The “biggest music festival in the world” is an imprecise term — results would be different based on attendance, gross, influence, duration or other metrics — but there’s little doubt that Coachella is at or near that billing. Its lineup has become a commentary on the state of popular music in the past and coming year — not just the “alternative” genre with which it has become inextricably associated. And the 2019 Coachella lineup announced late Wednesday night — with headliners Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande and Tame Impala — reflects a deft combination of box-office numbers, informed curation, legacy (of both the artists and the festival) and gut that has come to define the event.
The lineup, which is organized almost singlehandedly by Goldenvoice chief and Coachella co-founder Paul Tollett, has a lot of standards to meet. The event routinely sells out long before the lineup is announced, yet it still needs headlining artists who move crowds and tickets (which is often a very different proposition than streams or online popularity). It needs to be forward-looking but also reflect popularity, and it needs to satisfy the tastes of an unusually large age group: The alt-rock veterans, some of whom have been attending since the first Coachella in 1999 — a one-day event with headlining sets from Beck, Underworld, the Chemical Brothers and Spiritualized — along with millennials and Generation-Z, who were raised on hip-hop and largely associate rock music with their parents.
While the festival continues to pay homage to rock when an obvious top headliner is available (Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Jack White), it’s also expanded to include classic rock headliners like Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC. It has also gradually upped the number of hip-hop, pop, and R&B performers, to the extent that no rock act was among last year’s headliners (Beyonce, the Weeknd and Eminem topped the bills last year).
Aside from the confusing inclusion of the hitherto-unknown Gucci Gang on Day 3 of the lineup — which was later clarified to be a new supergroup comprising Gucci Mane, Lil Pump (whose song “Gucci Gang” was one of the biggest hits of 2017) and Smokepurpp, according to a photo on the Coachella website — the biggest surprise is the high billing for Australian alt-rock act Tame Impala. Looking over each year’s Coachella lineup, the group seems to be the least-well-known headliner in the festival’s history, with the closest equivalents being LCD Soundsystem and the U.S.-cult-favorite-but-internationally-huge Muse. While its most recent full-length album, “Currents,” peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, it was released more than three years ago (although the group teased in its Coachella tweet that new music is coming) and it’s had no major hits in the U.S. According to Pollstar, the group’s average concert gross is $107,507, compared with an average of $695,982 for Grande, who pulled in a whopping $2.4 million over two nights in Australia — and Gambino’s recent two-night stand at New York’s Madison Square Garden grossed $2.65 million.
However, Tame Impala’s live show has improved dramatically since its early tours, particularly in terms of the production that surrounds the largely static bandmembers, and they’ve become festival veterans over the past few years, headlining Panorama, Desert Daze, and Pitchfork. It also probably doesn’t hurt that mainman Kevin Parker has collaborated with Kanye West, Travis Scott, SZA, Zhu and other hip-hop and dance acts.
A rep for the group tells Variety that Tame Impala was “always” booked as a headliner for Coachella 2019. But it’s hard not to speculate, based on Wednesday’s TMZ report that Kanye West pulled out of the festival at the last minute due to a disagreement over the size of the festival stage, that Tame Impala was elevated to headliner in West’s place. While reps for West and Goldenvoice declined to comment on the TMZ report, several factors add up: It’s very unlikely that West would have headlined over or been billed below Gambino or Grande; Kid Cudi is performing on the same day (making a mini-set from West and Cudi’s Kids See Ghosts project likely), and Parker could have performed with West as well; and a top-billed Saturday lineup of West and Tame Impala with alt-R&B icon Solange and alternative heritage act Weezer would have a distinctly Tollett touch. (Again, that’s all rumor and speculation.)
However, the billing enables the festival to fly its rock flag proudly, to give a big look to a relatively up-and-coming act, and salve the rock fans who complain every year that Coachella has gotten too far away from its base.
And, of course, there’s the political issue: Goldenvoice is owned by AEG, the second-largest live-entertainment company in the world, and as with any business, politics play a role — most visibly on the poster itself, where the order of the artists and the font size in which their names appear is a heavily negotiated and argued-over point.
One striking factor is the placement of several 2019 Grammy nominees on the lineup: For example, on the Friday lineups, Grammy darlings Kacey Musgraves and Ella Mai are billed below the 1975, DJ Snake, dance-music outfit Rufus Du Sol and all-female K-pop act Blackpink, although that may be based on box-office numbers, diversity optics and Tollett’s sense of balance. (Reps for AEG and Goldenvoice did not immediately respond to Variety’s requests for comment.)
Yet perhaps most of all, the lineup shows an awareness of the conversations that have taken place over the past year regarding female representation. Last summer’s major festivals were roundly criticized for their lack of prominent female performers, and while Coachella has had relatively solid female representation in the past few years, the 2019 lineup and its pecking order clearly are an improvement. Grande, following Beyonce and Lady Gaga, is the third consecutive female headliner (after just one female artist, two-time headliner Bjork, had topped the bill in all of the festival’s previous years), and looking at the top three lines of each day’s lineup, 11 of the top 42 performers are female or have female lead singers, compared with 9 of the top 43 last year, 9 of the top 44 in 2014, and a grim 7 of the top 45 in 2009.
As with any such event, from the Grammy Awards to Lollapalooza to the Westminster Dog Show, Coachella is never controversy-free, and no one is ever totally happy. But unlike many aging cultural icons, Coachella is doing a solid job of evolving while remaining true to the spirit in which it started.