Coachella Isn’t Dead—but It May Be Haunted

It’s hard to tell when reality stops and when the hallucinations kick in. For instance, am I the victim of a malfunctioning imagination, or did Vampire Weekend just switch from covering a coal miner’s blues by the Grateful Dead to trotting out Paris Hilton for a friendly game of cornhole? With a campy Gunsmoke twang, the band’s lead singer, Ezra Koenig, introduces the 43-year-old ur-influencer as the “queen of Coachella” and tells us to “make some noise for The Simple Life.”

Sashaying before the perplexed Outdoor Theater audience, Hilton wears a black Stetson and skimpy bejeweled two-piece that make her look like a burlesque dancer at a VIP-only cantina inside Knott’s Berry Farm. After she asks whether it’s

OK to cheat at the game, I glance at my phone. It’s a quarter to 6 p.m. on Saturday night. #WorldWarIII is trending on Twitter.

After Hilton vanishes into the gold rush twilight, she’s swiftly replaced by an Abraham Lincoln impersonator who tosses his beanbag into the hole with rail-splitting precision. It raises a few questions. Does the lemonade that I’m sipping cost $16 because it came dosed with white lightning acid? Or is the assassinated 16th president merely sliving to the power of the soukous guitar? Is it like this in death’s other tragic kingdom? Or have I found myself in this valley of shooting stars, a Coachella wristband slipped a little too tightly around my wrist once again

For the past quarter century, America’s most prominent music festival has continually spun in a neon Ferris wheel of death, rebirth, and Diplo cameos. But over the past few months, speculation about Coachella has been shrouded with existential concern. For the second straight year, the festival—which began its 23rd edition last weekend with headlining sets from Lana Del Rey, Tyler, the Creator, and Doja Cat—failed to sell out. According to Billboard, only 80 percent of the 250,000 available tickets for both weekends were purchased as of April 12.

A variety of factors could explain the decline in interest: a lackluster lineup, limited disposable income due to inflation, a saturation of festivals, generational shifts, and the sustained reverberations of the post-pandemic concert market. But no matter the specifics, it’s a stark contrast with the years of peak Coachella in the middle of the last decade, when attending became enshrined as a millennial rite of passage and it routinely sold out in less than an hour—long before the lineup was even announced.

The death of Coachella makes for an alluring headline, but it’s a partially inaccurate description of our current purgatory. After all, it’s been a dozen years since Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg summoned a 2Pac hologram, its arms messianically outstretched, greeting the floral-crowned hordes with a booming “What the fuck is up, Coachella?!” In front of the still-corporeal survivors of Death Row, the shredded digital apparition performed “Hail Mary” to prove that we are no longer forced to choose between riding or dying. Within a year, the company that created the computer rendering filed for bankruptcy.

But Digital Domain’s crass vision of eternally monetizable reincarnation was prophetic. The problem was that it was just a little too early. A year ago, the AI revolution felt imminent. Now, we are fully submerged in a post-ChatGPT world where the ramifications wreak havoc across society. Uncanny strides in artificially inseminated music have allowed for programmers to conjure plaintive Delta blues laments about the despair caused by digital dislocation. Rappers can now credibly distance themselves from “leaked” diss songs by claiming that they’re just deepfakes. And Google searches are populated by “AI overview,” which directs users toward algorithmically derived jargon rather than articles written by actual humans.

Synthesized worlds and short-form scroll hypnosis have caused website traffic to plummet. The culture-centric publications that defined the last decade—Vice, Pitchfork, and Complex—have been ravaged by mass layoffs as the music media does yet another pivot toward oblivion. Where it was once possible to examine the Coachella poster and detect the hidden (and admittedly flawed) hand of online gatekeepers, most post-pandemic festival lineups reflect the low-hanging tyranny of the algorithm. TikTok virality, paid-off influencers, and the streaming playlist matrix have wholly supplanted idiosyncratic personal taste. If the new world struggles to be born, it’s a calculated corporate decision.

It’s much safer to rely on what is much safer: the rebooted commodities that stir up faint nostalgia for the “before times,” those willing to sacrifice subtlety for the sake of spectacle, the blandly pleasant over the radically eccentric, the camera-mediated experience over the misplaced treasures of memory, a ghost mall future of infinite, frictionless entertainment. Art is long, but life is brief. Bands dissolve, but a brand can live forever.

It’s a little after 6 p.m. on Saturday evening when that idea is set into motion on the main stage. The crowd watches an interview clip of Jakob Nowell, son of Bradley, the lead singer of the Long Beach surf-and-sandals fusionists Sublime.

