Coachella is the king of music festivals. And I really do mean king. The long-running, two-weekend event recently announced its lineup for 2020, and once again, it will have an entirely male set of headliners. To its credit, the lineup does contain an interesting, and in some senses diverse, array of talent — including high-profile K-pop stars and some of music’s most acclaimed acts from 2019. But as the tone-setting opener for the summer music festival circuit, Coachella still has a lot of room to improve.
Below, I’ve culled some of the best, worst, and weirdest elements of Coachella’s 2020 lineup. (The festival will take place April 10-12 and 17-19 in Indio, California.) In short: Fans of a good comeback, rejoice! Lovers of rock music, my condolences! And Lana Del Rey fans, I feel your frustration. (Same goes for anyone who’s trying to get passes; both weekends are currently waitlisted.)
Good: K-pop royalty makes a surprise return
Once upon a time, K-pop was synonymous with a boy band not named BTS: BigBang. As soon as the five-piece group released its debut album in 2006, Korea was in love; by 2012, so was much of the rest of the world.
BigBang’s fifth EP entered the Billboard charts that year, marking the first time any Korean group charted in the US; their music has outsold that of the Backstreet Boys; their videos have been viewed more than 4 billion times on YouTube. Even the members of BTS are huge BigBang fanboys.
BigBang occasionally took breaks from performing together while its individual members — known as Daesung, G-Dragon, Seungri, Taeyang, and T.O.P. — pursued highly successful solo careers. By 2016, however, just as the group was reaching its peak, it began to break apart. One by one in the months that followed, the boys enlisted in the military, required of all South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35. By 2018, with each member either starting or about to start their military service, the group had no choice but to announce a hiatus.
The K-pop scene continued to grow after BigBang left it, but not without some drama: In March 2019, Seungri announced that he would leave the music industry for good after he was implicated in a sex scandal. The event left such a bad taste in fans’ mouths that it wouldn’t be a total surprise if BigBang chose to disband entirely. And that’s a big part of why it was such a pleasant surprise for music fans that the group’s name appeared on the Coachella lineup.
BigBang’s Coachella concerts will be the group’s first since it went on break in 2018 (the group will return as a four-piece, without Seungri). They’re a huge score for the festival and international fans of K-pop. (Also set to appear: the group Epik High, another longtime K-pop staple that has collaborated with BigBang in the past.)
Will the group stumble without Seungri, who choreographed much of their impressive footwork? I have a feeling that, as long as four-fifths of BigBang is up there singing and dancing, fans will be too overwhelmed to care.
Bad: All-male headliners, as usual
The lineup poster remains an inextricable, integral part of a music festival, serving as something of a word search for hipsters of every age. It may seem nonsensical to spend so much time scrutinizing font sizes and the organization of names, but they tell us a lot about how the festival industry perceives and presents music in a given year. And in 2020, music is looking male as all get-out, according to Coachella.
Last year, I reported on the disturbing lack of female headliners at music festivals like Coachella. This year’s lineup, unfortunately, maintains the homogenous status quo. No knocks against Frank Ocean, Travis Scott, or the reunited Rage Against the Machine, but lineups like Coachella’s reintroduce the age-old question: When will mainstream festival organizers recognize their responsibility to challenge the industry’s gender bias?
It’s not that Coachella hasn’t had female headliners before. Ariana Grande headlined last year’s show, and Beyoncé’s Homecoming live album release reminded us of how inventive her headlining Coachella performances were in 2018. But Grande shared top billing with Childish Gambino and Tame Impala, a reminder of how other female acts were denied the biggest stage of the night, despite their immense acclaim. Take 2019 non-main-stage act Billie Eilish, who would go on to be nominated for every major category at this year’s Grammys. Billboard’s Bianca Gracie wrote of Eilish’s performances then that she was “deserving of a headliner slot.” Guess the Coachella folks missed that memo. But the biggest diss of all? Lizzo, whose name appeared in the small print last year — funny now, considering her blockbuster 2019. (She’s also up for a load of Grammys in 2020.)
Coachella did not course-correct this year, as artists like FKA Twigs, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Megan Thee Stallion’s names are relatively low on the list. Each one had a stunning 2019, as did Lana Del Rey, whom some music critics consider to be the most slighted of all. Del Rey’s album Norman Fucking Rockwell!, released in August, was cited by outlets like Pitchfork as not only the best record of the year but also one of the best of the entire decade, just weeks after it went on sale. The Lana stans are not happy about this one. I can’t blame them.
Good: Frank Ocean, always elusive, makes a rare appearance in the top spot
Channel Orange (2012) and Blonde (2016), Frank Ocean’s two studio albums, were seminal works of the 2010s. Together, they tell the story of a young black man embracing his queerness, first through the soulful R&B and hip-hop of Channel Orange, then through the more existential, experimental pop of Blonde. Ocean was heralded as an ingenue, a rarity, a marvel who transcended genre. After hardly touring for either album, however, the singer-songwriter ducked out of the spotlight.
