There’s this dumb thing I do every year: Coachella unveils its poster, and I write a way-too-long thing about all the little narratives hidden in that lineup, and in the way the poster lays that lineup out. It’s not something you should take too seriously, but I love the way this festival — the biggest of them all in America — gets cold-blooded and mercenary with its font-size discrepancies and its lineup placements. Every year, that poster shows us an of-the-moment music-business pecking order, or at least the music-business pecking order as it’s perceived by the extraordinarily successful festival bookers at Goldenvoice.
Coachella’s lineup also gives us a pretty good idea of what we’re going to see during the entirety of the American 2020 festival season, since most American music festivals are now slight, off-brand versions of Coachella. This year, a bunch of those festival have already unveiled lineups. But Coachella remains the big dog, the ruler by which all others are measured. Nobody cares about the font sizes in the Shaky Knees or Hangout posters. Coachella still matters.
This year’s lineup is out now. So let’s get into this year’s stories.
1. We need to talk about Rage Against The Machine. Rage Against The Machine are fucking awesome. They are one of the greatest rock bands of their era, and their music feels even more raw and urgent with every passing year. They can move crowds like few others. They have anthems for days. Tom Morello might’ve long ago revealed himself to be a grandstanding cheeseball, some unholy fusion of Henry Rollins and Joe Satriani, but that man has riffs. Zack De La Rocha, meanwhile, is the realest of the real ones, and he doesn’t do shit when he doesn’t feel like it. He might not do shit even when he does feel like it, most of the time. De La Rocha seems to have an uneasy relationship with his own fame, and that makes it all the sweeter on the rare occasions when he reemerges.
The news of the Rage reunion came out weeks ago, and my immediate reaction was to book myself a plane ticket to the California desert immediately. But let’s talk about this one. Because there’s something weird about this one.
Rage Against The Machine have already headlined Coachella twice. They’ve already headlined the festival once in reunited form. Can they just keep doing this? Doesn’t it feel like a slightly lazy booking? Or at least an unimaginative one? Could Rage just end up playing the exact same setlist as they did at the 2007 festival? (I don’t even want to think about whether there will be new Rage songs. We’re not ready for that. We haven’t earned it.) Right now, it seems like it would be a whole lot cooler to see Rage at one of their own reunion shows, in El Paso or Phoenix or wherever, than at Coachella. Just saying.
There are some fun little subplots to the Rage booking, though. For one thing, they’re playing on the same night as De La Rocha collaborators Run The Jewels. Presumably, RTJ will play the mainstage just before Rage, making for a thundering block of righteously upset mosh mayhem. That’s great! Bring it!
Also, we can probably now all acknowledge that Prophets Of Rage, the RATM tribute that paired all the non-Zack Rage members with Chuck D and B-Real, was a terrible idea — one even more misbegotten than fellow post-Rage project Audioslave. So I’m interested to see that Public Enemy/Prophets Of Rage member DJ Lord is on the bill, way down in the tiny fonts of the Saturday lineup. Maybe that means we’ll get a no-hard-feelings Chuck D appearance.
2. We need to talk about Frank Ocean and Lana Del Rey. Frank Ocean and Lana Del Rey both emerged around the same time. They have both had pop-chart flirtations, and they have both built themselves up as great singer-songwriters. They both interact with the music of their great ’70s forebears while coming across as extremely right-now. They both empathetically and eloquently capture a certain languid, apocalyptic Californian jet-set ennui. They both have stage names that have something to do with the sea. They are both great. They both have histories of being awkward and boring live. And they are both playing on Sunday night. But one is headlining, and the other is not.
Frank Ocean is headlining. Unless he adds some more shows, it will be Ocean’s first proper set in nearly three years. His album Blonde will be nearly four years old by then. He has spent the intervening time releasing one-off singles, throwing vaguely controversial dance nights, and giving occasional elusive interviews where he mostly talks about, like, some fancy vest.
Lana Del Rey, meanwhile, has been playing tons of shows, developing her live presence, and releasing increasingly excellent music, including the single best album of 2019. Del Rey clearly cares about Californian iconography in general and Coachella in particular. She put out a (great) song with the actual title “Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind.” (Frank Ocean has sung about Coachella, too, but he didn’t name a song after it.) Del Rey clearly wants it! She should headline!
Now: It seems very likely that Frank Ocean will have new music out sometime this year. Maybe he’ll even have that club-ready album that people have been speculating about for years. Maybe he’s got bangers. Maybe he’s got a new-decade Pet Shop Boys album in the works. And maybe he’s been developing a live show to match. I hope so! That would rule!
