The lineup for this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was surely booked months ago. But there’s a prescience in its choice of headliners: Two radical, inventive black artists at the peak of their powers and influence, as well as an English rock band devoted to re-invention and melancholy.
Private pain, public resilience and music that feels necessary and new: This is the Coachella lineup we all need right now.
It may not feel like an especially progressive move to book Beyoncé — she was, after all, a consensus pick for 2016’s album of the year and a touring titan like few other contemporaries. Only Adele would have been as obvious a choice for a pop-leaning headliner.
But when a festival famous for its white guy rock headliners picks music’s most visible black woman to lead a new charge, that’s important. Beyoncé is the fest’s first female solo headliner since Björk in 2007, and its first woman-of-color solo headliner to date (M.I.A. was second on the bill in 2009, and Arcade Fire is co-fronted by the Haitian-Canadian Régine Chassagne).
Women have played some of the fest’s most meaningful main-stage sets. (Sia’s video-misdirecting set was the toast of last year). Perhaps it’s telling that it took an artist of Beyoncé’s caliber to finally get a woman atop the bill again. But that’s just another gift of hers we should be grateful for.
Beyoncé’s touring production and strict focus on perfection often keep her off the festival circuit. But the set feels like more than a tour stop for her. It’s a reminder that for whatever ugliness the last year in politics may have yielded, the best of pop music is moving in its own direction, and it’s one of inclusiveness, virtuosity and an increasing fearlessness.
While Beyoncé was last year’s undisputed pop culture triumph, Kendrick Lamar has been using his platform to make some of music’s most startling, visually furious statements.
His 2016 Grammys showcase — emerging shackled in a chain gang, departing over an image of Africa overlaid with the word “Compton” — was the best thing on the Grammys in years, and all the more important for its political urgency. Same goes for his BET Awards appearance, where he and Beyoncé stomped through “Freedom” in a field of fire and water.
Lamar’s played Coachella before, but given the wide-open potential of his hometown’s biggest stage, and the fear many of his young fans feel about the coming period in American life, his ferocity may be just the catharsis that the festival hasn’t seen since Rage Against the Machine in 2007.
Even Radiohead, a multi-time headliner and one of the few rock bands that can credibly compete now in the strange sonic arenas of hip-hop and R&B, carved out new room in its sound to tackle this modern isolation.
Ironically, it’s in a recording of one of its older tunes, the live favorite “True Love Waits,” that finally arrived on record on last year’s album “A Moon Shaped Pool.” It’s full of loss and despair but still tender enough to be someone’s first dance at a wedding. Few songs from last year sounded like music that fans so often felt themselves.
Fans come to Coachella to see friends and favorites and to have a weekend (or two) of respite from the world. They’ll get that again this year, but they’ll also — at least in the festival’s headliners — be getting the best that music has to give now, as artists try to imagine a better world than the one that’s been given.
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