Like we always do at this time! The day that Coachella unveils its poster is one of the great holidays in pop music. Even if you’ve never been to the festival, and even if you have no plans of ever going, it’s fascinating. This poster, more than any other, reveals the pop-music pecking order and spells out what might be facing us in the year ahead. It ruthlessly deposes the old order and presents some canny booker’s idea of what today’s money-spending kids might actually want to hear. It describes a caste system. It tells stories.
And since we’ve got nothing better to do today, let’s have a long, close look at the stories that this poster might tell.
1. Nobody is fucking with Beyoncé this year. Last year, Coachella hitched itself to a cultural phenomenon when it landed the Beyoncé show of a lifetime. I watched a janky, pirated after-the-fact stream of that Beyoncé performance, and I am now prepared to call it one of the 10 best movies I saw in 2018. That performance was a staggering achievement, a cultural icon at the peak of her powers making a definitive statement. Everything about it mattered. Coachella’s bookers had no chance of following that up with anything on the same level, and they knew it. This is good.
There are precious few performers — maybe Rihanna, maybe Drake, possibly even Taylor Swift — who have cultural footprints like what Beyoncé has. And they’re not the kind of performers who could’ve done anything on her level. They’re just not built like that. Coachella didn’t even try to book a contemporary of Beyoncé. (Who would that even be? Pink? Shakira?) Instead, they moved on to a whole new generation of headliners, all of whom barely existed when Beyoncé was at her pop peak.
2. We dodged a bullet. A few months ago, word circulated that Coachella had already picked its slate of 2019 headliners: Childish Gambino, Kanye West, and Justin Timberlake. It’s sad to think about that: Two aging titans trying to get their relevance up after disastrous 2018s, doing whatever they could to hang with young Lando Calrissian. But it’s not happening. Thank fucking god.
Hours before Coachella released its poster, word got out that Kanye West wouldn’t be playing the festival. The story, leaked to TMZ, is that West found the Coachella stage to be too limiting. Maybe he wanted to perform on a hovering spaceship or some shit. I’m not buying it. After what Beyoncé did last year, it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that the Coachella stage isn’t big enough for a grand statement. My guess is that West’s camp put that story out, preempting any talk about how Coachella’s organizers didn’t want Kanye West going out onstage in a fucking MAGA hat, something that he’s tweeted that he will absolutely do from now on. Coachella’s parent company is owned by Philip Anschutz, an ancient Republican billionaire vampire who donates money to all sorts of nefarious causes, but they don’t want to remind you of that.
Meanwhile, Timberlake recently postponed a tour because of bruised vocal chords. When he rescheduled, those new dates conflicted with Coachella’s radius clause — the contract stipulation that says you can’t play within however many miles of Indio within however many days of the festival. Again, I’m not buying it. Seems to me like Timberlake could’ve figured out a way to rework that tour. My gut feeling, based on nothing, is that Coachella’s organizers figured out that nobody wanted to end their fucking weekend with Man In The Woods deep cuts. So instead, we’re looking at a generational shift. Again, a good thing.
3. Everything is different now. Last year, the big story about the Coachella poster was that there weren’t any bands on it. For the first time, none of the three headliners were rock bands. They were, however, long-established stars — two late-’90s figures, one singer who had already basically headlined the festival once. This time around, there is one rock band, but none of the headliners were working in the ’90s. All of them only barely had musical careers in the ’00s. They are right-now phenomena.
By that same token, there are precious few legacy acts on the bill. No iconic rock bands are coming back together. The closest thing to a reunion is Aphex Twin, playing his third proper American live show in the past decade, but that can’t be a reunion because it’s one guy. Weezer are there, but they’re only on the bill because of “Africa,” and everybody knows it. (At this point, Weezer are working “Africa” as hard as Toto ever did.) And who else on the bill even counts as a legacy act? Pusha-T? Gesaffelstein? Fucking Diplo? Time is a merciless force. Sorry, aging indie rock bands. Coachella is done with you.
4. Ariana Grande, finally. I have been watching these Coachella posters closely for a very long time, but my actual experience with the festival is limited. I went once, four years ago. It was pretty fun. So please understand that my evidence here is entirely anecdotal, based on gut feeling and nothing else. But Coachella should’ve booked Ariana Grande to headline years ago. (She guested with Kygo last year, but that’s not the same thing.)
