We Outside: Eight Thoughts on Why We Should Be Less Cynical About Coachella

Despite recent reports that Coachella is on the decline, Pranav Trewn reports live for the latest edition of his We Outside column, suggesting we should still be grateful for the festival and the...
By    May 2, 2024

Image via Coachella/

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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.

Maybe you haven’t heard, but Coachella is said to be in trouble. After a decade of near-instant sell outs, the last two years have failed to reach full capacity, and according to critics the festival has transformed into a “TikTok hellscape full of failed nostalgia plays and – as our very own EIC denoted – “hollow spectacle.” Lana Del Rey bombed, Blur was underappreciated, and Grimes fell apart for “the worst set” in the festival’s history. Even without this year’s negative press, Coachella’s reputation among the music commentariat has gradually eroded, with many seeing it as an influencer convention that reflects the most vacuous developments of our cultural moment.

This year was my fourth at the festival, and while I always expect some discrepancy between the online chatter and my on-the-ground experience, the divide was particularly vast this year. When I returned to reality after a full day of sleeping off and coughing out the residual desert that had accumulated in my lungs, I was met with queries from friends back home about the “weird vibes,” “dead audiences,” and “overbearing commercialism” they had heard about while I was gone. I am surprised by how contentious my response felt: not only did I have a fantastic time at Coachella, but I think the festival is better than ever.

1. Coachella isn’t for anyone in particular, and that’s its greatest strength

Over three days, some 50 miles, and over 40 sets, I danced with my regular pack of festival friends to some of the most beloved and forward thinking musicians of our time. I also saw Nav. Coachella represents dichotomies, making space for a broad spectrum of listening preferences. Yet rather than take it in as a whole, most look at the annual affair like a Rorschach test, reflecting back to them their preconceptions about what’s wrong with everyone else’s tastes. This barrage of print Goldenvoice publishes each January serves as tea leaves telling “truths” about the state of music, and this year you could see several trends based on how you looked: “Ska is BACK baby!,” “The English language is no longer a prerequisite to US popularity,” “Gen Z really fucks with the Deftones.”

Whether or not you thought Coachella cultivated a good lineup might depend on how you feel about these narratives, and also what you anchor on within the mess of names. Much of the lineup overlaps with more tastemaking events this year like Pitchfork Festival and iiiPoints, but it also has massive hater-bait like Bleachers and Jon Batiste in big font. You could see this year as evidence of Goldenvoice’s curatorial instincts becoming both sharper and duller simultaneously, and that might be the festival’s secret sauce.

There is still no other event in this country where you could have seen Japanese arena pop like Yoasobi, rave legends like Orbital, and bucket list bands like Blur all at once. And you could also go watch more milquetoast, mass-appeal juggernauts like DJ Snake and Jhené Aiko if you so desired. It’s almost more impressive to me that this festival makes room for all of the above, and that it’s wide enough that both me and my friends – who don’t listen to more than maybe five new albums a year – can still be engaged all day.

2. We shouldn’t judge a festival by its poster

The dominant narratives always look different in retrospect, of course. The initial announcement of Tyler, the Creator headlining Saturday felt underwhelming for many, myself included. The Odd Future firebrand has long completed his transition from “radical” weirdo to establishment-friendly tastemaker, and his presence along the festival circuit and in Southern California particularly has reached the point of oversaturation. The fatigue was compounded when he announced a few weeks out that he would have no new music for his performance, which made attendees worry they were getting a retread of the Call Me If You Get Lost sets from the last few years. Yet every report back from his triumphant, stunningly-staged display was one of well-earned respect, the breathless rapper providing an energy and vocal prowess that few in his genre can match. In a weekend in which the 2024 rap wars continued to escalate, it made you wonder why his name wasn’t an obvious contender for inclusion in the “Big 3?”

