An Undeniable Energy
It’s nearing midnight in the Coachella Valley of California. I’m wandering the campgrounds looking for a group of campers I’ve never met, set up with through a Facebook friend just weeks before. Turns out, I have an uncanny knack for getting into situations like this, much like at Hulaween in Florida.
Earlier that night, an Uber dropped me off just outside the festival grounds with my Minnesotan editor, a UX designer from London, a plastic surgeon from Belgium and a surfer from Rio De Janeiro all in tow.
I was awash with a feeling that I was in for a festival experience unlike anything I’ve had before. Something grand was sitting before us, and it was drawing people from all over the world. It started to dawn on me well before we even stepped foot on the grounds.
There were billboards on Interstate 10 advertising artists and their set times on the way to the festival grounds. This is the festival to see or, for artists, the one at which to be seen.
We split away from our new friends and set up at our respective campsites. We were introduced to a fantastic group of Californians and Hawaiians who would become our crew for the weekend. We were told stories of previous Coachellas, how the festival has evolved into what we have now and were given an invitation to the not-so-silent disco just down the way. And before you know it, night transitioned into day.
Day one was upon us.
A Stage To The World
When one walks toward the main gates of the festival, you’re greeted with a sense of scale. There are hundreds of people around you, each with their own story that brought them to the desert.
Some from California, some from the literal other side of the planet. Each and every one of you is walking toward the iconic (and maybe now infamous) Ferris Wheel that looms over the entire festival grounds.
The merch tent isn’t a tent. It’s full blown a building. The art installations are a few stories tall. There are stages ranging from the size of your iconic local music venue to the size of football fields.
There’s a sense that the world is watching, and that’s because well, they are. Every show is live-streamed, artists bring out special guest appearances like clockwork, new music makes an appearance at many sets, some artists use this stage as a return to touring. There’s a distinct “Go big or go home mentality” with every performance. No one phones it in.
This year’s line up may not have had the star power at the top of the bill like last year and let’s be real here, it’s tough to top a lineup with a show people are still talking about frequently a year later. But, even with this little perceived ding on the 2019 iteration, the line up again delivered so many memorable performances that it’s impossible to feature them all without writing a novella. So, let me write the abridged version.
Day One: Our First Taste
Tomasa Del Real was one of the first sets we were able to attend. There, we saw an artist that was at the forefront of a relatively new genre of Reggaeton known as “neoperreo.” It’s a sort of underground form of Reggaeton that is defined by it’s raucous and vulgar lyrics.
The show was something else. Two strippers were strutting their stuff, while Tomasa Del Real’s rapped over reggaeton beats. It was quite an introduction to what we had coming for the rest of the weekend.
Afterward, we ventured over to the massive Sahara stage where we saw Jauz. Known as a rising star in the EDM world, he delivered hard-hitting set, and debuted his much anticipated Baby Shark Remix. and meme-ing his way into viral stardom mixing the end of Baby Shark into the iconic Sandstorm track.
When we asked in the interview how he came up with the transition idea, he responded with “I asked himself, What were the two cheesiest things I could mix together?”
Next, on to Jaden Smith’s set, which featured him rapping on a Tesla X, and Willow Smith suspended in the air by wires. Jaden came out guns blazing with fast rhymes over hard trap beats while Willow was his personal hype-woman for most of the set.
It eventually became a generational family affair with Will Smith making a surprise appearance during the set.
And later, Anderson .Paak delivered a set oozing with musical talent that showed why he is one of the more unique talents in hip-hop.
Childish Gambino showed his incredible range of talent in his headlining set. It was a full-blown performance that transcended a typical musical set. I really emphasize the word “performance.”
There were monologues, surprisingly skilled dancing, Donald Glover’s awkward brand of comedy, incredible singing, and rapping pulled together with grand production.
In some cases, the crowd didn’t know how to react to a lot of it, as there were times where the music took a backseat.