In 2015, wandering around by myself like a creepy loner psycho, I talked to kids who were excited at the idea that Ariana Grande might show up during the Weeknd’s set. Like, that was why they were watching the Weeknd. The kids of Coachella nation, at least from what I could see, loved Ariana Grande then, long before she reached cultural-icon status in the past year or so. At this point, she’s one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’s got a deep catalog and a billion-dollar voice. She’s got hits for days, and she’s got a story that has swept up all of us, anyone remotely interested in watching the wheels of pop culture turn. She’s not going to be able to do anything like what Beyoncé did, or like what Kendrick Lamar did two years ago. But her set will be an event. And it’s great to see Coachella booking her, rather than some dude who had hits in 2001 or whatever. She’ll be the fest’s youngest-ever headliner.
5. Childish Gambino is the one big question mark. The only artist on the bill who has the ambition and the reach to make a Beyoncé-level statement is Donald Glover. I just don’t know if he he has the talent. Glover is the man behind Atlanta, a towering artistic achievement and the best TV show currently going. He also made the “This Is America” video, a watershed for the form. He knows the value of a big stage, of doing something unexpected when the eyes of the world are on him. But he still hasn’t made a single song that I love. Maybe I’m the outlier there. Maybe he has something tremendous in him. We’ll see.
6. Tame Impala level the fuck up. Other than maybe Vampire Weekend, Tame Impala are the one currently-relevant rock band who make sense as Coachella headliners. (Radiohead are just an occasionally-active group of film-score composers, right? We’re agreed on this?) Tame Impala are an old-school rock band in a lot of ways — riffs, hair, hooks, trippy light shows. They are also doing everything they can to reinvent the form, drawing on disco and synthpop and rap and R&B and Spotify-core in organic and mostly non-corny ways. They’ve been playing festivals for pretty much their entire existence, and they are hugely important and popular. Last year, I saw them headline Pitchfork. They hadn’t released any new music in years, and their reception was rapturous all the same.
But Pitchfork is what? A tenth the size of Coachella? This year’s other two headliners have had #1 Billboard hits within the past year. Tame Impala have never charted in the Hot 100. They might be the smallest band ever to headline Coachella, at least since the years when someone like Björk could topline the thing. (Maybe they’re bigger than Phoenix? They’re probably bigger than Phoenix.)
My guess is that Tame Impala were not supposed to headline this thing — that they were last-minute replacements when things fell apart with Kanye West and/or Justin Timberlake. But their spot on the bill still represents an enormous leap of faith from Coachella’s bookers. On Instagram, posting the Coachella lineup, Tame Impala promised “new sounds” this year. So maybe they’re finally ready to release an album. Maybe the Coachella people have heard that album, and maybe they have confidence that it’s going to be huge. Or maybe Tame Impala are planning some big moment, like a Rihanna duet. Maybe both.
Kevin Parker, despite his general foxiness, has never exactly been a charismatic dynamo onstage. But right now, he has the chance to step up and become something. Even if Tame Impala weren’t supposed to headline, they could have their Pulp-at-Glastonbury-’95 moment. I’m pulling for them.
7. The rest of the world arrives. A quick aside: My first music festival was Peter Gabriel’s 1994 joint WOMAD. Gabriel’s whole thing at the time was the nebulous concept of world music. The idea was that Gabriel would introduce us to the sounds being made around the world. So he played, and so did then-popular groups like Midnight Oil and Arrested Development and an on-the-verge-of-blowing-up Live. (Shut up. Stop laughing. Respect your elders.) But they’d share the stage with, like, a folk group from Turkmenistan, or some Chinese flute players. It was fun and interesting, but it was also self-congratulatory in that distinctly Clinton-era way. (Fruitopia might’ve been a sponsor? I definitely remember drinking Fruitopia there.) And it’s not like the kids in the crowd were losing their shit for the Chinese flute players.
All of this is a roundabout way to say that it is hugely gratifying to see global music thriving in America long after the idea of “world music” has died. In a streaming universe, kids are listening to music that’s in different languages, that draws on different traditions, and we’re finally seeing that reflected in a festival lineup.
