What Really Makes a Performance Coachella-Worthy?

Cardi B (Credit: Chris Victorio)

There’s always a lot of talk about what makes an artist’s set at Coachella particularly memorable. It’s that intangible glow or specific moment we think about that makes all the other names on the past festival posters melt away to reveal the diamonds in this desert Goliath that springs up every year in Indio for two weekends in a row. It’s what many of us base our entire experience off of in the years we look back at the artists who caught us by surprise and got us to actually feel something we weren’t prepared for, even when we thought we were.

In that sense, the bar for a Coachella-worthy show is getting harder and harder to attain these days thanks to technology and the power of online streaming that allows us to obsess over every artist we want to see on the bill. With the music world at our fingertips, nothing is foreign–not even inside the festival grounds where most of the sets are live streamed a during  Weekend 1 and could easily be considered old hat by Weekend 2. And with that comes a wave of affected opinions and snap judgements that can cause us to box an artist in before we’ve even seen them outside our phone.

Before I’d seen Princess Nokia perform on Sunday night at the Sonora Stage, I hadn’t heard much from  the New York rapper/singer-songwriter who commanded a range of styles from hard-nosed trap beats to heartbroken emo in the course of her 45 minute set. I walked in to the sounds of her hit single “Tomboy” which at first listen feels like a direct descendent of rappers like Trina and Missy Elliot. It’s a tack I’d definitely heard and even streamed once or twice on Spotify so I felt like I knew what I was getting into. But before this weekend, if you’d told me I would also witness her do a cover of Blink 182’s “Miss You” with a live band I probably wouldn’t have believed you. The audience’s body heat packed inside Coachella’s circular club stage was only matched by the fire coming from Nokia’s mic as the Puerto Rican, bi-sexual performer went beyond her discography to deliver a message to the crowd made up of largely gay audience, also something I didn’t realize until she spoke to the crowd.

Princess Nokia (Credit: Chris Victorio)

“I just wanna say, where all my gay folk at?” she shouted, followed by roaring applause. “I don’t care about the views of the owner of this mothafucker, I know that I represent queer people…I was a brown queer woman with nobody behind me…and because of my talent and my creativity I was asked and I was grateful to present at this caliber of a show because this kind of representation matters.”

It definitely does matter, especially at a time when this festival seems to be the most at odds with itself. A once exotic festival fathomed and bolstered by open-minded liberal is now a pop culture goliath owned by Philip Anschutz (the “motherfucker” in question), a conservative billionaire with ties to the Koch Brothers who is reported to have donated money to anti-gay groups.

In this context of what Coachella has become and where it’s going, it’s important to look at not only the artists that are booked and the motives behind those bookings, but how the artist themselves choose to use the stage once they’re there that makes Coachella a source of cultural relevance. That’s why it’s so fitting that during a year the festival was written off by many critics for being vapid and slanted toward younger artists who’ve risen faster than ever because of the internet that so many of them came forward to use the stage in a way that showed their strengths (and in some cases their weaknesses).

Brockhampton (Credit: Chris Victorio)

One act that exemplified the right way to come of age at Coachella was Brockhampton. Branding themselves as “the Internet’s First Boy Band” could’ve allowed the 14-member Texas troupe the latitude to simply play the hits off their voluminous discography of Saturation I, II and III. Given the reviews I’d read from their past shows back when they started, I was prepared to see them dance around a little bit and shout a volley of undecipherable swag-tastic slogans to a crowd that would’ve enjoyed it and moved on. Instead, the group chose to stand out. Rolling into the Mojave tent out of a helicopter donning flak jackets with adjectives like “Faggot,” “Nigger,” “Wakanda” and “Fiend” already showed they’d put more than a little thought into their performance o Saturday afternoon. The group’s mastermind, openly gay rapper Kyle Abstract, lead the charge wearing the word “Faggot” on his chest, anchoring a group of rappers and singers who not only seemed militantly disciplined in their approach but also elevated their show with a full orchestra, adding an extra layer to the songs they performed to an overwhelmingly lit crowd of teens and twentysomethings. The result was mature, defiant, and yes, hype as fuck.

Shows like this stand in stark contrast to massive acts like Migos and Post Malone on the bloated Sahara tent which iwas bigger this year than ever before and placed at the front entrace of the polo grounds. Despite their cultural currency these days with a succession of No. 1 hits, the aforementioned acts seemed to only use them as a crutch instead a means to up their game. Within minutes of both sets I witnessed waves of people simply walking away out of boredom. In today’s climate of Coachella fatigue felt even by the people who show up to the event year after year, it’s not enough for an artist to just show up and do what’s expected. Risks are required.

