The assignment: Write a think piece about the five best acts to never play Coachella.
The wrinkle: What does it mean to be a “Coachella act” today?
Looking back at the history of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, it’s easy to see how significantly music has changed since its launch in 1999. Festival co-founder Paul Tollett was lambasted for presenting Madonna at the 2006 iteration because she wasn’t “a Coachella act.”
Today, we look back at the headliners from 1999 through 2016 and scratch our heads over the fact that Bjork was the only female headliner during those years (on two different occasions). Then we think, “And Madonna played a tent in 2006?”
Coachella was launched as a festival for artists who could not get mainstream radio airplay. Tollett’s original idea was, “If I get all these indie, hip-hop and electronic artists together, and they can bring all of their alternative music fans, maybe there can be a big enough audience to make money and do something really cool.”
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But, somewhere down the line, probably in 2008 when Tollett was about to lose another fortune due to slow ticket sales and he made the monumental decision to open his wallet to book Prince, Coachella became a mainstream festival. Today, it is not the niche event it was when it started.
So, with 2019 sensibilities, we can’t reject major mainstream artists from any list of best acts to never play Coachella — even though they may not have been considered Coachella-worthy before 2015, when the hugely popular Drake became a headliner.
Before Lou Reed cancelled his 2013 Coachella appearance and died from liver problems in October of that year, the dream Coachella reunion for Tollett and many early Coachella fans was the Velvet Underground. A reunion of the Smiths was right up there.
But, when Desert Sun staffers discussed dream 2019 reunion acts, one millennial proposed *NSYNC, who would have been anathema to Coachella fans at the height of the boy band’s popularity when the festival was launching to widespread critical acclaim.
So, a list of the five best acts to never play Coachella must reflect contemporary sensibilities and have historical significance. Understanding that some groups, like The Smiths, have too much baggage to ever make a reunion feasible, here is a list of artists that seemingly could have played Coachella, and could still draw an audience at Coachella, selected by a guy who has been to every Coachella since its inception:
1) Pearl Jam. There might not be a Coachella if this Seattle grunge band hadn’t stoked such grand aspirations with their 1993 performance at the Empire Polo Club. Lead singer Eddie Vedder was incendiary, growling out current hits like “Jeremy” and “Rearviewmirror” and climbing the scaffolding. With attendance of about 25,000 people, it was possibly the biggest show in Coachella Valley history. But, with the massive size of the polo club, it looked like there’d been a bomb scare. Tollett and his late partner, Rick Van Santen, still knew the polo grounds were special. After visiting the Glastonbury Festival in England, they realized it was the perfect place to present a multi-venue, European-style festival. They did that in 1999 and the rest is history. Why Pearl Jam hasn’t been a part of that history is a mystery.
2) Metallica. This iconic metal band played the Empire Polo Club as part of The Big Four festival in 2011 with Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax. But Metallica is bigger than a mere genre act. They’ve played with Lady Gaga and the classical pianist, Lang Lang, at the Grammys. They’re old by contemporary Coachella standards, having released their first album (the groundbreaking thrash metal LP, “Kill ‘Em All”) in 1983. But, they have more in common with recent Coachella headliners AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses than Desert Trip.
3) Alicia Keys. She’s not only won 15 Grammys, she hosted the ceremony last month. She’s only 38, but her first No. 1 hit (“Fallin’”) was in 2001 — Coachella’s second year. Keys has been a critical darling who’s collaborated with such diverse Coachella headliners as Jack White (on the James Bond theme song, “Another Way To Die”) Kendrick Lamar (“It’s On Again”), Beyoncé (“Put It In A Love Song”) and Jay-Z (“Empire State of Mind”). She’s been name-checked in a Bob Dylan song (“Thunder On the Mountain”). What other qualifications do you need to get to play Coachella?
4) Rihanna. This Barbadian singer-mogul just turned 31, but she’s already the fifth best-selling female vocalist of all time, behind Madonna (who never headlined Coachella), and Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston (who never played Coachella). More importantly today, she’s the most-streamed female vocalist of all time. When the American Music Awards created an Icon Award in 2013, Rihanna got it. She’s collaborated with Eminem and Paul McCartney, and done a guest spot with Macca at Desert Trip. She guested at Coachella with Calvin Harris. She needs to headline there.
5) R.E.M. If these Georgia rockers were to reunite for one night only, or even a tour, they’d be my pick for a Coachella headline spot. Iconic acts such as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Stevie Wonder are more Desert Trip artists, at this stage of Coachella’s development. R.E.M. is super influential but they still have that alternative panache. They reached huge commercial heights in the 1990s, but they hung it up in 2011 before being forced onto the casino circuit. I’d hope Coachella would embrace Michael Stipes, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry the way they did Prince or Oasis.