Earlier this morning, regular ass guy and former One Direction heartthrob Louis Tomlinson thought something was off about the Coachella lineup: “Where the fuck are all the bands !?” (spacing his own). As a fan of rock music, I sympathize with Louis. The Indio, California festival has been veering away from bandy-bands and begun catering more to big-tent EDM, pop, and hip-hop for several years now—you have to follow the money, after all. But there were always a small helping of indie rock acts further down the bill, and this year’s no different: Big Thief, Fidlar, Snail Mail, Priests, Japanese Breakfast, Cherry Glazerr—all the way up to St. Vincent, The War on Drugs, and A Perfect Circle on line two, reflecting a broad enough cross section of rock. Tomlinson’s right, though; something’s different this year.
For the first time in Coachella’s nearly two decades of existence, no rock bands—or any band, for that matter—will be headlining the festival. Beyoncé, The Weeknd, and Eminem top the bill for April. Will Eminem revive his awfully hot coffee pot anti-Trump freestyle? Will he and Beyoncé team up for “Walk on Water?” Will Perfume Genius and Eminem actually joust live onstage? Who can say. What’s certain, however, is that it signals a sea change that was only hinted at in past years.
When Paul Tollett and Rick Van Santen launched Coachella in 1999 with Beck, Rage Against the Machine, and Tool as the top-line artists, it’s unlikely that they imagined some of the world’s biggest pop stars convening less than 20 years later in Indio. Last year’s lineup came close to this, when Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyoncé (who was eventually replaced by Lady Gaga) were named as headliners. Coachella’s 2017 lineup was the first to feature just one rock band headliner, indicating that the full pivot wasn’t far off. And based on anecdotal crowd evidence, Coachella anointing an act like LCD Soundsystem or The Stone Roses to headliner status was always more of a symbolic gesture than an indication that they were one of the three most popular acts to perform that weekend.
If anything, the trio of 2018 headliners is less of a major shift for Coachella as it is them being honest about who their most popular acts are and who the average festival-goer wants to pay exorbitant amounts of money to see. Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and Muse will always have a home at the top of the bill if they’re so inclined to sign on—they’re three of the few rock bands who can fill an arena (or at least think it’s worth trying). As festivals grow more and more homogenized, the “if you build it, they will come” ethos reigns supreme over any sort of punk posturing.
Coachella used to be associated with a sort of countercultural cool, spotlighting stadium-ready bands that managed to bring the promise of something unpredictable. At least in the rock world, there are very few of those left who can pack a field of sunkissed kids counting down the hours to Calvin Harris’ set. That’s simply fact.