From my vantage, however, Coachella’s biggest takeaway for music in 2024 was that EDM, while less of a force on the pop charts since its early 2010s heyday, is ever-dominant on the live circuit. John Summit and Dom Dolla both closed the Sahara – the stage Coachella primarily uses for electronic spectacles – and pulled denser crowds than the competing headliners. The other Sahara closer, Steve Angello (of Swedish House Mafia), had a similar impact on the disbursement of fans on the Polo Fields, and those sets, alongside DJ Snake and Everything Always (the duo of John Summit and Dom Dolla), were the only ones my friends reported as feeling crowded during the undersold weekend. I didn’t mind the extra space for my own interests, but I won’t front like I also didn’t have a blast whenever I stumbled into the masses. It was a reminder that even the least inspiring recording artists can still throw a hell of a party in person.

3. A faltering tide sinks all boats

Experiencing its slowest ticket sales since 2012, Coachella topped off at 80% attendance across both weekends. But even if this was a down year for the fest, as Billboard points out, almost every other major festival would kill to have a slump as strong as Coachella’s. Inflation has increased prices across the concert industry and squeezed consumer pockets, while competition from prominent (and expensive) tours like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and the Rolling Stones has eaten into discretionary spending available for live music. Coachella struggled in this environment, but not nearly as bad as their peers, many of which have simply folded or are taking the year off. A cursory scan confirmed that none of the big US brands nor newcomers have sold out yet this year, save for Sea.Hear.Now – almost certainly because it is the only Bruce Springsteen festival show on his current run.

4. Coachella is effectively navigating the current headliner vacuum

Springsteen would have been a slam-dunk for Coachella, and I am continuously surprised that more festivals haven’t been able to tap him the way they have the likes of other legacy icons like Paul McCartney and Elton John. But I think the festival otherwise nailed this year’s headliners, contrary to the high volume of complaints that were levied when the lineup initially dropped. Because, realistically, who else were we hoping to see? No one is demanding the established headliner class of the last decade – the Chili Peppers and Killers and Foo Fighters, who are still holding strong at the top of other festivals. And new stars like Olivia Rodrigo or Noah Kahan would feel premature and lack the requisite catalog that unites generations. The best headliner-level names either aren’t really musicians anymore (Rihanna), or the festival has already gotten to before anyone else (Beyonce, Bad Bunny). Taylor Swift might be Coachella’s remaining white whale, but they still managed to attract her as an attendee (and oppressively rumored onstage presence).

I much prefer the intentionality and implicit coronation of Lana Del Rey and Tyler the Creator, two youngish icons with both established and culturally important discographies that are still making some of their best music in real time. Each has both hits and critical acclaim, draws from Coachella’s Southern Californian ethos, and plays with the past while creating something contemporary and devoid of cheap nostalgia baiting. I’m happy to see the festival anoint them with the honor such that they can start putting the previous headliner crop out to pasture. Doja Cat also leveled up beyond her already well-received performance from 2022, and she heavily distinguished herself from that moment in time by delivering an awards-show ready display of her imagination and raw talent, heavily concentrated on her new music. The fact that she closed the festival on a raucous non-single like “Wet Vagina” while writhing around in a mud pit is evidence that her current contrarian spirit, while often exhausting, can still birth some inspiring moments.

5. We love to dismiss it, but all eyes are still on Coachella

That moment was a major one I was asked about by friends who tuned in to watch the festival over the weekend on its ever popular livestream, but it was hardly the only. Over the course of Weekend One this year, folks at home texted me not minutes later to confirm if I saw Ke$ha come out with Renee Rapp for a newly Diddy-dissing take on “Tik Tok”, or if I was there for Billie Eilish receiving a ceremonial torch passing from Lana Del Rey. I was asked about who I thought had the best vocal performance among the members of K-Pop sensation LE SSERAFIM (Chaewon), whether Clown Core was as wild as the comments on Reddit suggested (yes, best set of the weekend), and about the debut of Justice’s new live show (you gotta appreciate that someone is at least trying to be Daft Punk). The play-from-home vibe of the festival and its ability to present one-of-a-kind moments is its greatest strength – the fact that even outside of the 200,000-something people in attendance, many millions more are engaged with what’s going on at the grounds.