“My dad never got to sing those songs in front of an audience that big,” Nowell says on the hundred-foot-wide jumbo screens. “He was only 28 [when he died], which is how old I am now. The timing really seems perfect. I’m trying as much as I possibly can to reinvigorate the brand.”

It’s not a hologram, but the resemblance between the Nowells is unmistakable: They have the same mop of sandy blond hair, cherubic grin, and keg-like chest. After a bout of opening nerves, the younger Nowell sounds about as close to his father as anyone can reasonably expect—equally competent as Rome Ramirez, the lead singer of Sublime With Rome, who carried on the band’s 4/20-friendly legacy for 15 years alongside the original bassist, Eric Wilson. Bud Gaugh, Sublime’s drummer, left the Romanized iteration after just 26 months because “it just felt wrong. Not playing the songs but playing them with the name Sublime, without Brad.”

But they’re all back now under the original banner, led by the legal heir. And while the band is polished and energetic, it’s hard not to feel unstuck from time. This liturgy of lawless adolescence now approximated before an anxious audience documenting the weekend for maximum appeal. Like the Doors, Sublime is a vibes proposition. To evangelize for either means believing in the lead singer’s singularity. Either you think that Jim Morrison and Bradley Nowell were faux-deep shitheads, or you buy into their holy dirtbag genius. And neither was remotely replaceable. Their line of inheritance was discontinued sometime after social media trapped us all in one big, exhausting, and self-conscious performance. You have two choices today: You can receive the shadow version or Dominic Fike (and he played Coachella last year).

On battleship-sized screens, Sublime waves the band’s pirate flag with its name in Old English script. They project VHS clips of Bradley and his dalmatian, Lou Dog—now dead for 23 years—rampaging around stages at sweatbox venues that are probably long defunct. The phrase “spend some time at Coachella” is interpolated into “Wrong Way,” a rollicking jam about sex trafficking that probably would get someone sent to The Hague if it were released in 2024. An airplane flies above my head trailed by a banner that reads “It’s Tequila Time.” It isn’t. Toward the end, they play “Date Rape” while another airplane flies a banner that just says “make good choices —mom.” I imagine that’s solid advice unless it adversely affects the brand.

This desire to recreate the near-distant past is nothing new. Some of the most indelible Coachella moments were products of big-payday reunions: Jane’s Addiction (2001) and the Pixies (2004), Rage Against the Machine (2007) and Outkast (2014). And this year, Sublime’s former tour mates, ska pop pioneers No Doubt, re-formed for what was advertised as a one-off gambit. It had been nearly a decade since Gwen Stefani’s old band last played together, but they remained in peak KROQ Weenie Roast form.

If you were seeking a greatest hits set from a one-time crossover sensation that commercially peaked during Clinton’s first term, you couldn’t ask for much more from No Doubt. It’s a welcome anachronism, an obsolete model never to be improved upon: a gifted regional rock band that refined its craft alongside spiritually aligned peers, playing hundreds of shows until a nascent major label (Interscope) plucked it from obscurity. Under the nurturing aegis of a mercurial but fanatically dedicated chief executive (Jimmy Iovine), No Doubt was given the time, space, and resources to turn its punky reggae party riffs into multiplatinum, six-CD-changer, breakup-to-makeup anthems. Songs that worked equally well if you were singing into a hairbrush in your bedroom or headbanging in a communal sing-along at a bonfire.

Even if you never actually purchased its albums, No Doubt remained so ubiquitous on MTV and in the long tail of alternative rock radio that you couldn’t help but memorize its discography via osmosis. And on a stage as large as Coachella, that’s an essential component to sustaining fractured attention spans. Stefani bounds out with her hair tied into spiky pineapple buns, wearing what could best be described as a high-fashion Cher-Horowitz-in-The-Fifth-Element cyberpunk kilt. In response, a 20-something girl, way too young to have seen No Doubt in its prime, blurts out, “She’s so cool!”

Even in her mid-50s, Stefani seems ageless, dashing from side to side with feral energy, her voice unblemished in the decades since “Don’t Speak,” “Spiderwebs,” and “Sunday Morning” became ingrained in the Southern California canon. The band still skanks, somewhere between X-Ray Spex and the Specials, X and the Smiths, Madonna and Blondie—even busting out a Prince Buster cover to pay homage to rock-steady royalty. They bring out the band’s self-professed “no. 1 fan” Olivia Rodrigo for an “IG Story moment” on “Bathwater”; the Anaheim legends officially pass the torch to the Disney star turned pop-punk juggernaut.

