Richy Jackson was on a plane to L.A. from Houston when he got the big news. Well, the next big news. It was only March, and 2017 was already among the most demanding years of the visual director and choreographer's career.
In February alone, his boss, Lady Gaga, had performed the Super Bowl halftime show and with Metallica at the Grammys.
Now, Jackson learned as he checked his calls mid-flight, Gaga would be replacing Beyoncé as the Saturday headliner at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio.
"It was literally like, 'Hey, just so you know…,' " he said, still reeling weeks later from the twist that had handed him a huge job with an absurdly tight turnaround. On the back lot of a Burbank rehearsal complex, Jackson wore a calf-length multicolored trench coat that looked even more psychedelic in front of the 10-foot-high stacks of mirrored panels that surrounded him.
But, he added, it takes more than that to frazzle Team Gaga these days. "Honestly, for the Super Bowl," he said, "I think we had too much time to prepare."
That won't be a problem for Coachella. The announcement that the very pregnant Beyoncé was postponing her Coachella appearance to 2018 on doctor's orders came at the end of February. Gaga got the nod in mid-March, giving Jackson and the rest of her team a little more than a month to pull a headline show together for one of pop's most spectacle-loving singers.
A headliner shakeup is extremely rare at Coachella — the time, money and fan expectations are too high to roll the dice. Perhaps the only comparable switch was 2008's last-minute addition of Prince (which should inspire some confidence — many still regard that as one of the best sets in festival history). But Gaga is a pop star built on reinvention and the power of visual spectacle. She loves a big stage and a big concept.
That's what makes Jackson's job so critical. He's worked with Gaga since the start of her career, scripting the movements for the majority of her stage shows and music videos (he's also worked with Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj). He has to imagine the look, the dance moves and the aesthetic arc for a whole new set on one of the world's biggest platforms — for the second time in a matter of months. And that's all before the tour for Gaga's new album, "Joanne," gets rolling this summer.
The Super Bowl was a sui generis show: playing to the biggest and most mainstream audience available in American entertainment. Gaga and Jackson won praise for the upbeat, intricate set, even if some fans wanted her to use that platform to be more overtly political. By comparison, Coachella should be weirder, friendlier territory, even for a last-minute replacement set like hers.
"I think we feel less judgement about this show," Jackson said. "At the Super Bowl, you don't know if people are going to judge you, but at Coachella, the energy is already really good."
Jackson declined to give any details about the shape of the festival set — unsurprisingly, as it may still be in progress. But he did specify that it's not going to be a preview of her upcoming tour. "This will have nothing to do with the tour. Everything will be strictly for Coachella," he said.
Even with a generous crowd, it's still a complicated job to headline on such short notice, particularly given the star Gaga is replacing. Beyoncé was perhaps the most-anticipated headliner in a generation: the first black woman at the top of a Coachella bill, riding the goodwill from "Lemonade," the most important album of her life. It would have been revolutionary.
Gaga may not have that caliber of anticipation yet, but Jackson believes she is uniquely capable of synthesizing the whole Coachella experience. After all, she started her career with EDM-driven pop songs like "Poker Face" and "Just Dance," a sound that anticipated the U.S. dance-music festival boom. Lately, especially on "Joanne," she's dipped into modernized classic rock and country, sounds that now fill out Goldenvoice's other big festivals like Stagecoach and Desert Trip.
"Gaga's got so many genres, so we have to figure out what areas we want to pull and play with now," Jackson said. "We have that room to ask, 'What does this venue allow us to pull off?' "
If anything is reliable about Lady Gaga, it's her insistence on ripping everything up and starting anew. This past year has taken her from a surprise set at the 300-capacity Satellite in Silver Lake to the TV screens of 111 million people at the Super Bowl.
"I always approach shows as if I was in the audience," Jackson said. "If I'd been there all day long, what would make me, whether I loved her or not, want to be like 'Oh, yeah!'? I think it's still really something big to see her in person, that there's going to be something in the crowd where they're like 'She's really here.' "
The star's Coachella show may have started as a pinch hit, but Jackson and the Gaga team are one of few groups that can legitimately say they've already played a bigger stage this year. Now it's just about making their ambitions fit.
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