Discochella: What The Mother of All Festivals Revealed About Popular Music in 2016

 Photo courtesy of Alex Zhang

Photo courtesy of Alex Zhang

You can hate on Coachella all you want, but the fact that the musical spectacle that takes place over two spring weekends in the southern Californian desert is the most important indicator of current trends in popular music is undeniable. A headlining placement on the main stage at Coachella is the most significant placement for a popular musician in the world, the pinnacle of success. While the headliners reveal the most appreciated trends in contemporary music, the rest of the lineup reflects the distinct and varied genres which have grown to prominence over the past year. The level of presence that a genre enjoys at Coachella reflects the popularity of that genre among Millennial listeners. I can only applaud the organizers of Coachella, not just for producing one of the greatest live music experiences in the world, but for curating a lineup, which encapsulates all that is popular music. Coachella 2016 offered a succinct snapshot of the music tastes of the Millennial masses in 2016.

The headlining slots at this year’s Coachella were an eclectic mix of EDM, classic rock, and indie heroes. First off you had mega-DJ Calvin Harris, probably the least interesting choice, but the most obvious. EDM is the new pop music and Harris is one of the biggest names in the game – he has over 300 million listens on all of his top songs on Spotify. The Outdoor Theatre (the second biggest stage at the festival) also closed each night with a heavy dose of EDM from mega-DJs Flume, Zedd, and Skrillex. Then you also have the Sahara Tent, which is almost entirely dedicated to EDM and other gimmicky electronic music. The presence of EDM is ubiquitous in popular music in 2016 and Calvin Harris was just the sort of generic producer that Coachella needed to encapsulate the genre.

The headliner for the night before Harris was a little less intuitive, but just as calculated – Guns N’ Roses. If you look at physical albums sales over the past year, you’ll find that the charts are dominated by hard rock artists – Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Aerosmith, and of course GNR. Now physical album sales are more reflective of an older generation that still buys their music, but if you take a look at Spotify (with 60% of users falling into the Millennial age range) you’ll find that GNR has been streamed more than any other classic rock band that Coachella could conceivably have booked. Classic rock, while losing relevance, maintains strong presence in popular music taste among Millennials.

The headliner for the first night was one for the rest of us, the 20-something listener that neither dwells in the past praising washed up guitar rockers nor embraces the gimmicky drivel that is EDM. Friday night saw the triumphant return of dance-punk pioneers LCD Soundsystem, the project of New York-based producer James Murphy that exploded into our musical conscious in 2005 with disco-tinged, nostalgia-inducing dance numbers, which remain staples in the catalogues of college radio music nerds across the country. The return was triumphant and it proved yet again why we need music like LCD in the first place – it’s easy to get down to.

LCD was just one indication of a profound shift revealed by Coachella 2016. The sentiment of letting loose and getting down could be felt throughout the festival all weekend; everywhere you looked, people were unapologetically boogieing. This fervor for footwork was facilitated by an unlikely muse, disco. Seemingly everywhere I went throughout the festival my ears were greeted by a four-on-the-floor beat coupled with a thick grooving bassline. All weekend DJs could be heard dropping disco club classics such as Cerrone’s “Love in C Minor” or CHIC’s “Everybody Dance”. Not a day passed where I didn’t hear someone working in a few bars of Girgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s infectious smash “I Feel Love”. The Bee Gees, The Jacksons, and ABBA all added to a weekend soundtrack that was dominated by that most hated of all genres, disco. At one point in the Sahara tent (a stage typically reserved for trance and dubstep garbage), I found myself surrounded by Hawaiian shirts, crop tops, and flower crowns when all of a sudden a fiery remix of “You should Be Dancing” came grooving through the stacks. To my surprise the Hawaiian shirts and crop tops didn’t miss a beat; they were getting down like it was 1976. Didn’t your parents tell you disco sucks?

Coachella even let James Murphy and the Dewaele brothers (2ManyDJs) construct their very own disco club paradise on the grounds of the festival dubbed Despacio. It was a circular tent with disco balls and planets hanging from the ceiling and a black and white tiled dancefloor surrounded by seven gold-plated stacks of McIntosh speakers that combined for 50,000 watts of power. The sound quality was impeccable. Murphy and Dewaele took shifts throughout the weekend spinning all vinyl sets of funk, soul, new wave, rock, and everything in between. The mix was eclectic, but the vibe was indisputably disco. A key feature of the tent was that the DJs were hidden in a bunker off to the side. The focal point of the space was the dancefloor and the people who were happily showing off their moves under the glittering light of the disco ball. Murphy and Dewaele decided to shift the focus back to the dancefloor in rebuke to the high-production DJ-focused spectacle that dance music has become, a spectacle that was taking place all weekend at the Outdoor Theatre.

It’s no secret that disco informed our current electronic dance music. Disco was the first genre of popular music to abandon all acoustic orchestration in favor of purely synthesized sound. Techno and even EDM would not exist without disco. Despite its significance in the development of contemporary music, disco has always gotten a bad rap. At no point in time, not even at the height of its popularity, would the majority of people admit to liking disco. This may have been due in part to homophobia and racism during the 70’s as disco had grown out of predominately gay and African American dance clubs, but disdain for disco remains with us today as fashion-conscious fact.

The average Coachella-goer is no niche music nerd; they represent the most basic and mainstream of music tastes. With such a significant presence at this year’s Coachella and the apparent acceptance by a mainstream audience, one can only assume that disco has reached its pinnacle. No longer must we cringe at the thought of wide-collared Qiana shirts and spandex bodywear. Finally we can embrace whole-heartedly the phenomenon of silk and synth, of dance and debauchery. Now is the time to let loose and bask in the carefree and uninhibited paradise of expression that we have for so long renounced. Now is the time for disco.

The importance of Coachella in contemporary music cannot be overstated. What happens there is a direct reflection of the musical tastes of the current generation of young listeners. EDM dominated the main stages all weekend and techno enjoyed its very own haven in the Yuma tent, but throughout it all ran an undercurrent of serene dance simplicity reminding us of how we came to this place of soul-seducing electronic sound. No longer is classic rock the grand elder of popular music to which we look for inspiration and confirmation. Today we have a new set of heroes – Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, Marc Cerrone, and all the forward thinking disco pioneers who had the foresight and bravery to trade in guitar for synth, drum for machine. Coachella 2016 was a fitting tribute to their contributions and a well-deserved acknowledgement of their innovation.

SAM HILL, HEAD OF MUSIC DEPARTMENT  
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