But an unmistakable sentimentality for the past hangs over the proceedings. Even Stefani acknowledges it early in the set when she tells the left side of the crowd that they feel “so nostalgic.” They lean into the time warp, projecting grainy homemade ’90s videos of the band, looking invincible and ready to conquer the globe. It feels like a needless reminder of a vanished era, one that will be recycled and ripped off until big tech finally creates a virtual simulation that allows us to live in our Dorian Gray delusions forever.

Before No Doubt leaves the stage, they perform a faithful and kinetic version of 1995’s “Just a Girl,” which recently went viral on TikTok. When she introduces it, Stefani tells the crowd: “We’re absolutely in the future right now with you guys.” Which may be partially true, but you can’t ignore its wrinkles.

Miles Davis once famously said, “The way to stay young is to forget.” And a bad memory could once be an asset in a world where it was possible to avoid being repeatedly mugged by history. But in a digital swamp where almost everything ever created is accessible on demand, there’s less space for the living, especially on a commercial scale. Accordingto Billboard, the share of album consumption for catalog music (defined as releases over 18 months old) was 72.6 percent last year, a trend that only continues to increase.

There has always been nostalgia, but it has evolved from a mawkish novelty to the animating force of culture. We went from watching I Love the ’90s to living in it (or to be fair, judging from Coachella fashion, I Love the Y2K Era). Even for artists with a unique spin, it is baked into the collective mitochondria. What makes the Lana Del Rey project compelling isn’t merely the wry lyricism and gauzy beauty of the songs, but her self-aware refraction of an America that never quite existed.

In her Friday night headlining set, Del Rey delivers a performance that you would have expected had you typed in the prompt “Computer, describe for me a Lana Del Rey Coachella headlining set.” That’s not to dismiss it. There’s a reason Del Rey performs her cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” as the third song. Diametrically opposed to but oddly kindred with Nowell, she’s an inimitable love-it-or-loathe-it archetype of beachfront Americana. Del Rey intuitively understands that to conform to the fireworks-and-explosions expectations of the prime-time slot is to compromise the believability of the enterprise. Either you go with her into the tunnel under Ocean Blvd., or you will be left outside in the cold and windy night.

How much you enjoyed the career-spanning set depends on your affinity for elegiac torch ballads built for sobbing into a claw-foot bathtub filled to the brim with Champagne, rose petals, and crushed Valium. The song is called “Summertime Sadness” for a reason. She hits all the right notes in a sparkling blue dress and looks permanently on the verge of singing “Happy Birthday” to the ghost of JFK. Aided by backing singers, dancers, and a band, the big screens play visions of Del Rey swinging on a tire through the western desert, exuberantly riding on the back of a motorcycle that’s piloted by a Hells Angel, and looking beautiful in front of an American flag in dozen-year-old footage of her and A$AP Rocky. But here, it’s impossible not to detect a “when we were young” wistfulness that clashes with the clouded dream being sold.

Toward the end of the set, Del Rey acquiesces to the “what surprise guest lurks behind that door” demands that have become endemic to the Coachella experience. She invites out Billie Eilish, whom she introduces as the “voice of your generation,” for a duet of “Video Games.” The latter returns the compliment, calling Del Rey “the reason for half of your bitches’ existence.” The crowd lights up with the feeble glow of 50,000 iPhones while they sing about “swingin’ with the old stars.” Shortly thereafter, Del Rey exits the stage to the antique strains of the Caretaker—whose haunted ballroom pop is rooted in the idea of degraded samples that mirror the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

It isn’t the weekend’s only appearance from Eilish, a Coachella 2022 headliner, who performs a surprise DJ set at the Do LaB Stage on Saturday night, flanked by about 30 people—including her brother and collaborator, FINNEAS; a highly reputable TikTok influencer; and the star of a canceled Netflix show based on something called Slut: The Play.

According to organizers’ estimates, 25,000 people watch one of the world’s biggest stars take over this corner of the festival to essentially throw an aux cord dance party. In case you’d forgotten about Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” they play it. Do you remember the blog-era days when Kid Cudi dropped his MGMT collaboration, “Pursuit of Happiness”? Of course you do. To make it rain with one more burst of Obama-era nostalgia, Tyga emerges from the cryogenic sarcophagus he’s been hiding in to perform “Rack City.”

Even the latest phenoms are burdened by the weight of the past. For the past year, the Interscope machine has made it impossible not to know about Reneé Rapp, who is being implicitly marketed as the next Billie Eilish—even though a superficial analysis indicates few commonalities beyond a shared inability to remember 9/11.

