shortage of ice cream at this year’s festival, either, with a variety of desserts such as Sweet Rolled Ice Cream Tacos, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, and a plethora of sweet Ice Cream Truck pop-ups scattered throughout the festival’s grounds. Coachella’s food prices are anything but a bargain, though, with most meals ranging anywhere from $13-22. A $6 order of fries might get you a sparse amount of potatoes that looks more like a bag of chips. You might want to bring a granola bar or two next year.
Festival Fashionista: Tyler, The Creator sported a medley hairdo of brown and blonde patches. The outfit was complete with a neon green traffic vest, matching shorts, and a white t-shirt that read “no violence.” The fit was the ultimate supplement to Tyler’s volatile stage presence. Beyoncé wore a whopping five outfits during her iconic performance, including the theme-fitting jean shorts and hoodie, risque black leather, and the regal, diamond-studded “Queen” outfit. St. Vincent sported a white PVC suit and played multiple fluorescent guitars that beamed out to the crowd like beacons in the dark.
Desert Redemption: BROCKHAMPTON arrived 15 minutes late to their Coachella debut (there were issues with mics), but America’s favorite boy-band came out swinging with a palpable verve when they finally hit the stage. Backed by a flock of expert violinists, all dressed in blue masks, each member of the hip-hop collective dressed in what looked like a bullet proof vest, each lettered with a bold statement: Kevin Abstract’s read “Faggot”, “Ameer Vann’s read “Nigger”; others read words like “Wakanda”, “Maestro”, “Fiend”. The group has been compared to hip-hop supergroups of hip-hop’s past: Wu-Tang Clan, Odd Future, Beastie Boys, the list goes on. The fact of the matter, though, is that BROCKHAMPTON are the hip-hop collective of the current period, and their live showing certainly solidified that. No comparisons needed.
Best Set for the Smallest Crowd: St. Vincent’s brooding, symphonic builds and captivating art house visuals proved to make for one of the weekend’s best sets. The only issue? Despite her (wink) mass appeal, St. Vincent’s crowd was abysmal, not undue to Coachella’s primary demographic flocking to Kygo in drones. The set proved to be welcomed programming for festival veterans looking for a thoughtful counter to Kygo’s brand of Urban Outfitters EDM. In what Annie Clark self-described as a “blistering, disturbing rock show,” St. Vincent’s alt pop spectacle featured visuals that sometimes erred on the side of the grotesque, but always veered towards the thought provoking. Clark’s guitar frenzies mesmerized those who stuck around to see her, performing a powerful trio of tracks to close the set with “Rattlesnake” and “Fear the Future”, before finally moving into “Slow Disco”, purple and blue hues setting on the sparse crowd as the bust and gyrate.
Chained to the Rhythm: Jamiroquai’s first set in the US since 2005 was welcomed with open arms by both festival vets and party goers looking for a thoughtful alternative to The Weeknd’s main stage madness. The band filled the Mojave tent to the brim when they brought out LA icon Snoop Dogg for a “Dr. Buzz” rendition. The entire set was spilling over with funk, and the crowd certainly reciprocated their energy.
Adorned in metallic gold dressings, Kali Uchis ushered fans into Day One of the festival with some of the most mesmerizing dance moves the weekend had to offer. As the sun’s heat beamed down on the Outdoor Theatre crowd, Uchis enraptured her audience with movements that were both methodical and quicksilver, gyrating and contorting her body all while somehow maintaining the velvety nature of her lush alto.
“What the Hell Did I Just Watch?” Post Malone’s showing in Coachella’s Sahara Tent was by all means intriguing. “Rest in peace Lil Peep, rest in peace A$AP Yams” shouted Posty as he came out singing “I don’t wanna die too young”. The showing felt like a contemporary spectacle, with wide eyed 20-somethings flooding the tent in drones, but make no mistake: it was no Beyonce. Post Malone’s energy would soon dissipate, largely due to his gawky acoustic rendition of “I Fall Apart”. For a crowd anticipating the carnal amusement provided by the Sahara Tent’s massive sound system, such a display stifled any momentum he may have built with his dramatic entrance. Post Malone should probably stick to what he knows best, and that’s hyping the crowd with thickly layered bass and traditional hip hop stage antics.