Rumors of a Coachella headlining spot for Ocean are now an annual tradition, always in the hope that such an appearance will coincide with the release of new music. Ocean’s increased visibility toward the end of 2019 — he put out a pair of singles and made news for hosting highly exclusive queer club nights — hinted that 2020 might finally be the year fans would see his name on a festival poster. And now Coachella has succeeded in booking him, granting fans two whole opportunities to see this enigmatic force in person.
Bad: Rock music might as well not be there
Rage Against the Machine is no small get for Coachella, especially since the influential rock band hasn’t performed together in eight years. The group stands out from the rest of the festival’s 2020 lineup because of its legendary status, and because of its genre: It’s a four-piece rock band featured in a lineup that is decidedly light on rock.
There are plenty of guitar-based bands to be found in the lineup, sure; King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Pup, Snail Mail, Mannequin Pussy, Idles, and (my absolute favorite) Beach Bunny are all worth paying attention to. But they make up most of a small number of groups that can be thrown into the rock bucket at Coachella. On the one hand, Coachella tends to cater to popular interests, and hip-hop is undeniably huge right now. On the other, plenty of other festivals find a way to fit in more genre variation. But then, variety is not Coachella’s strong suit in more ways than one.
Good: A virtual internet superstar will hit the real-life stage
Hatsune Miku is only 16, but she’s already internationally known — and has been for more than 12 years.
If that math doesn’t sound quite right, it’s because the Japanese pop star known to her fan base as Miku isn’t exactly ... real. Instead, she’s the creation of a software program called Vocaloid that allows users to compose music for Miku to sing. And while Vocaloid does offer other avatars, Miku has been the face of the program since it launched in Japan in 2007.
Global fans of Miku first found her through viral videos, where Miku is seen dancing alongside catchy, popular tunes. And then they began to worship her for her performances of both Vocaloid users’ compositions and professionally produced original songs. All of her “hits” feature her perfectly high-pitched computerized voice set to bubblegum earworms, so it’s hardly a surprise that Miku eventually became a phenomenon, big enough to take her act on the road.
A Miku concert typically consists of an eight-foot-tall projection of the character’s anime school-girl likeness; Miku is all big eyes, short skirts, and blue pigtails. For two hours, she sings and dances, and she’s even been known to transform into a winged angel toward the end of her show, rising toward the ceiling and disappearing into the ether as if she has been welcomed into a heavenly realm. It’s always a completely wild, packed experience, with almost no point of comparison. I saw her live once, and I still can’t believe it wasn’t a highly illogical dream.
In some ways, then, it seems like Miku’s big festival debut is long overdue. Coachella has hosted a “virtual band” before, when Gorillaz performed in 2010. But that group had the benefit of both performing in English and having actual human beings play instruments and sing onstage to accompany the animated characters. Miku is different in that she’s her own digital entity; no one pulls the strings at a Miku show except for Miku. (Or, rather, her software.) To the Coachella crowd partying in the dry desert heat, Miku may seem less a specter than an otherworldly being, and that sounds like a win for them and for futuristic pop music.
Bad: You can see Lil Nas X, but only if you squint
2019 should be remembered as the year of Lil Nas X, who ignited questions of genre, race, and industry conventions with the release of his first single, “Old Town Road.” Lil Nas X proved to be more than just a gimmick, even as country music purists deemed him to be just that; his cowboy hat and friendship with Billy Ray Cyrus belied his vested interest in offering a unique take on SoundCloud rap. And that he did, to the attention of the Billboard charts and the Grammys. Among his nominations this year is even an Album of the Year nod for his debut EP, 7.
One should consider themselves lucky to see Lil Nas X these days, with all of that in mind. But Coachella has snuck him into the lower reaches of the lineup poster, giving him a spot at the festival as if it was begrudged to do so. It seems an odd placement for someone as widely beloved and successful as Lil Nas X. I’m not saying he should be a headliner — the dude’s got, like, six songs! But I’m willing to bet he’ll be headlining Coachella or its competitors in the future, and we’ll all have a laugh about this. Maybe.
“This is weird but cool, I guess!”: Danny Elfman will play his greatest soundtrack jams
The Simpsons theme song has been a bop for 31 seasons now. All the songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas rule. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure has one of the best soundtracks of all time. The best part of Fifty Shades of Grey? The music, easily.
Composer Danny Elfman is the tie that binds them all, creating some of the finest music of the past 45 years. That said, jamming to his cinematic soundscapes at a music festival known for its faux-bohemian vibe, highly privileged attendees, and marketing opportunities masquerading as “live experiences” seems like a strange proposition. But there’s precedent, as the composer Hans Zimmer performed a standout set in 2017. If Zimmer could play his Dark Knight soundtrack for a crowd of spaced-out youths and come away as one of the year’s highlights, Danny Elfman should be able to do the same easily.
Also, we can’t forget about Elfman’s classic new wave band, Oingo Boingo. Oingo Boingo reunion when?