When the Coachella lineup came out last night, the Twitter conversation — or at least the Twitter conversation that wasn’t made up of old rock fans (or old Kanye fans) throwing up their hands and yelling “ugh” — came from people who were excited to see BLACKPINK on the lineup. BLACKPINK are a K-pop girl group who have only been active since 2016. They are globally massive in a way that would spin your head around, and they are also very good at what they do. They’re high on the Coachella poster — second line, that Bassnectar spot — but they’re arguably not high enough. They could fuck around and steal the entire festival. I could even see a future where things get shuffled around and BLACKPINK close out the main stage on Saturday night.
But BLACKPINK are not the only sign of things changing. J Balvin and Bad Bunny, two enormous Spanish-language stars who were both on a #1 single last year, are both billed high, and I’m expecting those sets to be colossal draws. Rosalía, the flamenco star who made one of last year’s best albums, is one of the main reasons why I’m contemplating getting on a plane this year. And there is so much great Latin music on the bill, much of it high up on the poster: Mexican norteño veterans Los Tucanes De Tijuana, Chilean alt-rock balladeer Mon Laferte, Chilean reggaeton innovator Tomasa Del Real, Chilean electro-popper Javiera Mena, Costa Rican garage rockers Las Robertas, Coachella Valley Latin fusion types Ocho Ojos. Coachella has been in Southern California for almost two decades, but now it finally has a lineup that looks something like Southern California. These aren’t token inclusions. They’re something bigger than that. (And maybe Los Tucanes are the real legacy act on the bill.)
And that’s still only part of the story. The Japanese girl group Perfume is on the bill, albeit arguably way too low. Nigerian Afro-pop star Burna Boy is there, too, and he’s already pissed off about his own placement: “I am an African giant and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means.” Mr. Eazi, a more traditional Nigerian singer, is also on the bill. Seventy-eight-year-old Trinidadian legend Calypso Rose will be there. So will the smoothed-out Korean rock band Hyukoh. Even relatively familiar names like Charlotte Gainsbourg might belong in this conversation. It’s pretty exciting! The days when you could see an unfamiliar small-font name and assume that it’s some wack EDM shit are basically over. (There is still plenty of wack EDM shit on that lineup, though. Coachella is still Coachella.)
8. The obvious stuff is still there. Congratulations to the 1975, probably the most Coachella band alive. They are playing Coachella. So are Solange, Janelle Monaé, Kid Cudi, Anderson .Paak, Blood Orange, Pusha-T, and Kaytranada. They have all played Coachella before, they are all great, and they will presumably be great in the ways that you might expect. (As I type this list out, it occurs to me that all of them, the 1975 excepted, are people of color working in non-rock genres. Good! The face of festival-core should change.) Kacey Musgraves, who made last year’s best album, will sing songs from that album, hopefully while the sun is setting. (Musgraves is not on the bill at Stagecoach, the big country festival that blows into town right after Coachella, which says a lot about the utterly fucked country-music power structure.) Even Weezer will probably play “El Scorcho,” you know?
9. Certain people are bigger than you thought. Bugged-out Gen-Z brat-pop threat Billie Eilish is 17. To her, this year’s headliners are legacy acts. She’s in the second line, and she’s probably going to draw a hell of a crowd. Inoffensive kinda-R&B pop hope Khalid, an Eilish collaborator, has somehow ascended to second-from-headliner status. Four Tet is a legend, and we knew that, but we did not know that he’s apparently a bigger name than Maggie Rogers or Sheck Wes. Psych-rock flame-defenders Ty Segall & White Fence aren’t super-high on the bill, but they’re higher than you might’ve thought. Unknown Mortal Orchestra are right between Pusha-T and Kaytranada. Circa-’09 blog-rock vets Beach Fossils are bigger than right-now critical favorites like Yves Tumor or JPEGMAFIA. Texan instrumental funkateers Khruangbin play great background music for when you’re trying to get some work done, and they’ll do that for a potentially huge crowd in April. Congrats to all these people!