But as it now stands, Lana Del Rey — who is now a seasoned performer and who clearly cares about creating live-show moments that would come off really cool at Coachella — is on the bill underneath Frank Ocean, who seems likely to turn his set into some kind of self-mythologizing art project. (This is, after all, what he was doing the last time festivals brought him in to headline.) This, to me, is dumb. For one thing, it means we’re getting another year of all-male Coachella headliners. They’re still doing that! They should stop doing that! For another, Lana Del Rey is better than Frank Ocean. Search your heart. You know it to be true.
3. We don’t really need to talk about Travis Scott. The Travis Scott phenomenon truly is baffling. Here’s this guy who makes competently moody rap music that works well in late-night-driving settings — lots of low hums, lots of echoey hooks, a pretty good graphic-design sensibility. And somehow, he has become a massive and transcendent star. It’s weird, but it’s an inescapable fact of life now.
Scott obviously has smashes. (From what I have been led to understand, “Sicko Mode” has now become a strip-club perennial on the level of “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”) He has many big-name collaborators who could put in guest appearances. He has a history with Coachella; he headlined the other big stage there just two years ago. They had to get him. It makes too much sense. This decision seems terribly rote and unspecial, but better Travis Scott than Post Malone, you know?
4. We knew rock was dead, but we didn’t know it was this dead. Rage Against The Machine excepted, this Coachella lineup, even more than the past few, is almost totally bereft of big guitar sounds. That shit just does not matter. It appears that Goldenvoice — which started out booking punk shows — has even done away with the traditional Bad Religion/Rancid old-Cali-punks afternoon-main-stage slot. God bless reliable party-starters King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, keeping the fuzz pedal alive in the slightly-bigger-font-size lines.
5. Electronic dance music isn’t looking too healthy, either. Pity poor Calvin Harris — once a headliner, now relegated to a subheadliner status that now seems almost like a pity inclusion. There’s still a ton of dance music on the lineup, but the days when a DJ could command a headliner spot are evidently over. Fine! (Flume, however, remain a whole lot more popular than I realized. I am always underestimating Flume.)
6. The music internet is not real life. Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX are both big names with crossover hits, classic albums, and huge critical profiles. Both are taken very seriously in these parts. But both Carly and Charli are on the Coachella lineup way below Marina, who has very little critical profile but who is evidently a huge deal even without the Diamonds. (Where did the Diamonds go?) The lesson, as ever, is that you should not listen to music critics. We don’t know shit about shit.
7. A whole lot of music seems to be a whole lot bigger than anyone realized. In keeping with that theme, we return to a constant refrain: Coachella’s bigger font-size rows are full of people with names that I only barely recognize, if at all. This is nothing new. For months now, I have dreaded the day when I would have to learn who or what Rex Orange County is. That day has come. (Upon investigation, Rex Orange County turns out to be exactly what I would’ve expected, which is to say “Brockhampton but with no rapping.” I don’t care for it one bit.)
Rex Orange County is not alone. The up-top rows are full of similar mysteries. Louis The Child? Lane 8? GRiZ? Tchami? SLANDER? These are all people who exist! And they’re apparently all quite popular! (They’re all DJs, naturally. Also, Google tells me that Testpilot is simply Deadmau5 but without the mouse head, which raises the important question of what the point of Deadmau5 even is if he doesn’t have the mouse head.)
8. A whole lot of people seem to be missing. I know what I said about rock music being dead, but there are plenty of rock bands who could’ve conceivably played at Coachella and done quite well for themselves. Vampire Weekend, for instance, have played virtually every festival on the face of the planet at least three times, but they still feel like a pretty big deal. Kids in the desert could probably still get up for “Harmony Hall,” you know? Also: Big Thief! Tangly indie rock has a tough time in those tents, but if anyone could make it work, it should be them. They should be on the bill. They are not. Not a rocker, but: Robyn could’ve wrecked. She will be absent.
Certain other people may or may not have albums out in 2020, but they are nowhere to be found. Kendrick Lamar, for instance, will not get the chance to give some grand rollout on the Coachella mainstage. Grimes and Moses Sumney both have albums arriving imminently. They’re not here. Phoebe Bridgers, Haim, and Perfume Genius could all conceivably play new songs out there. They will not. Cardi B won’t be there, either. Coachella has a longstanding aversion to booking people in back-to-back years, but they might want to rethink that in the year ahead. Billie Eilish and Bad Bunny, for instance, would’ve made a whole lot of sense on this year’s bill. (If both keep progressing the way they’ve been going, on the other hand, maybe this just clears things out for them to headline in 2021.)
