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

With its holograms and duplicated lineup, why is Coachella so obsessed with re-creating the past?

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Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg perform during their headlining set on the first weekend of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., on Sunday, April 15, 2012.
Photo: Chris Pizzello / AP

Festival Fashions of 2012 Coachella: Weekend 1

Festival Fashions of Coachella Weekend 2

One week after Coachella’s two-weekend extravaganza, its double-dip lineup experiment has proved to be the most successful run in the festival’s 13-year history, drawing more than 80,000 people on each of its six days.

What was once a small gathering of music acts that struggled to bring in an audience and a profit has become an internationally revered destination for music fans and a career benchmark for emerging and established acts.

To meet the swelling demand for tickets, organizers Goldenvoice announced an unprecedented plan last June to expand the 2012 festival from one three-day weekend to two consecutive weekends, each with the exact same music lineup.

While Coachella’s duplicated lineup was designed to accommodate the festival’s burgeoning popularity, featuring buzz-worthy acts like Radiohead and Kaskade and notable comebacks from the likes of At the Drive In and Pulp, it also was obsessed with re-creating the past. Its unprecedented slate of big-name reunion acts and the holographic revival of dead artists like Tupac Shakur all highlight a cultural romance with memories and nostalgia.

That’s nothing new, but it was especially pervasive at this year’s festival. It was evident in the performances of artists like 20-year-old rapper Azealia Banks, whose patent leather overalls, vogueing backup dancers and cover of the Prodigy’s 1996 rave hit “Firestarter” on Weekend 2 were an undeniable love letter to the not-so-distant mid '90s. Banks’ prowess as an MC and lyricist may have made her the new darling of hip-hop fans and critics (and rightfully so), 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 by no coincidence opened both their Coachella sets with their ode to nostalgia, “Do You Remember the First Time?”

Nevertheless, the weather (cold and rainy for much of Weekend 1 and stiflingly hot on Weekend 2), the crowd (only about 6 percent of attendees went both weekends, according to organizer Paul Tollett) and general variations in performances managed to give each weekend its own distinct feel. If the second weekend lacked for surprises, it at least smoothed out the previous weekend’s technical kinks, which included a delay in DJ duo Justice’s set and a display malfunction during EDM artist Avicii’s performance.

In many cases, Weekend 2 also elicited larger crowds and even more enthusiastic performances from non-headlining artists, thanks to rave reviews they received the first time around. DJ Flying Lotus' Saturday night set in the 3,000 person-capacity Gobi tent drew a crowd that spilled out to around double that size; crooner Frank Ocean had fans camping out by the Gobi stage for hours before his second Friday evening set; and tuxedoed garage rockers the Hives finally got the raucous, sweaty mosh pit they deserve, despite Weekend 2’s lethargy-inducing heat.

Where Weekend 2 faltered was when it tried too hard to replicate the experiences of Weekend 1. When politically charged punks Refused followed up the first weekend’s raw, impassioned comeback set with a carbon copy Weekend 2 -- right down to frontman Dennis Lyxzén’s “remember when” stage banter -- it certainly wasn’t bad, but there was something unsettlingly insincere about it (particularly when Lyxzén noted, “For us, it’s deja vu. For you, it’s a new day,”).

Similarly, the return of the Tupac Shakur 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 a lot less impressive in real life than on YouTube. Moreover, the hologram’s eerie, scripted greeting of “What the [expletive] is up, Coachella?” (the first festival was held three years after Shakur died) made the performance feel like less of a tribute to the late rapper than a desperate attempt to mine originality from the 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 all exist in homage to better times and places (not to mention the fact that performers like Celine Dion have been performing onstage with holograms for years).

But let’s leave the tribute acts to Vegas. While 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 -- highlights the fact that many of the most successful new artists of the past decade have relied on cannibalizing past musical trends for new material.

Still, Coachella also revealed that the seeds for innovation are there: The stirring anti-establishment pop of WU LYF, the brooding industrial aggression of Death Grips and the nuanced, cerebral compositions of Flying Lotus are examples of artists emerging with sounds that are pushing music in new, creative directions and with messages that speak to the challenges of life in this decade.

They’re a hopeful promise that perhaps today’s reign of retromania might soon be replaced by new voices for a new generation.

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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Andrea Domanick is an award-winning reporter covering the behind the scenes stories of life in Las Vegas. Her work has ...

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