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Coachella Day 3: Ariana Grande’s $8 Million Payday Brings *NSYNC, Diddy, Nicki Minaj

Lizzo established that Billie Eilish wasn't the only 2020 best new artist nominee performing.

Ariana Grande Coachella 2019 Weekend 1
Courtesy of Goldenvoice/Charles Reagan

“You believe God is a woman,” Ariana Grande sang at the top of her Coachella-closing set Sunday night, and for that, she couldget an amen — not just from her own #Arichella faithful, but also from the devotees of Lizzo, who, a few hours earlier at the festival, had asked, “Can I get a hallelujah?… I am my inspiration. I am my inspiration.” The divine feminine force was strong across the grounds at Coachella Sunday, from H.E.R.’s top-billed second stage finale to Soccer Mommy bringing the indie rock to Perfume introducing Coachella to J-pop, two nights after the festival was baptized into the ways of the queens of K-pop.

And, of course, there was one other goddess who went mostly unmentioned but often thought of as the final day of weekend 1 proceeded: the ghost of Beyoncé. No matter how much of a yeoman’s or yeowoman’s job anyone did at Coachella this year, it was hard to escape the haunting by the impossible standard Beyoncé set at this time in 2018… not just for Coachella but for, like, entertainment as a MF-ing whole. If God is a woman, she can also be a pesky specter, always reminding you that attaching the first syllable(s) of anyone’s name to “-chella” is probably going to be a bad comparative idea for the next 25 years or so.

But if we rate Coachella Day 3’s performers by mortal standards — which is to say, if we were in 2017 or any previous year — how would they rate?  The answer is highly, for Ari and Lizzo, especially, who were like a yin and yang of the day’s overpowering female spirit — from ethereal to earthy, from dog-whistle high notes to gutbucket growls and grunts. Lizzo is all about celebrating imperfections or differences and “body positivity” as a mantra; Grande appears so flawless, in appearance and vocal manner, you’d swear she was being retouched in real time. If they ever do a duet — and we’d like to go on record as being the first in the universe to suggest this! — the world might spontaneously combust.

Grande was Coachella’s Eight Million Dollar Woman; at least, that’s what sources tell Variety what her fee was for showing up and saving the festival’s pop-zeitgeist cache as a headliner after discussions with Kanye broke down over staging issues at the last minute. It’s hard to argue that she was overpaid, based on the PR currency the fest gained from having someone who had one of the finest pop albums of 2017 and 2018, and who is a magnet for celebrity photographers like no other, even though not one was allowed to capture her image on stage at Coachella. (That might’ve cost the festival an extra couple million.) Was she worth all $8M… or just 6-7?

You could love Grande’s show even as you recognized there were ways in which it probably works better in the arena setting from which it has been transposed. A lot of viewers, whether at home or in the field, complained that the show was underlit. As attentive Variety readers already know, that is very much by Grande design, as the singer has a unique visual aesthetic in which she likes to blend in with her darkly feminine set design. That’s probably amazing to look at in a more “intimate” setting like the Staples Center (Southern Californians will find out for sure when she plays there May 6), but in the multiple-football-field-sized non-confines of Coachella’s main stage area, it just felt impossible to pick her out as a tiny figure in the distance, and sometimes only slightly easier looking at the big screens to tell which one was the superstar amid the sometimes large contingent of dancers and writhers on stage or on the thrust.

That said, the visuals were almost consistently amazing, if you weren’t particularly concerned about always being able to pick Grande out of them. The “Raindrops (An Angel Cried)”-into-“God is a Woman”-into “Bad Idea” opening had Grande as part of a kind of slightly profane Last Supper tableau, with her and her cast of dancers gathered around a long table in the most sensual shared-plates restaurant ever. Later, the stage got less consistently crowded and the mood less risqué as Grande adopted impressive and more impressionistic LED visuals, culminating in a performance of her most recent album’s “NASA,” in which the figurative title was translated quite literally with a vision of the cosmos on the curvy, stage-wrapping big screens that finally went all-out into “2001” Ultimate Trip territory.

And while the mode was pretty PG-13 at the outset, it went to a pure G thing not very many minutes in as most of ‘N Sync was brought out for an ultimate trip into the target demographic’s childhoods. Naturally, their rumored emergence happened deep into Grande’s song “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” which samples ‘N Sync’s “Makes Me Ill.” Therein followed a reasonably illin’ joint version of the boy band’s “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” with vintage choreography recreated and Grande herself stepping in to replace the MIA fifth member, creating the teasing possibility of ‘N Sync as a boy-boy-boy-boy-girl band. You had to squint at the somewhat murky or muted screen to see just how, say, a Chris Kirkpatrick corresponds with your last memory of him, but the lads had clearly kept up their choreography chops to make this the simple fun it was intended as. Viewers were split over whether “it’s really ‘N Sync if JT isn’t there” (see reaction story here), but why begrudge these guys their chance back in the spotlight for one night when the Backstreet Boys are making out like bandits five shows a week?