Franz Ferdinand was trending on Twitter last night. For about a hot second, I thought that meant Franz were playing Coachella and that people were happy and surprised to see them. Nope! Turns out it was because this historical moment looks perilously similar to the beginning of World War I. That sucks! It sucks because I don’t want to see America going into another endless, pointless military boondoggle that will kill millions of innocent people. It also sucks because Franz Ferdinand would be really good at Coachella. If you’ve seen them live in the past few years, you know that they are still ferociously tight and entertaining. And we’re probably ready for the moment where a band from that era gets nostalgia-booked at big festivals like this one. That’s got to be why Hot Chip is here, right?
Honestly, you know who should really be on this bill? Chief Keef. I understand if Goldenvoice doesn’t want to go all the way Rolling Loud with it. But they’ve done stuff like this before, booking someone like Lil B, a fundamentally underground rapper who inspired a whole mini-generation of followers. Sosa has absolutely done that. And the “Faneto” drop would have the potential to be the biggest, wildest moment of the entire weekend. (Instead, that young underground rap inspiration spot might’ve gone to the more respectable, less popular Denzel Curry.)
Also, if Fiona Apple were on the bill, I would’ve already made travel arrangements.
7. BIGBANG! The coolest thing about this year’s lineup might be the inclusion of K-pop overlords BIGBANG. You could make the argument that the group is the most important boy band of the last decade, though One Direction might have something to say about that. (Calling it now: The reunited One Direction will headline Coachella 2027, and it will be lit. We will dance all night to the best song ever.) Coachella got BLACKPINK to play last year, and this one is a bigger, cooler deal than that.
BIGBANG made a lot of extremely catchy music and a lot of wild, vivid music videos during the mid-’00s. Then they went on hiatus so that the members of the group could serve their compulsory South Korean military service. They’ve finished that, and now they’re back. K-pop moves fast, so it could be tough for a group even as big as BIGBANG to come back. But leader G-Dragon is a maximal pop futurist of the highest order, and he knows the power of a big stage.
8. A lineup from all over the literal map. Coachella probably doesn’t get enough credit for booking acts from around the planet, and the diversity of this bill is a real boon. BIGBANG is the most immediately striking part of that, but it goes way deeper. This year’s bill has ascendant dancehall (Koffee), Mexican banda (Banda MS), Russian Gypsy rock (Ленинград), psychedelic London jazz (the Comet Is Coming), revivalist Afrobeat (Seun Kuti & Egypt 80), and wildly conceptual J-pop (Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and actual fictional anime character Hatsune Miku). That’s very cool! I wonder how they’ll all do!
I feel like there should be more urbano, but they did book both Bad Bunny and J Balvin last year. There should probably be more Afrobeats, too. But Coachella did well by nabbing Summer Walker and Ari Lennox, R&B cult heroes who are now surging and who never get enough looks from shows like this. This is smart, adventurous booking, and it really serves to beef up the lineup.
9. A lineup that’s very weak in a few certain places. Guitar music doesn’t have to be done. There is exciting stuff happening out there. The Coachella lineup came out when I was at a hardcore show in a Richmond warehouse, so that is probably coloring my experience of the thing. (Integrity/Fuming Mouth/Wild Side/One Step Closer/Choice To Make. It ruled.) But I’m a little flummoxed as to how completely punk rock, in its various forms, has been sidelined here.
There are punk and punk-adjacent bands on this bill. IDLES and PUP, both of whom are having a moment, are playing, and they should be great. Code Orange, the one hardcore band here, will probably have a moment once they announce the record they’ve been teasing. Those bands should rip. (Mannequin Pussy and Viagra Boys, also punk-adjacent, might have a tougher time of it.)
But how do you miss on getting Knocked Loose? That should be a total layup. God knows I don’t want to turn into Ian Cohen talking about emo here. (Hi, Ian!) And I’m not asking them to get Jesus Piece to headline the Gobi Tent or whatever. But now that moshing has returned in full force, a little bit more of that stuff would make the bill a whole lot more exciting. And with the hardcore-derived Rage Against The Machine topping the bill — shout out to Zack De La Rocha’s old Revelation Records band Inside Out — it would fit pretty well, too. (Also, I am definitely asking them to book Jesus Piece to headline the Gobi Tent. That would slap.)
It’s pretty hilarious that they got Emo Nite, the DJs who play old emo music, without getting any actual emo music. If you’re going to book the Rage Against The Machine reunion, you might as well get the My Chemical Romance reunion, too, you know?
Also, Coachella had one of its best moments last year when Kacey Musgraves played. And yet there is basically no country on this year’s bill. (Orville Peck doesn’t count.) There’s a lot more good country music out there than Kacey Musgraves. Miranda Lambert is right there! Push the button!
