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Last weekend, multi-talented singer, rapper, songwriter and actor Childish Gambino (real name: Donald Glover) used his Friday headline slot at Coachella as a lecture. He played feedback from festivalgoers earlier that day who were sceptical about his presence. He smoked out a surprised young man in the audience by offering him an enormous joint. He talked about the death of his father, and reminded the crowd that by the laws of probability it was highly likely one of them wouldn't be alive next week. During his final song 'Redbone', and specifically the lyric “stay woke, niggas creepin'”, his camera crew were focused on a group of white frat boys singing the lyrics back. This felt intentional.
Glover’s performance was provocative. It was daring. It was quite unpopular. It was also one of the biggest talking points of the festival. The following day, many revellers said they didn't get the escapist moment they had bargained for. Over the course of the week, some were even so bold as to ask: did people enjoy Childish Gambino's set?
So, all eyes were on what would happen second time around. On Friday, we found out.
Glover’s performance was provocative. It was daring. It was quite unpopular.
Glover's setlist was the same as last week's, but the furniture in which he housed the songs was completely different. There was no opening preacher's speech welcoming us all to his church, and there was no talk of death and mortality. Glover's physical intensity – his bodily jerking and his wide-eyed terrors – were there if not slightly muted. Instead of goading a white man in the crowd to get high with him, this week he poked fun at selfie culture, saying “this is the selfie generation, who needs a selfie to go home?”. He befriended a young woman, took her phone claiming he had longer arms, and snapped the prized shot.
Later on, during the point at which he stunned the crowds to a near booing last week, this week he made a very different address. “I been depressed all week,” he said. “I get really upset if I feel like I'm not giving you guys your money's worth.” He talked about watching Janelle Monae's set before his last week, and noting how much fun she was having. Glover said he wasn't having that kind of fun.
There were no complaints of existential crises among the fans last night. Glover had listened to the reactions, he had moved accordingly. It takes a dexterous and highly attuned performer to shift the tone of an identical setlist in such nuanced ways that it creates a markedly varied atmosphere in front of 100,000 people.
It was perhaps the most significant change of a Coachella set that the festival has ever witnessed between a weekend one and weekend two performance. For a festival that has proven itself now to be the internet writ large in a field, it makes sense that its performers would listen to that conversation and in turn respond to it. You do wonder, however, what that means for artistic integrity, and the parameters of compromise and compensation. Is Coachella a playground for fans to critique their artists with a view to expecting amendments? Is weekend two an opportunity for performers to further tailor their sets for mass approval? Is weekend one a chance to take big risks, with the knowledge that there's time to redeem yourself a week later?
Is Coachella a playground for fans to critique their artists with a view to expecting amendments?
In 2011, when Coachella founder Paul Tollett announced his plan to turn the festival into a two-weekender event, it had never been done with the same lineup for both weekends on such a scale. Since then, festivalgoers have come to recognise sub-cultural differences between the weekends. Typically, weekend one is an influencer zoo. Fans are kept at arms' length from the A-listers, but baited just enough to feel like they're part of an elitist community. Weekend two is ordinarily the less starry crowd, who don't care about beating the competition for fastest content coverage and aren't focused on trend-setting.
This year, however, the site feels refreshingly more engaged on both weekends. Genuine music fans are in attendance, excited for the chance to get closer to the soundtracks and artists that accompany their streaming lives. Perhaps Glover's recognition of this contributed to his reaction after the first weekend's performance. Did he perhaps misread the community he was playing to? We may all have our prejudices when it comes to Coachella. In 2019, it might be time to reconsider.
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