However, it still remains one of my favorite sets of the weekend for its sheer uniqueness and range of emotions displayed. Childish Gambino has come a long way from being a name generated on a fake Wu-Tang name generator.
Day 2: A Sample of The Influencer Life
We started off with an experience in a different stratosphere of Coachella that not many are able to experience: the lavish off-premises parties attended by influencers. We took a lyft to an estate off the grounds where Adidas and Soulection were holding a brunch.
It was immediately clear this was a party designed to be seen at. Rolls-Royces dotted the entrance of the building, an infinity pool dominated the grounds with a beach built into it, and everything was designed to be luxurious.
Awaiting were complimentary manicures, massages and even IVs for dehydrated guests, along with Source Naturals giftbags that included vitamins, melatonin and CBD oil.
Next, the impressive avocado toast bar. I sensed that was an event that I was not meant for, and while it was something incredibly surreal to be a part of, I could see where Coachella can get a reputation of snootiness.
Though, I can assure anyone reading this, that 99.9% of the festival is nothing like this. Coachella, at its core, remains a festival that is for the public and designed for the public.
Day 2: Internet Nightmares & Viral Pop Stars
Other highlights we were able to catch of Day 2 include Weezer, everyone’s favorite radio rock band. It was a sing-along for a majority of their set.
People forget how many of Weezer’s songs became singalong anthems either through the radio, Rock Band or some other method. It was a non-stop compilation of their greatest hits. I found myself knowing nearly every song in and out, for better or worse.
We had to make a stop to check out Aphex Twin, an electronic artist that is known as one of the pioneers of the techno movement in the late 90s and early 2000s. This was his first performance at Coachella since 2008. His music is defined by its idiosyncrasies and eclectic nature, and it showed during the set.
The visuals were something out of 90s Internet nightmare. Video of the crowd was meshed on pulsing 3D objects on the screen, and Richard D James’ face (Aphex Twin) was later digitally attached to a cheerleader’s body on screen. It was the unsettling Aphex Twin that fans have grown to love.
Billie Eilish was due to play the Outdoor stage next. If you’ve been following the Coachella storylines, sound issues, unfortunately, marred her set during week one, leaving week two to be a sort of redemptive act for her.
What followed was a crowd of superfans. We weren’t able to get even remotely close to the stage as the Outdoor Stage (the 3rd largest stage) was drawing a crowd more appropriate for the main stage.
Fans were parroting back every single lyric back to Billie, line by line, and it got to a point where the crowd was competing with Billie herself. The hype for her work was real, and she delivered to an overflowing crowd of superfans.
So super, that we actually struggled to get back to the media area because fans were trying to barge their way in to get a chance at backstage access with Billie. It was bonkers.
Tame Impala was relatively calm in comparison to the performance of Billie Eilish. Fans were treated to a psychedelic light show that shot laser beams across the entire festival grounds.
At one point, lasers emerged from Kevin Parker’s eyes adding to the already psychedelic nature of the show.
Day 3: The Long Awaited Sunday Service
Sunday started with one of the most unique and hyped events in recent music memory: Kanye West’s Sunday Service. Sunday Service began as a private weekly event that Kanye put on near his estate in Calabasas, CA.
The Coachella iteration was the first public display of the anticipated event, and it had, in my opinion, all the hallmarks of a Kanye event.
It started with a head-scratching 48 minutes of jazz combo and organ at the 9:00 am that only served to confuse and build anticipation in the crowd.
Then came the choir renditions of some of Kanye’s most popular hits such as “POWER” and “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1.” Chance the Rapper and Teyana Taylor made vocal appearances. While DMX delivered a heartfelt prayer that brought Kanye to tears.
The event took place on a man-made hill built entirely for the Sunday Service event and was frequently encircled by the choir throughout the event.
Celebrities and dancers dotted the “mountain” behind the event, and the Kardashian Clan was in attendance. It was indeed a sight to behold and a spectacle in the grandest sense, but as a musical event, it was confusing at times.
