Coachella 2014: Who really headlined, Arcade Fire or dance music?

The moon rises over the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio on the third and last day of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
The moon rises over the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio on the third and last day of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Who was Sunday’s Coachella headliner? The band that played last, to wrap up the weekend on the main stage? Or the act that drew probably the weekend’s biggest crowd, and certainly its most fevered rush of fans?

If the answer is the former, it’s indisputably Arcade Fire, which closed out the festival with a set drawing from the downtown disco of its latest album “Reflektor.” But if it’s the latter, then it’s probably Calvin Harris, the Scottish EDM producer whose main stage set around 8 p.m. drew an instant crush of ravers who practically vacated the rest of the festival.

Or it might have been the English neo-house duo Disclosure, whose sprawling Outdoor Stage set absolutely beat Arcade Fire’s in numbers during the few songs the two overlapped (and more to come on their set, which featured a cameo from Mary J. Blige, later).


PHOTOS: Coachella Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

The true headliner Sunday was dance music in general, which should be cause for reflection about how Coachella organizes its top billings in the future.

Arcade’s Fire’s set was absolutely fine for a headliner. They opened with an appropriately doom-disco take on “Reflektor” with a bevy of Haitian drummers. It was a nice reminder that dance music almost always sounds better onstage when it’s coming from a big band, immaculately mixed. Older cuts like “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies)” benefited from the new interest in floor-filling -- also seen in a Debbie Harry cameo on the band’s cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”

Win Butler induced a few groans when he lamented Coachella’s turn to “VIP tent [rubbish]. Don’t worry, it super sucks back there.” (Tell that to the patrons of the midfield bathrooms around 8 p.m. any given night after triple-digit heat.) But Arcade Fire’s second Coachella headlining set did underline its status as maybe the most significant live rock band to emerge from North America in the 2000s.

But by any other metric, Harris and Disclosure and dance music in general had the day’s momentum. As soon as the last strains of Neutral Milk Hotel faded from the Outdoor Stage, fans threw themselves at the open field to the first chords of Harris’ “Feel So Close.” They kept coming, waves after waved of glow-sticked-bodies filling out the lawn until it was an ocean of raised hands. The tents nearby may as well have been claims-adjustor offices for all the action they saw.

PHOTOS: The past headliners at Coachella


Harris’ set didn’t deliver any huge surprises -- a half-run of “We Found Love,” a big chunk of “Sweet Nothings,” some odds and ends from around the EDM card here. But the sensation of rave action seemed to dog-whistle to the crowd here. So many fans obviously had some pent-up, big-field raving instincts that had gone unmet until then, and at the first opportunity they dived right in.

What does this mean for how future Coachellas should organize? Should they behave more like 2012’s Swedish House Mafia set or Tiesto in 2010, when they let a big dance act close out the night after the ostensible rock headliner finished? Should they just give up the ghost and start putting EDM acts at the top of the bill? This year more than ever, it feels like all the oxygen got sucked out of the marquee rock acts (Muse, the woefully underattended Replacements), and got channeled into even the most obvious big DJ bills (Skrillex, Martin Garrix, Harris, etc).

Taken in part with this year’s pop inclinations (in one lap around the field, I heard Lorde’s “Royals,” Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” and Pharrell’s “Happy”), it’s obvious that the festival is beginning to bend to its crowd’s populist impulses. How far they want to take that is a question of identity. But how many years will they keep up the pretense that Coachella’s new class of fans still want big mainstream rock acts and reunions as their marquee names?

True ravers can always go to Electric Daisy or HARD, but it’s obvious that mainstream dance music fans have essentially colonized Coachella as well. Now it’s a question of what to do about that -- beat them or join them?


Coachella 2014: Full coverage

Coachella 2014: 10 rising acts you should know now

Coachella festival’s luxuries eclipsing its music and arts