Kacey Musgraves looked out from the main stage of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and took in the sea of people gathered to watch her play as the sun set on Friday evening.
This was her first time at the annual desert blowout, she told the crowd — the latest step in a successful crossover effort that’s made something of a pop star of this psychedelically inclined country singer.
“Needless to say, I’m very excited,” Musgraves said. Yet her hope was that everyone, including herself, could focus on the beauty of the right-here-and-now and “forget about everything else.”
Well, almost everything.
Introducing her song “Mother” just a few minutes later, Musgraves acknowledged that her audience extended beyond the boundaries of Indio’s picturesque Empire Polo Club — specifically to her native Texas, where she said her mom was watching Coachella’s livestream on YouTube.
Musgraves wasn’t the only one with that kind of information in mind. A marquee performance by Childish Gambino relied on exquisite images designed for close inspection rather than viewing from hundreds of yards away.
A year after Beyoncé’s instant-classic performance at Coachella 2018 brought new attention to this already closely watched event, it was easy to sense the widespread awareness of that online scrutiny during the 20th-anniversary edition, which featured Childish Gambino and Tame Impala as headliners on its first two nights and was expected to close late Sunday with Ariana Grande. Coachella will repeat this coming weekend in the same place with essentially the same lineup.
As the first major festival in an increasingly crowded season, Coachella is accustomed to the spotlight; indeed, it’s what transformed a once-scrappy rock-heavy gig into a lifestyle destination (not to mention a cash cow for the company behind it, Los Angeles-based Goldenvoice).
But Beychella, as last year’s extravaganza quickly became known, raised the creative stakes with its thoughtful and heartfelt reimagining of a halftime show at a historically black college. By putting on such an unforgettable performance — one she’s revisiting in a hotly anticipated Netflix documentary due Wednesday — Beyoncé pushed other artists to create event-like moments more ambitious than a typical festival appearance.
That certainly seemed to be the case with Childish Gambino, the alter ego of actor Donald Glover, who began his set by informing the audience that what we were witnessing wasn’t a concert but an “experience.”
And so it was: With mobile cameras feeding carefully composed close-ups to enormous video screens as Glover sang, danced and descended into the crowd at one point to find someone eager to smoke with him, the show felt more like a mini-movie than a live performance; the cinematography, if that’s the word to use, was as gorgeous as that on Glover’s brilliant FX series, “Atlanta.” (True to his auteur’s sensibility, Glover barred The Times from photographing the show.)
The problem was that, unlike Beychella, Childish Gambino’s set — with R&B and rap songs that rarely transcended Glover’s obvious admiration for Drake, Kanye West and Parliament-Funkadelic — seemed optimized for YouTube, not for the tens of thousands watching and listening on the ground at Coachella.
Ditto a historic performance by Blackpink, the first K-pop girl group to play the festival, that was simulcast on a digital billboard in New York’s Times Square. The music was sleek and vivid in the established K-pop fashion; the performers nailed their moves with style and precision.
But little about the show felt uniquely tied to the type of time-and-place moment that Musgraves had described earlier. The women knew that the crowd in front of them was dwarfed by the masses following along on social media, which made you feel a bit like someone with a ticket to the Super Bowl or the Oscars.
Sure, you’d made it into an exclusive space. But everyone watching from outside was enjoying the spectacle in the manner for which it was designed.
Other artists peppered their sets with stunts seemingly designed to gain traction online, be it Musgraves’ bringing out Baddie Winkle, the 90-year-old Instagram personality, during her song “High Horse,” or Weezer welcoming Tears for Fears and TLC’s Chilli to join the band for wink-wink covers of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “No Scrubs,” respectively.
DJ Snake convened three unannounced guest stars — Cardi B, Selena Gomez and the Puerto Rican singer Ozuna — for a version of their collaborative hit “Taki Taki.” And Janelle Monáe addressed the outsiders in her fan base with a moving speech about the importance of being oneself “even if it makes others uncomfortable.”
Of course, Coachella isn’t exactly known for its outsider population. Though it might be unfairly thought of as a rich kids’ retreat, the festival inarguably attracts an audience sure of its own cultural cachet. Which means that the real misfits Monáe was appealing to probably weren’t in Indio on Friday night.
What, then, was to be gained by actually schlepping to Coachella?
One answer was confirmation that the Billie Eilish phenomenon is real. For weeks the 17-year-old L.A. native has been breathlessly hyped in the media as the new face of a new kind of teen pop: darker and weirder while also funnier and more self-aware.
But any suspicion that the story of Eilish’s popularity had outgrown her popularity itself was quelled Saturday night when she received a deafening hero’s welcome by a crowd she’d kept waiting for more than 30 minutes after her scheduled start time.
It was also a thrill to stand on the polo field and get a feel for the pride many clearly took in performances by the numerous Latinx acts at Coachella this year, including Rosalía, Mon Laferte and Los Tucanes de Tijuana.
On Saturday, J Balvin, the Colombian reggaeton star, used a portion of his main-stage set to “pay homage to the OGs,” as he put it, with loving renditions of N.O.R.E.’s “Oye Mi Canto” and Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” — songs that rightfully landed here like the foundational texts they are.
There was even, believe it or not, a you-had-to-be-there gig by a guitar band in Australia’s trippy Tame Impala, which took advantage of Coachella’s insanely powerful sound system to deliver a sensory overload that simply couldn’t be accessed via livestream. (Grande, the festival’s remaining headliner, was scheduled to perform late Sunday, after deadline for this article.)
Had Tame Impala masterminded a capital-E Event? Nah, and the result probably won’t be remembered for long.
But after so much high-level strategizing, it felt good to take in what was happening right in front of you.