Coachella gives kids the pop-fest they want - do young people have any interest in rock 'n' roll anymore?
Coachella is the Paris Hilton of rock festivals: glitzy, Californian, not quite as talked about as it used to be. But the event surged back to prominence last weekend thanks to a double infusion of pop royalty. Lady Gaga debuted a new song, 'The Cure', which immediately began trending worldwide on Twitter, while mysterious teenager Lorde sealed her comeback with an eye-popping performance and duly reduced the internet to a puddle of hyperbole.
This was remarkable on several fronts. First, who knew Lady Gaga was still writing memorable music? More importantly, Coachella - which today begins a second weekend featuring much the same line-up - has confirmed that when it comes to 21st century rock festivals, the rock component is entirely optional. For the young and carefree, guitar music simply isn't where it's at any more.
"Shout-out to all the bands still playing actual instruments at this festival," Arcade Fire singer Win Butler had declared while performing at Coachella in 2014. His outburst coincided with the festival's drift from plugged-in rock 'n' roll towards pop and dance. Just three years later, his hissy remarks have proved remarkably prophetic.
With the exception of a Friday night headlined by Gen X moochers Radiohead - who were forced to leave the stage twice due to sound cuts, leaving the audience distinctly cool on their set - Coachella 2017 is a pop festival with some rock bands tacked on. Especially noteworthy is the absence of 'heritage' acts such as AC/DC, Black Sabbath or The Rolling Stones.
There are even rumours - swiftly denied - that the sainted Kate Bush had been turned down by the promoters on the grounds the kids wouldn't "understand" the grand dame of chirruping performance rock. "You've heard the expression 'youth must be served', right?" Gary Tovar, one of Coachella's founders, said. "We're bringing in the fresh stuff. It's not a conscious thing to make it younger, but we are diversifying."
Within the music industry, Coachella's pursuit of a more youthful audience will not have come as a surprise (far more shocking is the suggestion Kate Bush might be prepared to get on a plane simply to headline a leading international rock festival). Wherever you look, multi-stage events are turning from rock music - the sound of an older generation - and embracing the pop tart and dance hedonist within. It's what the kids want and what the kids are increasingly getting. This summer's Longitude Festival in Marlay Park, for instance, is a who's who of shiny chart stars, with The Weeknd and Dua Lipa among the confirmed acts. Tellingly, the token big name rock act are bloodless banjo bashers Mumford and Sons. A similar lunge into pop was in evidence at last year's V Festival in the UK as Justin Bieber and Rihanna displaced the traditional shaggy rockers (this summer Pink and Jay Z are the major draws).
Even Electric Picnic, the Stradbally festival that has championed independent rock, has gone glitzier in 2017 with hip-hop icons A Tribe Called Quest named as Saturday headliners.
One theory is that such changes reflect a generational shift as young people reject the music of their forbears. There's an emerging view that rock is set to become the 21st century equivalent of jazz: an essentially static artform of shrinking relevance.
What was the last rock band that spoke to the wider culture? The Strokes? Nirvana? Whoever they are, it's been a while.
Meanwhile festivals are themselves becoming more market-focused. In Ireland, Longitude is the three-dayer of choice for twenty-somethings. Electric Picnic attracts a slightly older demographic. In Cork, Indiependence is pitched at a rock audience. There's a festival for every taste so it's rarer for genres to intermingle. So while Coachella is overrun with kids rocking their best festival chic, a very different attendance descended on the same site for last year's Desert Trip (nicknamed 'Oldchella'), which brought together venerable icons Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and The Who.
"We would have an older audience than some other festivals, but we have seen demand for more dance music and will be putting on late-night DJs for the first time this year," says Louise Tangney, one of the organisers of Vantastival, which takes place outside Drogheda in early June.
"Dance music is not something I'm into at all - the line-up would be very much to our own tastes. But we have loyal punters who come every year and we know what they want."
"There is definitely a move toward dance and pop," says Shane Dunne, who runs Indiependence just outside Mitchelstown. "A lot of the bigger standalone shows have sold far quicker with the links of Avicii or Calvin Harris. They have sold very well - there is no doubt there is a portion of society that is into that. We've always had a dance area - although never anything too commercial or hardcore. Even this year though, Sigma are on our main stage Friday night - they are drum and bass but quite commercial and dance."
"Some of the older audience don't want to put up with young people," said Coachella's Tovar. "I'm seeing comments from people in their 30s and 40s and 50s making fun of band names like people used to do with Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane. They're acting like their parents. Maybe they feel too old or they're intimidated, I don't know, but they're putting a knock on contemporary Coachella."
The other issue is a shortage of rock bands popular enough to headline a big open air event. Coldplay and Radiohead, arguably the last of the great rock dinosaurs, are well into middle age. Coming up behind are… Blossoms, Catfish and the Bottlemen? You can see why promoters aren't rushing to give these groups top billing.
"The festival circuit has peaked," promoter Harvey Goldsmith warned in 2015. "There's too many of them and there are not enough big acts to headline them. That is a big, big problem in our industry. And we are not producing a new generation of these kind of acts - the likes of The Rolling Stones, Muse, even Arctic Monkeys.
"People don't seem to want to listen to a body of work, an album, any more. And most rock bands built a reputation on a body of work - they might take three albums to really hone their art, to become great, but young people don't want that. They home in on a track, a sound, then ping off again to the next one."
Coachella's ones to watch
Retro Long Island siblings Brian and Michael D'Addario have created a splash with their haunting power-pop.
The Japanese-American singer-songwriter stopped off in California ahead of visits to Cork and Dublin in June.
A decade ago, Nordic outsider Lo (above) might have been a purveyor of Bjork-style weirdo rock. Pop is where it's at today and she's fully committed to big, glammy choruses.
Though the New Zealand brother and sister duo have been around for a few years, they remain an act on the rise.
Brooding country rock from a Portland Oregon all-sister trio, who fuse storytelling lyrics and R&B tempos.