Tyler, The Creator could’ve easily pulled a Vince Staples and done an hour’s worth of rapping on stage backed by massive projections that swallowed his performance whole. Instead he devised a stage, a plot and a performance that showcased his imagination and brought his critically acclaimed album Flower Boy to life even more so than his previous tour stops. Transforming the stage into a forest of his twisted and psychedelic imagination made his transitions from a full-throttle rage of a song like “Deathcamp” to the laidback R&B of “Boredom” show how far he’s come as an artist. That’s what we want to see at Coachella–something that can reach us the same way from the front row as it does from 100 yards away and show us an artist’s true colors.

Tank and the Bangas (Credit: Chris Victorio)

Looking back at all of the successful Coachella sets I saw over the last two weekends, every artist found a way to show us a piece of themselves. Some, like Tarriona “Tank” Ball of Tank and Bangas did it with animated showmanship and spoken word, drawing from drama and humor in the same breath on soulful songs like “Oh Heart” that cut through the emptiness of an era of Instagramable look-at-me-culture and brought us a story of internal beauty which Ball undoubtedly has in spades. It radiated in every ounce of her and the band’s performance in ways that don’t quite translate during even the deepest YouTube video search, including last year’s winning NPR Tiny submission that started the New Orleans band on a whirlwind journey to stardom. You just had to be there to see them owning the moment, the sweat and the soul.

A different example of that was the defiant ratchetness of Cardi B. Though she’s probably not the world’s first stripper-turned-rapper, she’s the first to be so open and honest about her past as to make it the first thing you see when she hit the stage. A highlight reel of her former life as an exotic dancer warmed up the crowd as she and her crew of twerking dancers took to the stage (Which she was also not shy about telling us she paid  $300,000 for–more than she reportedly made for performing both weekends). In the face of all the hype laid at her feet by the internet before she performed, her ability to show us who she was and not simply hide behind the hits garnered her a lot of respect from the crowd that didn’t really know if she would deliver. Yes the news of her twerking on a stripper pole while pregnant is the story most people ran with, but the fact that they were talking about her performance at all (most of the reviews seemed positive) shows price tag of her stage setup as a worthwhile investment.

Thee Oh Sees (Credit: Nate Jackson)

On a far less expensive scale, it’s also refreshing to see bands draw people to their energy like moths to a flame at a time when R&B and hip-hop are clearly the main draws of Coachella. The fact that veteran San Francisco band Thee Oh Sees took the stage before a modest crowd on Saturday night didn’t stop their fierce loogie-hawking  leader John Dwyer from exhibiting unabashed electricity from his post as dual drummers bashed away on tribal punk rhythms that brought hundreds more into the party. Scooted up as close to the lip of the stage as they could be, the band broke through the fourth wall with sheer will, drawing as much energy from the crowd as they gave out. By the time Dwyer struck the opening chords of the song “Toe Cutter-Thumb Buster” what was once a tiny gathering became a full on rager that invoked the spirit of reckless abandon that made the spirit of massively impersonal festival feel alive again.

Beyoncé (Credit: Getty Images For Coachella)

Even in the big leagues this year, the difference between The Weeknd’s slick set of molly-dusted, R&B fuckboy anthems or Eminem’s hit-driven referendum on late ‘90s hip-hop looked so hollow next to Beyonce. There was no way to look at her spectacle, a triumphant statement of her role as a black queen in today’s pop culture, and not see an immortal Coachella performance. Whether you loved it or hated it, there’s no denying that people will be talking about it for years to come. All three artists given the same stage chose three very different journeys to take us on but only one seemed to stick in our minds judging by the endless reviews that came out of the desert this weekend.

At this point we’ve come to expect, nay, demand a level of quality from Coachella both in terms of curation and the evolution that keeps it fresh each year. Though it hasn’t always lived up to the task in certain areas, by and large Coachella has always been useful for one thing–showing us what the artists we love on tour and on their records are truly made of. This weekend is more than just a run-of-the-mill show to the artists who wind up lasting after their stint on stage, it’s the opportunity to up their game, even if its only one night. Out here it’s no longer just about streams or glossy videos or how big a social media following you have. It’s about magnetism, power, the ability to arrest someone’s attention from 100 yards away and make them see what all the fuss is about. Attracting people who are hearing your music for the first time and validating the fandom of those who’ve watched you from the beginning.

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