Best Way to Dance Away the Heat: Nile Rodgers took the stage with his band, Chic, for a showing of pure disco delight on Saturday afternoon. The set began with a piece of wisdom from Rodgers. “We just came from Australia, where a journalist called Chic the ‘greatest cover band ever,’” he said, noting that the “journalist” at hand was thrilled they had performed covers of Dianna Ross, Duran Duran, David Bowie, and more. Rodgers paused for a bit before continuing, “I don’t want to offend anyone, but, motherfucker, we wrote those songs in the first place!” The group proceeded to bust into a dense set of hits, including “I’m Coming Out”, which fused straight into “Upside Down”, “We Are Family”, “Like a Virgin”, “Get Lucky”, “Let’s Dance”, “Le Freak”, “Good Times”, and finally concluding with “Rapper’s Delight”.
Rodgers even had a moment of personal revelation during the set when he told the crowd he was cancer free. “My doctors didn’t know what the outcome would be,” he said, describing his cancer diagnosis eight year ago. “So they told me to go home and get my affairs in order. So I thought to myself, If I’m going to contemplate getting my affairs in order, what exactly would that mean to me? So, I decided I was gonna write more songs than I’ve ever written in my life, I was gonna do more collaborations than I’ve ever done in my life, and I was gonna do more live shows than I’ve ever done in my life.”
Catching Nerves: SZA arrived to the party 10 minutes late to her slot as sub-headliner to The Weeknd. Offering a dose of anecdotal wisdom to her fans (like the time she smoked an ounce of weed to herself after being stood up by her date at a party), the pop ascendant’s performance felt a bit lackluster considering the massive acclaim of her debut studio album CTRL. The set featured mainstays like opening track “Supermodel”, “Drew Barrymore”, and “Love Galore”, as well as a cover of Rihanna’s “Consideration”. Once again, hip-hop’s biggest force in Kendrick Lamar came to join SZA for “Doves In the Wind” and the duo’s Black Panther collaboration “All The Stars”. Opening for The Weeknd is no simple task, and SZA took it on with precision, but we’re waiting for next weekend to see if she comes fully into her stride.
That One Act: As I woke up from a dehydrated, heat-induced stupor inside the car I slept in during Coachella, I checked out the headlines from the night before. CNN: Beyoncé makes history with Coachella performance (she was the first black woman to ever headline the festival); The New York Times: Beyoncé is bigger than Coachella. Jon Caramanica’s New York Times piece starts by saying, “There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful, and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set at [Coachella] Saturday night.” It’s almost impossible to describe the level of spectacle induced by the Queen herself, but by the grace of pop glory, it’s a damn near obligation to do so.
As I arrived to the main stage early Saturday afternoon to catch Nile Rodgers and Chic, the pit area was already filled to the brim with Beyoncé’s eager fans (the Bey Hive, as they call themselves). On more than one occasion, I witnessed mothers waiting anxiously with their children. Some of them couldn’t be more than seven or eight, and I couldn’t help but feel incredibly inspired by the fact that these mothers likely took expensive flights, rented cars, booked lodgings, and, most daunting of all, braved the Coachella heat for hours upon hours to allow their kids the opportunity to watch pop music’s most prominent icon.
By the time Beyoncé took the stage, the crowd stretched back as far as the eye could see, the most attended Coachella performance to date by most estimates. “Ladies and gentlemen,” proclaimed a rogue announcer, the crowd erupting in a roar at this point, “Welcome to Beyoncé Homecoming 2018!” The 36-year-old star proceeded to enthrall the crowd with expertly choreographed movements, pyrotechnics, a full HBCU marching band, and over 100 live dancers. There was the Jay-Z appearance for “Déjà vu”; the unthinkable Destiny’s Child reunion with bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams joining the stage; and Solange’s appearance for “Get Me Bodied”, in which the two sisters danced with an innocence that only family could embody.
The raw beauty, though, lay heavily with Beyoncé’s stringent attention to detail, incorporating songs by Master P, Crucial Conflict, Juvenille, C-Murder, and Fast Life Yungstaz into her set, not to mention paying homage to Fela Kuti and Nina Simone. Within a festival landscape that continues to offer up homogeneity, Beyoncé’s performance was, in the words of David Byrne, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. As DJ Khaled proclaimed halfway through the set, “Coachella gotta rename Coachella the Beychella”; the crowd went into a full frenzy. “NEW NAME ALERT!” The set wasn’t just the best performance of the weekend; it was a performance marking the winds of change in American musical and cultural history.
Don’t Believe the Hype: Migos’ set on Sunday night had the potential to be the weekend’s most compelling hip-hop show. After all, the festival’s EDM/Hip-Hop mega — the Sahara tent — underwent massive renovations this year. Its daunting sound system was primed for a thunderous performance by one of hip hop’s biggest cultural mainstays. Well, after horrendous sound issues that plagued their set for the first half-hour, the group never was able to find their footing. As the DJ attempted to hype the crowd with his intro, the sound was barely recognizable, prompting a massive round of boos from the crowd. Perhaps next weekend the group will find their footing.
