Still Don’t Know What Coachella Is? Find Out Here…..
On Sunday night of Coachella weekend 1, just like every other night that weekend, south-easterly winds swept from the Pacific ocean over the land. Colossal columns of wind pulled dust out of the ground and into the air, over crushed reusable aluminum water bottles, and the dismantled material remains of 2023’s festival––it is as if the Mojave perpetually tries to pull this land back into dust and sand, until it consumes the finely-tuned and well-irrigated oasis of Indio, California, one-day becoming desert anew. Frank Ocean’s maligned Sunday night performance of Weekend 1 will live on YouTube for a while though until all the cellphone videos eventually get taken down, or maybe until the data centers that house them are swallowed up by the sun.
Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival has been around for almost 25 years now, but has undergone substantial conceptual changes since its inception, marked by several pivotal performances: first, in 2006, with Daft Punk’s pyramid bringing about a shift towards spectacle in dance music, and again in the early 2010s, around the time of the infamous Tupac Shakur hologram performance, it became the face of a new, high production-value strain of festival culture that marked the rest of the decade. Beyoncé’s now-legendary, maximum-octane, intricately choreographed and pyrotechnic 2018 performance set a new standard for headlining acts, which, to some extent, recent Top 40 headliners have attempted to emulate in energy and extravagance.
Rising star Nia Archives closed out the Sonora tent on Saturday. “It was super cool to be a UK underground artist to be playing one of the biggest festivals in America, bringing the UK sounds to an American audience. I get anxiety before every show and playing something with so much hype and pressure around it made it no different! Sonora was a vibe, I think it was the only AC’d tent on site… I was nervous as my set was at 10:PM clashing against some huge artists,” she says, referring to Eric Prydz’s HOLO just a stone’s throw away at the Outdoor stage, “but I was gassed to see a big crowd turn up for most of my set and people were skanking!”
In the Yuma, where house- and techno-heads attending the fest would spend most of their time, the booking is alternately global and fed in from the local dance music scene in Los Angeles. About how much of an “LA” versus global dance music industry presence Coachella has, LA-based SOHMI (who played both at the Yuma and Do LaB during weekend 1), says: “I think [LA and Coachella] feed into each other a bit. For one, the main thing that makes me feel like they feed into each other is the people, the scene. There’s so many familiar faces out at Coachella, who I see in the LA club scene. So it kind of feels like we’re all just out here together in the desert, just in a bigger open field with less pollution.”
Tucked away in a corner of the grounds, next to a flower-covered Adidas building and thankfully located some distance from the garishly-branded Heineken House (which featured a wild line-up of its own but was also located unfortunately close to a large bank of outhouses), a smaller tent housing James Murphy and 2manydjs’ Despacio installation offered a gentler analog to the Yuma. Too dark to photograph inside, revelers all but abandoned their phone cameras and let loose to the impressive soundsystem, comprised of six speaker nodes each outfitted with McIntosh amplifiers, arranged circularly around the checkerboard dancefloor with a disco ball overhead. With experiments such as phone-neutering Yondr pouches having now fallen out of fashion, abandoning the concept of lighting altogether seems to be an effective, less invasive strategy towards the same end––in the near-total darkness, people finally loosened up enough to lose themselves to whatever weird, wonderful records James Murphy and 2manydjs had excavated for the weekend.
Coachella’s rise in American public awareness was concurrent with the country’s early 2010’s drug-panic, surrounding the use of adulterated MDMA at electronic music festivals, but there was little outward evidence of this drug’s use at Coachella weekend 1 this year. Broadly, the drug of choice was $18 mixed drinks, rather than ecstasy. You could arguably feel the absence of psychedelic drugs in the absence of interaction people had with each other, which seems also to be a function of technological conditioning and the pervasive attitude of passive consumption; walking the grounds, there were some smiles, but also a lot of exhausted and stone-faced people, overwhelmed by it all.
Friday’s line-up for the Gobi tent was a work of art in itself, with machine-drum-tinged Californian grunge absurdists The Garden following an absolutely ethereal Yves Tumor performance, which was itself preceded by a high-energy delivery from Tobe Nwigwe. But after The Garden (and their surprise guest Mac Demarco) departed the Gobi stage, a large steel cage was rolled out that would imminently house Whyte Fang (AKA Alison Wonderland).
It’s likely that anyone reading this has a fully-formed opinion already on what happened the following night. There have been countless first-person accounts on TikTok and Instagram, podcast interviews with fired ice skaters, takedowns by prominent media outlets and other artists.
Rather, it’s the interpretation of apathy from Frank around these disorganized elements of his performance that is the root of this controversy. Whatever elements crystallized into the performance Sunday, they caused it to resemble more of a conceptual art installation than what we expect a typical Coachella headline show to be, which, these days, would be something on-par in spectacle to a Superbowl half-time performance. Any degree of apathy towards an audience, whether or not there was indeed apathy on Frank’s part, is almost worse than open disdain for a crowd, because it leaves no room for them. The role of an artist at this festival is to use performance to mediate connection, or even just hold attention, between themselves and the audience. The stage-change additionally seems to have been particularly brutal on the production crews and frustrating for corollary performers who weren’t able to deliver the performance they’d been training for. Still, there was a compelling, if unfinished or incomplete, performance there, and one which did offer moments of transcendence, for those who were able to see beyond their expectations.
Far behind the health and well-being of the audience, there’s another issue at play: what Frank’s performance might have meant for dance music specifically. Giving the incredibly talented Paris-based DJ Crystallmess an opportunity to rip Jersey club and Sango remixes of his songs on a divinely-appointed set of CDJs, designed by the late Virgil Abloh, on the biggest stage at the most name-recognizable music festival in America, should have been seen as somewhat of a monumental accomplishment for the artist, subgenre, and dance music in general, if not for everything else that surrounded it. The PrEP+ and Homer Radio ventures, which influenced this performance, are both steeped in the queer history of dance music, and the Crystallmess interlude at Coachella fits well within this vein. It was meaningful in this respect, but was far overshadowed by the broader public discourse surrounding the performance in its entirety.
Coachella’s choice to release the entire recording of Frank’s replacement act from week 2, a b2b2b between Fred again.., Skrillex and Four Tet on YouTube, seems as much a mea culpa by Goldenvoice as it is an honest endorsement of this particular set: publishing the set seems a convenient way to distract the headlines from the lingering controversy surrounding the still-enigmatic Frank Ocean performance. OMG TBA delivered a significant set, sure, but the saviorism attached to the whole thing by fans in the comments and press feels strange. It’s DJs closing Coachella’s main stage, but it’s not an underdog story, it’s the biggest festival in the country hastily booking a safe bet with much lower production costs. The festival-sized remixes of pop songs that dominated the 90 minutes reflected its status as an exemplar of dance music commodification, not culture.