Coachella festival: a lot of posing

The audience has grown much more powerful, mostly through the forces of the Internet and social media.

Tue, Apr 15, 2014, 13:00

The age of the pop performer being somehow distinct from or greater than the audience is almost over; the audience has grown much more powerful, mostly through the forces of the Internet and social media. Nowhere is this more apparent perhaps than at last weekend’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, whose audience - cultivated over 15 editions in 15 years - has all that soft power and money, too: Tickets cost at least $375. The audience members have been called tastemakers, but let’s see that generalization and raise it. Let’s call them artists.

Here, Pharrell Williams, the present definition of a pop star, can talk to a crowd at something sounding like his own level, and even elicit sympathy. (“You don’t even understand how hurt my feelings are right now,” he said Saturday night toward the end of a canny, strategically guest-filled performance, “that I’m losing my voice because of all this dust.”) This is a festival that has cultivated its own talent, in a general sense and over time, either directly or by example. The performers were often a direct extension and reflection of the fans, as if one could stroll up onstage, start singing and become the other.

But who were the fans? One is a young man who bangs his body around to show you that he has been to the gym, or that he has a basically competitive attitude. He has grown simpler over the history of the festival. He wears black sunglasses, sleeveless shirt or none at all, backward baseball cap or headband, a water-pack on his back. He is a flat, hardy example of power and privilege. He seems to have no history. If style is something specific to a time or place that pleases the eye and the mind, he has no style. His time is running out. (Don’t blame him. Blame globalism, the major banks, professional sports.)

The other is a young woman who has by contrast grown more complicated: flowing summer dresses and floppy hats, fringes on everything, studded ankle boots and cutout sandals, fussy little bags with gold buckles, Navajo prints, mystical and skeptical, a cross between Laurel Canyon 1972 and Upper East Side 1986. An old-school cultural typologist, one looking for myth and cultural meaning, might say: This type looks more flexible, curious and specific to the region; she is meticulous and in some vague way historical, aware of the past, at least as, like, a thing. This is the type on which to base a culture and an economy.

The bros continue to pack into the mainstream electronic dance-music shows in the gigantic Sahara tent, a space whose sound and culture hasn’t changed much in the last seven years or so. (This year’s Sahara slate included Zedd, Martin Garrix and Alesso.) But everywhere else in greater numbers, the young women redeem the festival. It is for, about, and in many cases by, them.

I’ve been to Coachella seven times, but this was the year when it really became clear that Coachella women, loosely defined, were usually the best or most definitive performers onstage. The sisters of the band Haim, from Los Angeles, who told the crowd toward the end of a strong set that they’d sneaked into the festival every year since 2004; Warpaint, playing mysterious post-punk, both rough and unapologetically smooth; Lana Del Rey, in a red dress, practicing the art of moving little and signifying much as she played her stately new song “West Coast,” which sounds like channel-switching between two attractive fugue states; Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells, an electro-punk shouter who has turned into a powerful soul singer; Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches; Aluna Francis of AlunaGeorge; Ellie Goulding; Lorde, of the newly mainstream, spacious and anthemic post-R&B; and a new demi-Lorde named Banks, whose intonation problems got in the way of her mysteriousness. (She has declared that she doesn’t like social media and has posted her telephone number on her Facebook page, which is a brilliant way of using social media.)

And then there were women who drew a more severe or high-concept line between performer and audience: Solange Knowles, dance-instructing and practicing high-register vocal chops on optimistic ‘80s R&B; the Nigerian-Lebanese DJ Nicole Moudaber, playing a hypnotic, strictly minimal, bass-heavy set at the Yuma tent, this festival’s successful approximation of an indoor club. Further, there were men making music that has manageable scale and texture and sensitivity, music that for whatever reason, women tend to like: Andre 3000 of the reunited Outkast; Williams; Blood Orange, built around the funk scholar Dev Hynes; and Future Islands, basically built around the singer Samuel T. Herring.

Williams reads this crowd perfectly: His music goes right down the middle between the two Coachella types, with tight, bouncing, aerated rhythm, and falsettos for days. (His dance records, unlike the music in the Sahara tent, have a clean design sense.) Before he lost his voice, in an hourlong set of songs under his own name or that he produced - what’s the difference, really? - he called in his chits, bringing onstage Busta Rhymes (for “Pass the Courvoisier, Part II”), Gwen Stefani (for “Hollaback Girl”), Nelly, Snoop Dogg and Diplo.

Coachella, whose lineup repeats next weekend, is a self-contained media polity, streaming and photographing itself like crazy, tweeting to the end of time. (Rebecca Nicholson of The Guardian got it just right in a piece that ran online Saturday, which ended with the sentence “There really was a lot of posing.”) It also falls at the beginning of the summer festival season and acts as a preview for the next few months of live pop around the world. For those reasons, it breeds special occasions, such as Justin Bieber appearing during Chance the Rapper’s set, Mary J. Blige during Disclosure’s, or Debbie Harry during Arcade Fire’s, all of which happened Sunday; or old-band reunions, like Outkast or the Replacements; or new arrangements, such as what Beck did in a strong Sunday night performance with songs like “New Pollution” and “Gamma Ray.”

But only rarely does a band philosophically reinvent itself for a tour, which is what the Swedish electronic group the Knife did Friday. For the tour behind its recent album “Shaking the Habitual,” it hasn’t created a spectacle around its primary singer, Karin Dreijer Andersson. It has become a leaderless troupe of women, for the most part, dancing in pastel-colored suits and playing invented instruments, mostly percussive, chanting metaphors and dreams which finally cohere into songs, and moving in joyous patterns. (When Andersson served as featured singer, she stood toward the back of the stage.) They were dancers and singers and musicians, not one thing more than any other; they were performers, privileging the performance over the song, and they were challenging the limitations of what a music-festival gig can be.

A New York Times Service

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