Not So Hot Take? Rock Music Is Dead. What do David Byrne, St. Vincent, The War on Drugs, A Perfect Circle, and X Japan all have in common? Abysmal crowd sizes at this year’s Coachella. In what marked a massive turn of the tides, this year’s programming felt almost exclusively geared towards pop music, with rock getting tucked away in the festival’s back pocket.
Best of the Tiny Fonts: One of the most exciting parts of attending a festival, especially one as large as Coachella, is the aspect of discovery. Each day has the potential to unearth your next favorite band. Los Angeles surf punk band The Regrettes ushered a pop-punk party into the festival’s Sonora Tent on Friday, as did San Francisco garage rock icons Oh Sees on Saturday. Westside Gunn + Conway brought their ’90s-inspired hip-hop rhythms to a small crowd of about 50 people in the Gobi tent during the midday heat. Despite the small crowd, the performance was one of the best the weekend had to offer.
Noname and Japanese Breakfast both had some of the more sizable crowds of any performers on the festival’s undercard. The crowd sang happily along to Noname’s poetic rhymes as she danced onstage while Japanese Breakfast concluded their set in high-energy fashion with “Everybody Wants to Love You”. Kolsch’s melodic techno builds provided a surefire escape from the heat on Sunday, and Fidlar’s beer ballads incited some of the festival’s biggest moshes. Rex Orange County performed as a late add on Saturday afternoon, much to the delight of his newfound fanbase.
Why Can’t We Be Friends: Cardi B brought a flock of guests for her Coachella debut. After spending more than 300,000 on production for the set, it was certain that Cardi was gunning for the crown on Sunday, and she needed some star power to help make her point. Throughout her 35-minute set, Cardi B brought out G-Eazy for “It Ain’t Safe”, YG for “She Bad”, Chance the Rapper for “Best Life”, Kehlani for “Ring”, and 21 Savage for “Bartier Cardi”. Cardi finally closed the set with “Bodak Yellow” in what was one of the best-attended, highly profiled sets of Weekend One.
Phones Up: As Vince Staples lurked onto the stage and broke into “Get the Fuck Off My Dick”, an ominous gaze set out across the crowd. The main stage projectors fragmented into dozens of videos, including (but not limited to): a hand putting a condom onto a dildo, a woman twerking on someone’s grave, a glitch edit of the main stage crowd, various clips from ESPN, and more than a few YouTube and WorldStar clips that I likely missed the reference to. As he concluded his poignant first track, “I’m the God in this/ Fuck up off my dick,” the entire tone of the performance had been set.
Though he didn’t quite receive the level of energy he sought, Staples demanded the crowd’s attention. Peppering his set with fierce quips — “None of y’all look like me, but y’all look good Coachella” — his presence is hilarious and effortlessly charismatic. For all the set’s mastery, most attendees will remember the show for Kendrick Lamar’s guest appearance on final track “Yeah Right”, which cause hundreds of idle bodies to lurch toward the stage. The appearance was a poignant collaboration between hip-hop’s avant-garde auteur and the genre’s unequivocal king.
Coming Home: Coachella’s position in pop culture as the ultimate pop spectacle is predicated on the performances of impossible reunions and larger-than-life bookings. Oasis, Prince, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, ACDC, Daft Punk. There is seemingly no limit to what the festival can pull off. This year’s programming was largely overshadowed by Beyoncé’s globe-shaking performance, a showing that rocked the global pop music sphere to its core. Most would agree that the year would be worth remembering for her performance alone. However, the festival’s sweeping lineup resides at the intersection of Super Bowl halftime show, global rave massive, Studio 54, underground warehouse party, and CBGB-era punk outing. You get the chance to see just about everything at Coachella.
Outside of the Queen’s appearance, the festival was a balancing act of pop music flavors and a sign of the times. One track can be the equalizer in today’s murky festival market, bumping artists like Portugal. the Man and Cardi B to back-to-back slots on the festival’s main stage, the former with a slow and methodical ascent to the Coachella stage, the later earning her stripes in a much more jarring fashion. Coachella is both a statement about the current state of pop music and a message about what’s to come out of the current musical zeitgeist. As digital streaming continues to redefine the nature of the music industry, Coachella will likely continue to evolve and set the pace for American music festivals, despite its various hiccups.