We as an audience benefit from having spectacles the size and shape of Coachella, especially in our atomized digital age in which few monoculture-scale events remain that capture a wider awareness. More often than not these days I consume my media in silos, but the broad public participation for this music festival allows me to talk across the board with co-workers, acquaintances, and family members about the breakthrough of Chappell Roan and the ongoing disaster of Grimes’ career. It is the only music event I attend that my mom has heard of, and I appreciate it when she asks me about Canadian-Panjabi star AP Dillon smashing his guitar or Paris Hilton coming out for Vampire Weekend.

6. Old criticisms are getting outdated

Of course, any mass-consumer event will also bring out the cynics, and Coachella often deserves the flack it gets. Over the years the criticisms have substantially improved the festival, helping to repair its gender parity, presentation of once-neglected genres, and diversify its programming dedicated to underrepresented minorities. This is important, because as the leading domestic player, Coachella being better has downstream benefits across the industry.

But I do find many of the common criticisms misplaced. What do people actually want from this festival? It runs like Disneyland, about as professional as these things get – which is a relief from all the horror stories of price gouging water, mud-soaked cancellations, and anti-consumer financial practices that have become the industry norm. Coachella still makes space on their lineups for legacy punks like the Adicts, mosh-minded hardcore like Upchuck, and art-rap weirdos like Young Fathers. There’s corporate activations, yes, and coffee costs $18. There are also massive art installations, Palestinian-supporting merch, and spaces dedicated to queer and black attendees. Plus it’s one of the few festivals in which sponsorships haven’t rendered the stages with names like “the KFC Finger Lickin Good Tent.” Much to my disappointment frankly, I’ve never seen a celebrity off stage.

7. At the end of the day, it’s all about the music

In the years since my first taste of the modern festival experience, I have gone to so many varieties that span distinct genres, topographies, sizes, and continents. I’ve attended festivals that are extensions of artist reputations’, those that operate across venues over weeks rather than a single weekend in a field, and plenty of the big name bashes. As my taste in music expanded over my youth, so too did my awareness of the cultural perceptions that were attached to what I listened to and attended. Going to Coachella remained outside of scope for a long time, because I feared association with the flower-crown, celebrity-worship set I had come to understand as its clientele.

I am grateful I broke my implicit boycott of the festival when I was offered an extra ticket and lodging from some new friends I was eager to know better. Presented with the opportunity, I figured I should finally do this pilgrimage so I could at least make fun of it with inside knowledge. Of course, as you might have picked up, I came to realize the depth of Coachella’s curation, quality of the production value, and diversity of experiences relative to other festivals. I have now seen several sets at the festival that remain among my favorite live music experiences to date.

8. Coachella is uniquely suited to giving artists the moments they deserve

The moment from this year that I have added to that cannon – and embodies for me the distinct benefit of Coachella’s existence – was watching Tems deliver the most enthusiastically received set of the weekend to a devoted crowd in the Mojave tent. Backed by a broad band of brass players and backup singers, the Nigerian afrobeats breakout delivered the kind of star-cementing performance for which this festival has been historically well-suited. The crowd was rapturous, and the love was at such a fever pitch you could see it move Tems to tears. “I won’t ever forget this night,” she beamed.

I could have chosen to be a cynic about any part of that moment – that she felt the need to engage in the customary celeb-baiting with Justin Bieber’s appearance, that the stage sat adjacent to the fenced off VIP Rose Garden, in which tickets cost at minimum over a grand – but my mind wasn’t on any of the broader socio-political handwringing I would later engage with online. Instead I just felt grateful to be there, witnessing the kind of moment that no medium delivers better than music, of an artist’s hard work and talents being recognized in real time on a stage as big as they deserve.

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