For the benighted, Rapp became famous for playing Regina George in the new movie reboot of Mean Girls, based on the musical based on the original Tina Fey film, released when the rising chanteuse was 4. In her debut Coachella performance, Rapp is introduced by the cast of The L Word, a Showtime television drama that was first canceled 15 years ago (the “sequel” was canceled last year).

Midway through her set, Rapp brings out Kesha for a remixed version of “Tik Tok,” which set the then-record for highest one-week total of digital downloads by a female artist upon its release in 2009. The only thing missing is a loop of those iPod commercials where the silhouette dances across a brightly colored background.

It’s wise to understand when something just isn’t being made for you. I’m sure Rapp’s theatrical power ballads sound pleasantly anodyne while you’re waiting for a store clerk to open up a locked case of toothpaste in a half-abandoned Rite-Aid. From what I can gather, the music is tailored for the two Zoomers filming with a selfie stick after the field empties out. The chief content creator wears an Urban Outfitters Guy Fieri flames shirt. The other is dressed like the Steve Buscemi meme. Together, they scream into the camera, “IT’S RENECHELLA!” three times—until they get it just right. Then they tell their followers: “It’s time to get ice cream!”

The futurists don’t fare better. During her Saturday night performance at the Sahara Tent, the techno-utopian druid Grimes delivers what is the DJ set equivalent of robots going haywire and murdering the human race. Of course, that would imply that the devices are capable of working properly. In the midst of a blitzkrieg of hard industrial beats backed by visuals from what looks like a low-budget, AI Lord of the Rings, Grimes abruptly stops her set to complain about how the machines have failed her.

According to the Canadian pop singer, there are “major technical errors” because all the tracks are at double speed. Despite having one child named after a mathematical variable and another named “Techno,” she can’t figure out either of those things. Technically, all Grimes has to do is mix the songs live, but she tells the crowd that it’s impossible because “it’s hard to explain.” She claims that, in an effort to save time, she “outsourced” her DJ set preparation to assistants, and then effectively blames the help for the technical snafus. Throwing up her arms in frustration, she tells us, “It’s all kray.”

Despite all the gimmickry, clichés, and retrograde conventions, several artists still manage to flourish. Blur mixes Brit-pop classics with louche charm and backing from the Cahuilla Bird Singers, representatives of one of the Indigenous tribes of the Coachella Valley. But after eliciting a tepid response from a crowd that doesn’t know the 1994 smash “Girls & Boys,” lead singer Damon Albarn sneers, “You’re never seeing us again, so you might as well fucking sing it.”

A four-hour B2B set from Jamie xx, Floating Points, and Daphni offers a reminder that impeccable curation, technical wizardry, and an effervescent joy for sharing what inspires you are timeless notions. Tinashe proves that she should be as popular as Ariana Grande. In the Do LaB, Hudson Mohawke and Nikki Nair deliver blistering, bass-heavy club bangers. And the Ecuadorean Swiss duo Hermanos Gutiérrez uncorks slippery, psychedelic western riffs that make it sound like they stole a secret alchemy from an elderly faith healer/guitar god inhabiting the fringes of the Sonoran badlands.

Most artists opt for enormity. In a culture of shock value, schlock, and grandiosity, the desire for the epic has become exhausting. That’s not to say that it can’t still be entertaining. J Balvin tops off his slick, alien-themed reggaeton set by bringing out Will Smith to perform “Men in Black” (1997) in a full black suit and shades. During her captivating but slightly hollow Sunday night headlining set, Doja Cat trots out a group of South African singers, 21 Savage, A$AP Rocky, Teezo Touchdown in his Road Warriors costume, and a phalanx of twerking Krampuses. With its high production value and award show–style camerawork, the L.A. native’s set seems explicitly designed for the livestream rather than for the crowd itself—whom she barely acknowledges. Before she departs the stage, she raps “Wet Vagina” while towing out the bone-dry skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex (74.6 million BCE).

But at least she’s rapping. At a festival that frequently feels regressive, the relative absence of the most innovative genre of the past 40 years seems glaring. Over the weekend, online buzz about the brewing hip-hop civil war among Future, Metro Boomin’, Rick Ross, and the so-called Big Three (Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and J. Cole) became deafening. If any one of those artists had been scheduled to appear at Coachella, it would’ve immediately become one of the most anticipated performances in recent history. But none came to the desert.

Just last month, Future and Metro headlined the L.A. edition of Rolling Loud—the traveling rap carnival whose ability to book A-list rappers and regional legends has surely siphoned hip-hop fans away from Coachella. Meanwhile, niche, nostalgia-driven festivals like When We Were Young, Lovers & Friends, and Just Like Heaven continue to cut into Coachella’s market share and available talent pool.

