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August 27, 2014

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Nostalgia-chella: To move forward, the SoCal desert music festival should look back less

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Chris Pizzello/AP

Pulp performs during Weekend 1.

Coachella’s new two-weekend format drew more than 80,000 people on each of its six days, the highest average attendance in the Southern California desert festival’s 13-year history. What was once a relatively small gathering struggling to turn a profit has officially become an international destination for music fans and a career benchmark for emerging and established acts.

Coachella’s double-dip lineup seemed obsessed with re-creating the past, bringing in a host of big-name reunion acts and even staging the holographic revival of dead rapper Tupac Shakur, highlighting a cultural romance with memories and nostalgia. That’s nothing new, but it was especially pervasive this year. It was even evident in the performance of 20-year-old rapper Azealia Banks, whose patent leather overalls, voguing backup dancers and Prodigy cover (“Firestarter”) felt like a love letter to the not-so-distant mid-’90s.

Banks’ prowess as an MC and lyricist has made her hip-hop’s new critical darling, but there was little about her beats or style that pointed in a truly original creative direction; it was, ironically, the set’s tongue-in-cheek throwback flavor that gave it much of its fresh and edgy feel. Then there were ’90s comeback heroes Pulp, who opened both Coachella sets with their ode to nostalgia, “Do You Remember the First Time?”

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Azealia Banks

Nevertheless, the weather (cold and rainy for parts of Weekend 1 and stiflingly hot throughout Weekend 2), the crowd (around 6 percent bought tickets for both weekends) and performance variations managed to give each weekend a distinct feel. If the second weekend lacked for surprises, it also smoothed out the previous weekend’s technical kinks, which included a delay in Justice’s set and a display malfunction during Avicii’s performance.

In many cases, Weekend 2 also brought larger crowds and more enthusiastic performances from non-headlining artists, no doubt thanks to rave reviews they received the first time around. Flying Lotus’ Saturday night set spilled well beyond the 3,000-capacity Gobi tent; crooner Frank Ocean had fans camping out by his stage for hours before his Weekend 2 set; and tuxedoed garage-rockers the Hives finally got the raucous, sweaty moshpit they deserved, despite Weekend 2’s lethargy-inducing heat.

Weekend 2 only faltered when it tried too hard to replicate Weekend 1. When politically charged punks Refused followed up a raw comeback set with a carbon copy—right down to frontman Dennis Lyxzén’s “remember-when” stage banter—there was something unsettling about it, particularly when Lyxzén noted, “For us it’s déjà vu. For you it’s a new day.”

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Tupac: The Hologram

Similarly, the return of the Tupac hologram during Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre’s bland second headlining set was underwhelming, serving only to highlight the fact that, without the element of surprise, the hologram technology is fairly unimpressive in real life. Moreover, the hologram’s eerie, scripted greeting (“What the f*ck is up, Coachella?”) made the performance feel like less of a tribute to the late rapper than a desperate attempt to mine originality from our past.

This fixation with nostalgia isn’t anything we haven’t already seen in Las Vegas. While the city is always hungry for the next new thing, its myriad tribute acts and theme hotels exist in homage to other times and places (not to mention that performers like Celine Dion already perform onstage with holograms).

Let’s leave the tribute acts to Vegas, and not forget that popular festivals like Coachella were once intended to showcase exciting new artists. Maybe the problem isn’t with the festivals, but with the lack of originality in pop music. A look at some of Coachella’s most popular acts—like the ’60s blues-rock flavor of headliners The Black Keys—reminds us that many of this decade’s most successful artists have cannibalized past musical trends for new material.

Still, Coachella showed us that the seeds of innovation are out there: The stirring anti-establishment pop of Wu Lyf, the brooding, industrial aggression of Death Grips and the nuanced, cerebral compositions of Flying Lotus pushed in creative directions with messages that speak to the challenges of life this decade. They’re a hopeful promise that today’s reign of retromania might soon be replaced by new voices for a new generation.

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