In 2018, we declared “the end of Bonnaroo as we knew it.” A year later, we named Bonnaroo our Festival of the Year. That head-whipping U-turn reflected significant changes in Bonnaroo itself, ones that we felt put the South’s premier festival back on a track and balanced both its jam-band past and poptimistic present. Ticket buyers agreed; for the first time since 2013, Bonnaroo sold out. There seemed to be a clear lesson at hand, one that all festivals could do well to follow: the best way to build an ongoing live music community is to define your identity and stick to it.
However, with the release of Bonnaroo’s 2020 lineup, it’s clear that festival organizers are ready to stress-test that wisdom. If there’s a takeaway to be learned by scanning this year’s festival poster, it may be that the actual identity of today’s Bonnaroo is being confident enough to not have any set identity at all.
That’s not meant as a pejorative. Instead of embracing death by a thousand glowsticks or leaning even harder into its hemp-covered roots, the 2020 edition of Bonnaroo instead champions the kind of genre-free eclecticism that reflects the increasingly borderless landscape of modern popular music. There’s a little something for everyone at Bonnaroo 2020, whether you’re a jam band diehard (Oysterhead!) or a Fear Inoculum stan (Tool!), a celebrator of Hot Girl Summer (Megan Thee Stallion) or a protestor at the RNC (Run the Jewels!), a sad millennial (Lana Del Ray!) or an Extremely Online Gen-Zer (uh… Oliver Tree?). The lineup is a dabbler’s delight, one that mixes a diverse, disparate set of musical performers into a schedule as kaleidoscopic as a bootleg Phish tie-dye. The result is also one of Bonnaroo’s most critically of-the-moment lineups in years; if you read our list of the Top 50 Albums of 2019, you’ll find nine of those acts represented at this year’s ‘Roo.
That kind of musical omnivorousness is one of the lineup’s biggest strengths on paper, but it may come with some surprising weaknesses in practice. As is true of most festivals, Bonnaroo will live or die by its headliners, whose star power often does the heavy lifting when it comes to ticket sales. This year’s trio each comes with stronger credentials than we’ve seen in recent years: Tool remains on a victory lap from last year’s release of the long-awaited Fear Inoculum, Lizzo translates the meteoric success of Cuz I Love You into an historic turn as the fest’s first female headliner, and Tame Impala finally have new music to back up their status as one of the most reliable festival acts of their generation.
Tame Impala, photo by Amy Price
However, for all of the well-earned fanfare, each of Bonnaroo’s headliners also comes with a question attached, ones that will likely determine the festival’s relative success or failure. Will Tool fans shell out for a three-day festival when the band has its own tour dates throughout the South all summer? Does Lizzo’s relatively slim (and already well-toured) body of work warrant regional or national travel from fans? Can a single new album, no matter how revelatory, really make up for the fact that Tame Impala has appeared at more than 70 festivals in the last five years?
If the answers to these questions are “yes,” expect another potential sellout. However, if we get a “no” or two, then the lack of a coherent undercard roster from any of the headliners’ preferred genre might act as a turn-off to any festivalgoer who remains on the fence.
After a stellar comeback in 2019, Bonnaroo has earned a little leeway in 2020. Attendees at this year’s festival will be walking into a high-risk, high-reward experiment, one that finds the festival drawing on a ticket-buying pool that’s broader than it is deep and banking on fans coming for the spectacle with open minds, piqued curiosity, and $300 a ticket. Will those fans show up? If they do, we hope they remembered their tents.
Click ahead for more reactions to Bonnaroo 2020’s official lineup announcement.
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