Would that things had gone as well when Nicki Minaj came out for her rumored-and-confirmed appearance on “Bang Bang,” in which either she or the sound or both appeared to get lost. It was weird later on, too, when Minaj did not come out to reprise her part on “The Light is Coming,” but we heard her recorded vocal instead. She had other cameos to get to that night? There was a third guest appearance, too, and one that Grande had managed to keep under wraps (the first two might have been received more universally if there hadn’t been such a big buildup about them). Diddy and Muse came out for “Mo Money Mo Problems,” a Notorious B.I.G. tune into which they worked memorial shout-outs not just to Biggie but a host of lost hip-hop artists leading up to and including Mac Miller and Nipsey.

Diddy also celebrated the woman of the moment herself. “Right about now I want you to make the loudest noise you could ever make for my sister right here. She’s been through a whole lot and she’s still standing! She’s with y’all,” he said. It was a nice gesture and reminder — and it served to point out just how little speaking Grande did about herself during the brisk 85-minute set. It was amusing to hear her say “I didn’t know which outfit to wear, so I just wore all the outfits,” and no one necessarily needs her to milk her harder times for the benefit of an audience. But there’s probably a happy middle between the voluminous amounts of talking Childish Gambino did at his headlining set Friday and the almost non-existent patter during Grande’s spot Sunday. At Coachella, audience want to feel they’re getting a one-time-only piece of the artist’s heart, whether it’s a completely unique show like Beyoncé’s last year or just some very personal speechifying, a la Gambino. Grande was mostly content to let her standard touring set do the talking, and while that spectacle is not a bad conversationalist, we could have stood to hear a little more from her.

We certainly did get a mouthful, and then some, when Lizzo played to a packed audience in the Mojave tent earlier. She had some choice words for the sound people, for starters. “My name is Lizzo, and this is my first time playing Coachella, so ain’t nothing gonna f— my time up here,” she declared with a big, fierce smile very shortly into the set. “I need everybody over here and over here” — nodding to the wings, in either direction, “to get your technical shit together, because when I’m headlining next time, bitch, I need my motherf—ing ears to work!” Suffice it to say that maybe even as famously bold a control freak as Grande might still be able to take some self-confidence lessons from Lizzo.

The glitches in Lizzo’s set hardly mattered. This was the most jubilant stationary pride parade you’ve ever witnessed, for things and causes Lizzo both directly embodies and doesn’t — gay pride, black pride, plus-size pride, sisterhood pride, proudness pride, you name it. We’d call it a star-is-born moment, except we already claimed that for Lizzo’s South by Southwest performance, and anyway, her star is already practically in grade school by now, since nearly the entire audience was able to collectively sing several of her songs, even though the full-length debut album isn’t due till Friday. Although volumes could be written just about her Coachella show, suffice it to say for now that Lizzo will be getting plus-size amounts of coverage for years to come.

(One side note: with Billie Eilish performing Saturday and Lizzo Sunday, it feels very, very safe to say that Coachella got two of next year’s Grammys’ best new artist nominees back to back, and that those won’t be their only nominations.)

Eilish showed up as a surprise guest at Khalid’s penultimate main stage show Sunday, though her slight contribution to “Lovely” couldn’t help but seem anticlimactic after her galvanizing performance the day before. Khalid was all about the guests: Normani came out to sing on “Love Lies,” Halsey emerged to do her duties on “Eastside” and Marshmello… well, Marshmello showed up to at least stand around during “Silence,” although he may have been belting out an aria inside the costume head for all we know.

As a performer, Khalid pretty much redefines “effortless”… which is actually meant as a little bit of a compliment and a little bit of an acknowledgement that it’s hard to see this shorts-wearing R&B singer moving up into the very top slot at a ‘Chella ’20 or ’21. But at a festival in which probably a majority of performers could probably at least be put up on charges of trying too hard, if not necessarily convicted, having Khalid play it easy like Sunday morning on a Sunday night had its distinct appeal. He is just about the most emo performer Coachella has seen or ever will see: By his own declaration, the guy just wants a hug — honest! (He also has new songs about how fame sucks and women just want to use you, which made his set kind of a sequel to the Weeknd’s last year.)

Wait, did we say Khalid’s performance seemed effortless? That word should really be reserved for a set like Zedd’s. When Katy Perry gets a standing ovation (all right, everyone was already standing, but still) just for being a live human on stage in the middle of a DJ show full of famous disembodied voices, it’s a sign of something. Mostly it’s a sign that, as great as “The Middle” is, and as okay as Perry singing “365” was, a set in which really everything on stage was pre-recorded except for one guest cameo probably isn’t the stuff of which main stage performances are made, even if we are way, way into the era of Coachella as an unabashed pop and not rock festival.