It hit the mark a few times with the some of the fantastic choir renditions of Kanye’s music. DMX’s prayer came from the heart, and Kanye’s performance of “Jesus Walks” while circling the slopes of the hill was a moving experience.
However, a lot of the time I was left scratching my head wondering what exactly was going on. There were 10-minute chunks where the crowd around us was utterly confused. However, at the same time, I was not in the least bit surprised as this was a Kanye West event.
Overall, it was a fascinating look into the mind of Kanye West, but like any venture into Kanye’s line of thinking, you’re probably going to be left bewildered with what exactly you just witnessed. Also, a quick note, like a lot of the media, I was not a fan of $200 sweatshirts being sold at a so-called “religious” event.
Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.
Day 3: Unique Contrasts
Day 3 featured a litany of excellent and fascinating performances. Lizzo showed why she has skyrocketed up the top of charts with her blowout show at the Mojave tent. The venue was most definitely booked before her ascendance up the charts in the last 6 months.
The tent was absolutely overflowing with fans and featured what everyone has grown to love about Lizzo: her unapologetic personality, her unique dance crew that features people without model-like bodies (including the addition of the big boy dancer) and, of course, a little flute action. This time Lizzo signed off with a middle finger to all those who doubted her and a big “suck my diiiiiiiiick.”
Gessafelstien, known as the prince of darkness, performed his first set since “retiring from touring” at Coachella three years prior. He was backed by a stage painted with Vantablack, a substance that absorbs 99.9% of light.
It was so dark that it played tricks on your eyes. It’s hard for your brain to register a beam of light that just stops when it hits an object.
Sofi Tukker, also played to an overflowing crowd at the Mojave tent, playing a set defined by energy. Sophie and Tucker spent a significant portion of their set jumping, crowd surfing and hyping of a crowd that was there to dance to their jungle-pop beats.
It’s always a treat to cover their sets, and I highly recommend it. They’re an example of what it looks like to genuinely have fun on stage.
Ariana Grande was the final headliner of the festival and by far the biggest name on the bill. It was reported she raked in a cool $4 million for a single performance at the fest, tying her with Beyoncé’s payday from the previous year.
Her set featured her impressive vocal range and showed all the hallmarks of pop show: the dance crews, sensual dancing, and intensely choreographed numbers. It was definitely impressive, that’s for sure, but not my cup of tea (and apparently not another audience member’s either, as someone threw a lemon at her.)
I started to close out the night was a quick trip to the Yuma tent which was very EDM centric. Cirez D, an Eric Prydz project was playing, and I got to witness my first light show that was so intense that I had to leave, and I’ve seen a lot of light shows.
I headed to Mojave to close out with KAYTRANADA, who brought out Anderson .Paak to end a marvelous set and weekend.
So, what were my thoughts on Coachella? Love it, or in some people’s case, hate it, it still stands in a category of its own. Every artist will give it their all, the scale of the festival is massive, the attendance of the festival is truly a global affair, and the festival is awash with influence and fame.
This scale will turn off a contingent of people who are looking for a festival that has less of a corporate presence, and that is more than ok.
Coachella can exist parallel to festival culture without changing other festivals to mirror it and, to a point it, has still maintained the integrity that has been lost in other big name festivals (cough KFC at the mainstage of Ultra)
I think way Coachella is covered does it dirty. People see it through the lens of Instagram influencers, corporate brands, and viral stories. This shrouds the fact that Coachella, at its heart, is still a music festival, just one that has grown into a global phenomenon.
With that always comes a loss of some aspects that made the festival great for some, but also, in the process, new avenues of enjoying a festival are opened up.
What Coachella has lost in its growth, it has gained in its ability to be a world stage. It’s the music festival that even the non-festival crowd know a thing or two about. There’s a certain energy when it comes to being part of something you know the whole world is also watching.
You get to see every in artist in attendance attempt to put their best foot forward. There’s something to be appreciated in a stage that allows them to do that. Love It or Hate it, Coachella is a festival in a league of its own.