“Don’t be scared — I’ve done this before,” Lady Gaga told the massive crowd gathered for her Saturday night headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. And, sure, this was hardly the Super Bowl halftime veteran’s first experience before a live audience numbering in the tens of thousands.
But the performance did mark Lady Gaga’s debut at America’s highest-profile music festival, held every spring for nearly two decades on the sprawling grounds of the Empire Polo Club in Indio. It also opened a new chapter for Coachella, which has long hesitated to book a current pop superstar for its gigantic main stage.
Once known for presenting edgy alternative rock and dance music, the annual desert blowout has moved gradually toward the mainstream as its size, prestige and reputation as an upscale celebrity magnet have grown. Madonna famously performed in one of the festival’s tents in 2006, and last year Rihanna dropped in for a surprise appearance with the EDM star Calvin Harris.
Yet for this year’s edition — which ran Friday to Sunday and will repeat this coming weekend — Coachella’s deep-pocketed promoter, the AEG-owned Goldenvoice, dramatically expanded the scale of its flagship event, adding 20 acres to the festival site and getting the OK from city officials to boost capacity from 99,000 to 125,000 people. (Tickets, which sold for a minimum of $399 each, sold out well in advance.)
As a result, perhaps organizers felt they needed an especially splashy name to meet the demands of those dimensions. Indeed, Saturday’s original headliner was to be the world’s most beloved pop star: Beyoncé, who after announcing she was pregnant pulled out of the show in February on the advice of her doctor.
So how did this supersize Coachella go down? There were some growing pains.
For starters, Radiohead encountered a serious technical difficulty — a rarity at this carefully executed production — when the sound system cut out repeatedly during the British art-rock band’s headlining set Friday night. (The festival’s third headliner, the acclaimed Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, was scheduled to perform late Sunday, past deadline for this article.)
After exiting the stage in visible frustration, frontman Thom Yorke returned and addressed the mishap with his signature deadpan humor.
“Can you actually hear me now?” he asked. “I’d love to tell you a joke, lighten the mood, something like that. But this is Radiohead.” Then he added an unprintable phrase reminding us that lightening the mood isn’t in the nature of a group whose music is haunted by thoughts of technology turning against its makers.
Though the sound system held out from then on, Radiohead never quite recovered from the distraction. The band’s performance, filled with oldies like “Creep” and “Paranoid Android,” felt deflated, as though Yorke and his mates had lost their nerve.
Lady Gaga had trouble too.
After starting very powerfully with a series of tunes — “John Wayne,” “Born This Way,” “Sexxx Dreams” — that vividly expressed her cartoon-rebel intensity, the singer’s concert slowed to a crawl when she sat down behind a keyboard and transformed her ecstatic “The Edge of Glory” into a dreary piano ballad.
Elsewhere, she took advantage of Coachella’s attention-getting platform by playing a new single, “The Cure,” for the first time in public. But if the song was intriguing — it leaves behind the rootsy vibe of last year’s “Joanne” album for a proudly synthetic ’80s-era sound — Lady Gaga cheapened the moment with her show-closing announcement that the track was available to buy on iTunes.
While Coachella isn’t allergic to marketing (see its branded beauty bar, among other accouterments), nobody should have to pay $399 to feel advertised to.
Coachella’s growth could be felt in more positive ways over the weekend. Never an easy event to summarize given the number of acts it hosts, it resisted even more the application of a single idea about Where Music Is Right Now.
And that’s a good thing: As digital streaming has increased access to virtually all recorded sound, it’s a thrill to be at a festival that reproduces the breadth of viewpoints waiting to be summoned on an app on your phone. In its impressive variety — from the Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane to the old-time Preservation Hall Jazz Band to the Australian sampling wizards in the Avalanches — Coachella may feel less meticulously curated than it once did, but it also understood that there is no single idea about music.
That said, story lines emerged. Among them was the revival of blue-eyed soul singing, as seen in strong showings by Bon Iver, Mac DeMarco and Francis and the Lights, a true pop eccentric who combines David Byrne’s herky-jerk dance moves with the slick, exuberant vocals of Steve Winwood.
During a late-afternoon set by the jazz-funk bassist Thundercat, a real-deal proponent of the style — Michael McDonald — even turned up to do the Doobie Brothers’ deathless “What a Fool Believes.”
Bon Iver touched on another identifiable theme — a preoccupation with the ways humans and machines are merging — as did the popular rappers Future and Travis Scott; all three men used software to process organic sounds, including their own voices, sometimes beyond recognition.
For the last five years or so, crowd patterns at Coachella have made an implicit argument that dance and hip-hop have pushed aside rock at the center of pop culture. And certainly the enormous crowds that materialized for Future, Gucci Mane and DJ Snake made it clear that those genres continue to thrive.
But although Radiohead played to a surprisingly small audience — one that grew smaller with each technological malfunction — middlebrow guitar bands such as Bastille, Car Seat Headrest and Local Natives pulled fans in numbers that suggested rock isn’t dead yet (even if the groups’ lackluster music was less convincing).
Coachella also maintained its belief in the value of a surprise cameo at a moment when many people seem to show up for real-world events just so they can post about it on social media.
Beyond McDonald, Drake and Ty Dolla Sign put in unannounced appearances that quickly ricocheted across Instagram; the rap trio Migos, which wasn’t officially on the bill, did its viral hit “Bad and Boujee” twice within a couple of hours, first during Future’s set and later with DJ Snake (who also brought out Lauryn Hill to sing several Fugees classics).
Yet nothing that happened at the temporary civilization that is Coachella came at the expense of anything else; no wild musical moment, however tweeted-about, canceled out any other.
At several points during Lady Gaga’s performance, a small drone equipped with a camera rose up over the main stage, feeding pictures of the packed polo field to the video screens behind the singer. And the crowd the pictures showed was huge, yes — probably 50,000 people, maybe more.
But off in the distance you could also see figures wandering around in ones and twos — folks uninterested in what a famous pop star was doing and eager to find some stimulation for themselves.