If any salvation exists, it arrives around midnight Saturday, with Tyler, the Creator’s headlining set. If he’s wrongly overlooked in most “Big Three” rap arguments, it’s also partially why he was booked to headline a festival that conspicuously appeals to a more, let’s say, generalist crowd.

Since first crash-landing onto Tumblr in the early years of the last decade, Tyler has slowly expanded his sui generis vision from a rabid cult fan base onto one of the biggest stages in the United States. He mentions his first Coachella appearance with Odd Future in 2011, which he accurately describes as “terrible but awesome.” They were goofy, reckless kids who briefly got thrown out of the festival for shooting backstage VIPs with Super Soakers. When they were readmitted, they joined Lil B for “Pretty Bitch,” which was about as electric as any Coachella moment I’ve ever witnessed that didn’t involve Prince or Beyoncé.

The Tyler of 2024 just dropped a Louis Vuitton line that includes a $31,000 golf bag. He’s had cable TV shows, established his own wildly popular Golf and Le Fleur brands, and profoundly tilted the mindset of a generation toward more subversive ideas. He’s partnered with the establishment but has been one of the few capable of enough centripetal force and creativity to bend it in his direction. Rather than promoting any commercial endeavors, the billboard that he took out on the interstate leading to Coachella politely stated: “I WOULD LOVE TO SEE Y’ALL FACES AND NOT YOUR PHONE LIGHTS.”

Maybe that’s an easy and slightly trite sentiment, but it’s no less antithetical to what has become the norm. For rebellion to still exist, it has to evolve and come in different forms. And where main character egocentricity is now expected, Tyler’s message exists in a previously undiscovered nexus connecting Pharrell and Thoreau, Jackass and Wes Anderson. Turn off your phones, go outside, hang out with your friends, and make cool shit. It doesn’t always need to be complicated.

The set opens with a recorded sketch. Tyler is dressed as a ranger living in his RV who really loves eggs. At least until he leaves the gas on and the camper explodes. The stage lights pour on, and he’s in a park service outfit in front of a stage that looks like a pastoral outcropping in the Grand Canyon. “Igor’s Theme” booms as the former Goblin lets loose some tricky dance moves, screaming, “What the fuck is up, Coachella!”

There was a recently circulated Tyler tweet from 2011 about how he couldn’t wait until he was the main artist at Coachella. But getting here from the chaotic anarchy of the Wolf Gang era required more than just talent or even originality. He experienced continuous growth in all aspects of his artistry. If his early beats were overly indebted to N.E.R.D, he broadened his palette to include Stevie Wonder, British new wave, modern funk, and ’90s R&B. Yet he still sounds contemporary. His raps became more controlled and lyrically imagistic without sacrificing the early rawness. And he learned how to incorporate celestial hooks without becoming too indulgent.

Tyler enlists Charlie Wilson to sing the “Earfquake” hook as he delicately plays the piano line. Then he tells the former Gap Band lead singer that every time he writes a song with vocals, he copies him. But it’s always thoroughly synthesized and filtered through his lens, free of a futile desire to recreate an imagined past. There are a few hype-stoking cameos: Donald Glover comes out for “Running Out of Time,” A$AP Rocky does his verse on “Who Dat.” Then Tyler immediately tells the crowd that he used to hate both of them.

Over the course of the hour-plus performance, Tyler is a consummate showman. Despite his asthma, his breath control is masterful. Unlike most of his rap peers, he doesn’t rely on backing tracks. He complains about being forced to perform during “Epstein hours,” jokes that the crowd needs to boo Coachella’s owner, and spits over H-Town samples. It’s quite possibly the only headlining set to feature a rapper holding a green lantern in front of what appears to be a backdrop from Asteroid City. There are costume changes, sandwich breaks, and DJ Drama drops.

It’s a wholly original and kaleidoscopic vision. A surreal, pastoral, and dreamlike landscape that runs counterclockwise against the shiny desperation of the festival. It’s weirdly romantic but not so self-serious that Tyler won’t tell the crowd to wear a condom just in case they take Molly and wind up in an orgy.

A few minutes before curfew sets in, Tyler announces he’ll play one final song prior to “this windstorm kicking in.” Then the occult funk of “New Magic Wand” stomps out from the loud speakers. He growls like a demon possessed, a holocaust of flames starts to engulf the arcadian hideaway, and a hurricane gale forms in the west. The words “new magic” are chanted over and over. He attempts to hang on to the side of the cliff, but the power of the massing storm eventually yanks Tyler offstage. Once again, he’s pulled back into a brighter and wide-open dimension, far away from here.

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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