10. Rappers rappers rappers. Rolling Loud has spent the past few years proving that you can jam many thousands of kids into stadiums with nothing but rap music. Coachella has always had a lot of success with rap, and they have stacked this year’s bill. That’s a good thing. Coachella rappers tend to be a bit more basic and crossovery than most of what ends up on something like Rolling Loud, and maybe it would be cool if they booked more YouTube insurgents like YoungBoy Never Broke Again. (They did finagle local hero Roddy Ricch, which was a good move.) But within that crossover-rap realm, there is a whole lot of good shit on this lineup.
DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Uzi Vert, City Girls, Denzel Curry, J.I.D, slowthai, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: These were all pretty obvious choices, but all of them should be great, and all of them are absolutely coming through at the right moment. You would not be smart to miss any of these sets. (Also, Noname is apparently not disappearing from music after all. That’s good. I like Noname.)
11. The Coachella-poster font size is a cruel and fickle mistress. Condolences to the aforementioned Calvin Harris and to Big Sean, Fatboy Slim, Charli XCX, Hot Chip, Carly Rae Jepsen, and DJ Koze, all of whom might’ve been much higher up on the bill in previous years.
It seems like hits are no guarantee of good placement, either. Lil Nas X made a big statement last year, eschewing Coachella to perform at the country-themed Stagecoach in the same space instead. He might be paying for it now, shunted way down into the tiny-font masses. Coachella seems to have no faith that he’ll find another horse to ride. Lewis Capaldi: Same thing. He was getting kinda used to being someone the bookers loved. Doja Cat seemed like she was on her way to being a big deal, but she’s way further down the bill than her fellow Dr. Luke collaborator Kim Petras.
Conversely, congrats to Jessie Reyez, Princess Nokia, Chicano Batman, Yaeji, Omar Apollo, Peggy Gou, and Mura Masa, all of whom are getting bigger looks than we might’ve expected.
12. Some of these people are going to kill it. I don’t know what FKA twigs can possibly do to keep upping the stakes of previous high-visibility performances, but I’ve wondered that before, and she keeps doing it. I’m expecting something amazing from her. I’m also expecting big, vital things from Run The Jewels, Lil Uzi Vert, DaBaby, King Gizzard, Koffee, IDLES, Denzel Curry, J.I.D, slowthai, Orville Peck, and Code Orange. If you’re going to Coachella, you should make it a point to catch all of those sets. My friend Nick Sylvester is deeply involved in the careers of both Yaeji and Channel Tres, so I have no objectivity at all here. But those sets could be something special. Channel Tres, in particular, is one of the most fun live shows I’ve seen in the past year or so. He’s an incredible performer and a star in waiting. See that shit. Everyone I mentioned in this paragraph understands the value of showmanship. That goes a long way here.
13. Some of these people are just going out there to die. Certain kinds of music have a tough time when they’re echoing around vast, mostly-empty tents. It doesn’t make them bad. It just makes them bad for something like Coachella. I’m glad that people like Snail Mail, Weyes Blood, Nilüfer Yanya, (Sandy) Alex G, Floating Points, and Anna Calvi are getting Coachella paychecks, but they will struggle in this setting. 21 Savage, meanwhile, is a popular and important rap figure but a bad live performer, and I have no idea what he’s doing so far up the bill. Maybe he’ll have a whole lot of guests or something. Finally, Thom Yorke is Coachella royalty, but he just seems like he doesn’t belong on a bill like this one. He’s going to be out here looking like somebody’s mentally unwell grandfather. It’s… awkward.
14. Some of these people are going to have to put on. I don’t understand the 100 gecs thing. It seems stupid to me. But if 100 gecs are ever going to kill it, they are going to kill it at Coachella. By that same token, people like black midi and Fontaines DC will have to bring it hard to make an impression. I think they can! We’ll see!
15. Danny Elfman? In 2017, Coachella booked iconic film composer Hans Zimmer, a great and weird and hilarious choice. This year, they’re doing it again! With someone even better! (Arguably, with Thom Yorke on the bill, they’ve got two movie-score composers this time.) Danny Elfman has endless slaps, and he can always bust out an Oingo Boingo song or the Jack Skellington “to a guy in Kentucky, I’m Mr. Unlucky” joint whenever he feels like it. I love this. This feels special.
I want Coachella to keep going with this, to make an annual thing out of booking iconic film composers. I hope they have offers out to 87-year-old John Williams and 91-year-old Ennio Morricone. I hope they book Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross but not Nine Inch Nails. I hope they bust out the Bernard Herrmann hologram. Let’s get weird with it!
16. Lauren Daigle? Apparently, last year’s Kanye West gospel situation has opened Coachella up to contemporary Christian music. That’s so strange! I’m into it! They should book Newsboys or whoever!
17. This looks fine, I guess. I’m not going. I’m not really that inspired. I bet it’ll be fun, though. If you go, I hope you have a good time.