LOS ANGELES — This year’s Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival might have a mogul — rap patriarch Jay-Z — on the marquee, but the lineup is still a model for recessionary times. Nothing on the roster announced Tuesday morning feels like a coup or a matter of huge debate. There’s no baby boomer icon to fluster Generation X purists, and no surprise post-punk reunion (Pavement announced its reformation last fall) to fulfill the dreams of the same crowd.
What Coachella 2010 does offer is a well-curated midrange that will more than satisfy the iPod aesthetes who make up the festival’s core audience. Scanning the list for each day is a bit like reading the menu at an artisanal “slow food” restaurant; it’s carefully constructed, full of small, impressive flourishes and satisfying without overloading the palate.
Highlights in smaller print on the festival’s poster include indie blogger favorites such as Dirty Projectors, the xx, Girls, Florence & the Machine and Little Dragon; singer-songwriters reaching an early career peak including Sia, Corinne Bailey Rae and the Avett Brothers; elder cult favorites Grace Jones and Public Image Limited, along with the less than reliable Sly Stone and the unflashy but always fun Les Claypool; and Los Angeles-area breakout acts the Soft Pack and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. None of these names evinces a startled intake of breath, but each would be a highlight on anybody’s Coachooser.
The big-font names offer edifying variety — and interesting cross-currents. Faith No More’s arty take on frat-boy rap rock predated LCD Soundsystem’s arty take on hedonistic electro-dance. Muse and Them Crooked Vultures both stitch a seam connecting progressive metal and alternative rock. Thom Yorke is arguably the leading intellectual of millennial pop; many thought Stephen Malkmus of Pavement held that position in the 1990s. Damon Albarn’s cartoon Gorillaz connects all the dots, combining hip-hop, dance music and alternative rock styles and sounds.
And then there’s Jay-Z. Beyond the delicious punditry of having the man nicknamed Jay-Hova play America’s leading desert festival, this choice might have seemed slightly uninspired. Since returning from faux-retirement in 2006, Jay has been steadily expanding his reputation, taking strong steps to adjust his place in history from the “great” category to the “legendary.”
He played the stalwartly rock-oriented Glastonbury Festival in England last year, raising objections from Oasis bandleader and notorious sourpuss Noel Gallagher. That tiny fire allowed Jay-Z to turn the appearance into a Crusades-style victory for rap itself. More recently, he’s been promoting “Empire State of Mind,” his powerhouse collaboration with Alicia Keys, as the new Gotham City anthem. It’s a great song and, though the hubris involved is somewhat off-putting, a worthy campaign.
Hip-hop’s rhythms and rhymes should come to tourists’ minds when they think of multicultural New York. Frank Sinatra’s snap-brimmed baritone embodied the city’s hustle in a previous era, but his “New York, New York” excluded the later waves of immigrants and bootstrap-pullers whose dream was to migrate from the outer boroughs to Manhattan’s palaces of wealth.
Name-checking Sinatra, bragging about his Lexus and his courtside Knicks tickets, Jay-Z makes the case for himself as a godfather in that song. But he’s a Godfather of Soul, singling out Biggie Smalls, Afrika Bambaataa and Bob Marley as the roots of his family tree. “Empire State of Mind” and Glastonbury are both elements in Jay-Z’s plan to secure hip-hop’s place at the center of pop’s continually unfolding history — an integrationist move that doesn’t dilute the music or the culture but demands that audiences beyond its assumed demographic admit that it’s part of their pop DNA too.
That’s why Jay-Z at Coachella is neither unexpected nor unimportant. More than previous headliners Radiohead or Rage Against the Machine or wished-for 2010 possibilities like the Beastie Boys or the Smiths, he is the artist who probably can boast that every other musician named on that famous poster could spit one of his lyrics.
Jay-Z’s rhymes are part of 21st-century pop’s lingua franca; his late-career success puts the lie to any distinction between so-called alternative hip-hop and the mainstream stuff. If his Coachella date doesn’t feel like a singular event, in part because he’ll play to a likely more “urban” (to use a problematic word) crowd at Staples Center just weeks before the fest, it’s still one worth celebrating. And then, as the rapper himself says, on to the next one.
// Notes from the Road
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