Critic's Notebook: Is the 2019 Coachella Lineup the Weakest of All Time?

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Jaden Smith.

It’s bad, fam.

It’s been fashionable for almost a decade to criticize Coachella lineup reveals, ever since the once fringe-y festival elevated itself to this mainstream, hyper-commercialize, AEG-owned behemoth that we all now know. But with yesterday’s announcement of the supremely underwhelming 2019 slate, it’s clear that music is now truly an afterthought and that the organizers don’t have many new ideas up their sleeves; it’s all about copy/pasting old lineups.  

Let’s start with the headliners. After rumors emerged that Kanye and festival producer Goldenvoice couldn’t strike a deal, it now appears that Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande and Tame Impala are the marquee performers. Grande — while an obvious pop and radio star — feels misplaced. Childish Gambino doesn’t really have the body of work to back up being the headliner of any sort of festival, and it’s clear this is about Donald Glover’s overall celebrity and less about his musical bona fides. Tame Impala is the only one who seems to fit in with the classic Coachella ethos and vibe, but they’ve already played Coachella several times. And Grande and Gambino have as well, in this decade.

This is a far cry from the days when the festival would book heavies like Prince and Daft Punk, or serve up memorable reunions like Mazzy Star, Siouxsie and the Banshees or the Outkast trainwreck from 2014 — or even reunions from fake retirements, like LCD Soundsystem a few years back. There are no such moments promised for this year’s installment — just a bunch of serviceable KCRW-type acts alongside a few pop stars and EDM bros.  

For the mid-upper-tier names, there’s almost less to be excited about. Like, who is the audience for Jaden Smith and Russian techno iconoclast and true weirdo Nina Kraviz? Why are they on a bill right next to each other? And, sure, artists like Solange are talented, but she’s appeared multiple times on these same fields. They could have at least promoted her to headliner to bump up the stakes a bit.

The most noise around this lineup drop seems to be the fact that many people were unaware that film and TV star Idris Elba has been DJing for decades, which is bizarre since Elba has been talking about this for years on social media and in the press. The casual fans of music who didn’t know Elba had a musical career are the core Coachella audience now, as opposed to the more engaged music fans. And the fact that this is the main story the press seems to have picked up on again reinforces how sleepy this lineup is. Releasing it a day after New Year’s Day almost makes it feel like they were trying to bury the announcement. Like they knew it was not newsworthy.

Far too many of the 2019 booked acts have played before — some of them 3 or 4 times even — and don’t necessarily merit another appearance, unless you like spending ungodly amounts of money on the same thing every year. It’s clear the bookers have certain relationships with certain artists and their management, and that’s really starting to show. The festival used to be a lot better at shuffling the deck and keeping things fresh — or at least making it feel like they were catering to an audience that was voracious and curious. Maybe it’s impossible to program a lineup that feels like an event or a genuine cultural moment in 2019; maybe culture is too broad and simultaneously too granulated.  

Rap, R&B and radio pop fans probably have the most to look forward to this April, with sets from Pusha T and Blood Orange. SoundCloud rap enthusiasts were thrown a bone via Billie Eilish — whose music is just simply not very good — though she nabbed a second-line spot somehow.

Blackpink represents the first K-Pop group on a Coachella lineup (which feels late), and there’s only one metal act, Chon.

Fans of underground dance music and EDM alike have little to look forward to and — as is true of fans of all the genres represented here — have way better offerings at specialty and niche festivals, often at a fraction of the price, effort or hype. On one hand you’ve got Aphex Twin, who always brings some surprises, but for every Aphex Twin, there are eight snoozers like Dillon Francis, Bassnectar and Diplo. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like reading an incoherent list of artists from five of your friends who have nothing in common.

Coachella rumors used to be fun. Now nobody seems to care. You could argue that the fun has been sapped from the event since they expanded to hosting the event over two weekends in a row in 2012 or since Philip Anschutz’s support of anti-queer legislation and right-wing groups has become evident. Or you could argue that once the experience trumped the music and they started to sell out prior to publicizing the lineup there was no turning back. That, or the Tupac hologram.

With the ever-swelling cost of attending and exhaustion of ideas and vision in the booking department, it’s clear that the Empire Polo Fields are not a place designed for fun music discovery. It’s now just a place where brands do activations and wealthy children go to party. Pour one out.