10. Certain people are smaller than you thought. Five years ago, Wiz Khalifa might’ve been considered a potential Coachella headliner. These days, he’s way down in the third line. Maggie Rogers carries the hopes of certain corners of the music industry on her shoulders, but she’s stuck in third-line purgatory, too. Chvrches are pretty high up, but might’ve been in line for that coveted second-from-headliner spot if they hadn’t bricked their last album so hard. Burna Boy is an African giant and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means. Condolences to all these people!
11. Certain people just got fucked. Upon first perusal of the poster, the name Gucci Gang jumped out. Was this a new supergroup? A new Lil Pump alias? No. By all indications, it’s just Gucci Mane (another I-guess-legacy artist), and the poster designers couldn’t be bothered to get his name right. Oof.
UPDATE: Looks like “Gucci Gang” wasn’t a mistake after all! A representative for Coachella has confirmed that there was no typo, and the Gucci Gang artist page on the festival’s website now includes photos and links to the social media profiles of Gucci Mane, Lil Pump, and Smokepurpp. Odds are it’s a supergroup collaboration featuring all three rappers.
12. Certain people are built for this. Coachella should’ve booked Southern California rap hero YG every year for about the past decade. They never did. But he’s there now, and he will absolutely rip that motherfucker up. Solange is one of the greatest music-festival performers in the world. Rosalía could be incredible. Any version of Turnstile’s all-out-war live show, even the inevitably watered-down Coachella version, is something you need in your life. And some of the rappers on the bill are practically guaranteed to give wild, anarchic, potential-weekend-highlight shows: Sheck Wes, Playboi Carti, SOB x RBE, Rico Nasty, JPEGMAFIA. If you go to the festival and miss any of those sets, you fucked up.
13. Certain people might not be built for this. Indie rock, especially tangled and discordant indie rock, can have a tough time at Coachella. There are few things more depressing than seeing a great band playing to a nonexistent crowd in a cavernous and almost-entirely-empty tent. I want the best for Soccer Mommy, who has the instincts and toughness to do something strong in a situation like that, but it won’t be easy for her. It won’t be easy for Hop Along or Superorganism or Iceage, either. And god bless Coachella for continuing to book any and all Fugazi-affiliated things, but I am having trouble imagining how the Messthetics’ instrumental angularity will go over in the desert.
14. Certain people have albums coming out. Tame Impala have already all but confirmed that there’s a record on the way, and their placement on the lineup makes it that much more concrete. Hopefully, we’ll all be internalizing a new Solange record by then, too. Maybe the second Gesaffelstein album will emerge. Maybe Kid Cudi will make a solo album. Maybe the 070 Shake revolution will begin.
15. Certain people are not there. It’s almost a shame that Cardi B played last year, even though that was a big moment for her. Coachella almost never books artists back-to-back, so she’s off. (I bet she shows up anyway.) Travis Scott, on the other hand, is almost a shocking omission. Lana Del Rey, Vampire Weekend, and James Blake all would make sense on the bill, and if Tame Impala can headline, then you’d think any of them could, too. Also, I wish Valee was there.
16. Certain people… who knows? Way-out motherfuckers like SOPHIE, Yves Tumor, and serpentwithfeet could be transcendent, or they could clear their tents out. They could do both!
17. Kanye West will probably be there after all. Kanye might not be on the bill, but close associates Kid Cudi, Pusha-T, 070 Shake, and I guess Virgil Abloh all are. So did they all get booked on their own merits? Did they get booked as part of a package with Kanye? Will Kanye pop up onstage with any of them? And if he does, will he be wearing the hat? He’ll probably be wearing the hat, won’t he? Fuck.
18. The ska revival is real. The hopes and prayers of many quasi-embarrassed ’90s kids, kids who once wore newsboy caps and skinny ties to school, go with the Interrupters. Validate our adolescences, Interrupters! (Between the Interrupters and RAT BOY, a British kid who might be the missing link between ’90s mall-punk and SoundCloud rap, I am going to be on the lookout for appearances from Rancid frontman and Hellcat label boss Tim Armstrong the same way some people are probably going to be looking out for Kanye West appearances.)
19. Idris Elba! I don’t even care what kind of music he plays. Everything about the idea of watching Stringer Bell DJ at Coachella is just delightful. I hope he wears the Heimdall helmet.
20. I don’t know, man. This whole thing looks pretty good. I might go. Fuck it.