If you plan on going to Coachella this year, now rescheduled for October, you already know you won't be seeing any women close out the show because none were asked to headline in 2020 — again. A new documentary that covers the festival's 20 year history sheds some light on why getting gender parity on the bill for Coachella has been such a long and slow process.
The festival, which has been held annually in California's Indio Valley since 2001, following a rocky start in 1999, started off as a destination event for alternative and indie rock fans. The documentary, Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert, details the rise of Goldenvoice, the promotion company behind Coachella, and the festival itself. It's the story of (mostly) men.
Goldenvoice was born out of SoCal's punk and hardcore scene of the '80s, which was rife with dude bands like the Descendents and the Dead Kennedys. They brought underground rock to the mainstream in L.A. and all over Southern California. While there were women in the scene (shout out to the Go-Gos and Exene Cervenka of X), it was dominated by the voices of men; their points of view, their mosh pits, their sweaty bodies.
From there, the documentary goes on to show how Goldenvoice aligned itself with musical movements whose biggest names were men. The first time Goldenvoice put on a concert at the Indio, CA Polo Fields, now the home of Coachella, was in the '90s when Pearl Jam, leaders of the extremely man-heavy grunge genre, was looking for an alternative to Ticketmaster-controlled venues in L.A. It became sort of a trial run for Coachella, Goldenvoice president and CEO Paul Tollett explains.
From there, the doc explores Goldenvoice's involvement in booking raves and events in the '90s dance music scene, another part of much that was overrun with male artists. When they get to the advent of Coachella, they're careful to note the magic of Björk's 2002 headlining slot. She was pregnant and she was the first woman to headline — and would remain the only woman to do so until she was asked to return in 2007. Not a single other woman was granted a slot until Lady Gaga, who stepped in to replace Beyoncé in 2017. Gaga, despite being one of the biggest women pop stars in modern times, barely warrants a mention.
What's interesting is that the Goldenvoice employees who talk about the early days of Coachella attribute the festival "breaking" (and finally becoming a moneymaking endeavor) when Radiohead headlined in 2004. Which makes sense, because they were not only the most popular and bankable alternative band at the time but the epitome of Gen X cool. That was also the year that Tollett and his team figured out the formula of reuniting classic alt rock bands, in 2004 it was the Pixies, who people wanted to see. Coachella in the 2000s was a very different beast than Coachella of the 2010s — and it was driven heavily by booking cool underground genres of music where men's voices were the biggest draw.
Madonna coming to play Coachella in the Sahara (dance music) tent in 2006 is remembered in the doc as the year pop music came to Indio. In reality, it was the year Madonna made the rounds in New York clubs patronized by indie kids to do DJ sets with Jarvis Cocker of Pulp and his ilk in promotion of Confessions on a Dancefloor. Madonna wasn't there to headline or terraform Coachella into the image of pop music; she'd been contorting her image for that album cycle to fit into what the Coachella kids were doing.
Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert makes it extremely clear that the one woman to completely transform Coachella was Beyoncé, whose 2018 Homecoming set has been a reset button for what artists conceptualize is possible for a festival performance. For years, Coachella was about the desert, the carnival, the experience. With Bey at the helm, Coachella became about visibility for women, Black women especially, and making a statement so big that it won't be forgotten by anyone who say it, in person, on YouTube, or later in Bey's Netflix documentary capturing the incredible work that went into staging it. And to think, all the Pixies and Radiohead had to do was show up.
In the past few years, Coachella has made strides, at the behest of unending prompts from the press and festivalgoers, to book more women performers. The gains have been incremental, with the watchdog social media account Book More Women reporting they've gone from 34% in 2018 to 35% in 2019 and 36% in 2020. If it feels like it's taking forever to get to gender parity, it kind of is — but you don't have to look much further than the history and roots of Coachella to understand why.
Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert is available to stream now on YouTube. Watch it below.