When it became clear this past February that this year’s original Coachella Saturday headliner, Beyoncé, would be unable to fulfill her festival duties due to her pregnancy, it was equally clear that consummate entertainer Lady Gaga was the only artist capable of filling Bey’s mighty big Dereon shoes. After all, in the past couple of years, Gaga has done everything from an operatic Sound of Music medley at the Oscars to a headbanging Metallica duet and ambitious David Bowie tribute at the Grammys, from dazzling TV turns on American Horror Story and RuPaul’s Drag Race to even two spectacular consecutive performances on the world’s biggest TV show, the Super Bowl. So who better to headline the veritable Super Bowl of music festivals, Coachella, than Gaga?
Beyoncé fans needn’t worry — Queen B will play the fest next year, and there’s already a “Beyoncé 2018!” roadside billboard (for, of all things, White Girl Rosé wine) on the highway from L.A. to Indio anticipating that deferred booking. But for now, Gaga has rightfully earned the (definitely non-flower) crown as the undisputed Queen of Coachella. From the instant she hit the main stage Saturday at 11:30 p.m. in a Night Porter cap and Thierry Mugler S&M leather trench and shouted, “We’ve got 90 minutes! Let’s go!” the pop provocateur got right to work and unified the masses as few Coachella performers ever could. (“Playing to 100,000 people, not too shabby,” Gaga quipped while seated at her piano; Friday’s headliner, Radiohead, attracted an audience a fraction of that size.)
And, interestingly and impressively, in an era when Coachella headliners typically make news headlines by trotting out special guest after special guest (Guns N’ Roses with Angus Young, Phoenix with R. Kelly, Dr. Dre with a Tupac hologram, Pharrell Williams with Gwen Stefani and pretty much everyone he’s ever worked with), Gaga — the first female Coachella headliner since Bjork 10 years ago — dazzled all on her own, just as she did during her guest-free Super Bowl halftime show. While some fans may have speculated that she’d recruit a few of her recent Joanne collaborators, like Father John Misty (who played Coachella’s main stage Friday), Beck (who was spotted hanging in the VIP section earlier), desert resident Josh Homme, festival regular Florence Welch, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, or super-producer Mark Ronson for a special alt-rock-leaning performance, she instead commanded the stage solo and with ease.
Gaga also didn’t rely on the wild gimmicks, multiple costume changes, bells, or whistles that have characterized her past tours (or, of course, her aerial-stunt-augmented Super Bowl performance). Instead, she performed on a relatively simple Lucite stage in a Jennifer Beals halter leotard and black ballet tights, and adorably engaged in giggly, intimate between-song banter about crushes, festival hookups, bad boys, partying, and, most of all, her undying love for her Little Monsters. “Do you ever get so happy you could cry, and then it lands in your stomach and it comes up in your throat?” she gushed, expressing her joy over playing (and attending) her first Coachella.
Highlights of the 20-song set included “Just Dance” with Gaga wielding a keytar; “A-Yo” with Gaga jamming on a glowing, neon-rimmed axe; stunning, stripped-down piano renditions of “Edge of Glory,” “Speechless,” and “Yoü and I”; “Telephone” featuring the absent Beyoncé’s prerecorded duet vocals (the only subtle nod to Bey during Gaga’s show); and a glitchy, radical electro-R&B remake of her Joanne ballad “Million Reasons.”
The “Million Reasons” remix was perhaps indicative of Gaga’s latest musical direction: Ever the dizzyingly diverse quick-change artist, she’s apparently already veering away from Joanne’s twangy alt-country vibe, as she debuted a catchy new non-Joanne song, “The Cure,” at Coachella. A ’90s-reminiscent urban-pop banger with whirring, whistling keyboard loops à la Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” the tune was an instant smash with the festival crowd and is sure to be a Song of the Summer. (The surprise track hit iTunes and Spotify on midnight Saturday.)
Whether “The Cure” was a sign of more music to come, or whether Gaga’s Coachella set was a true preview of her world tour that launches in August, remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Lady Gaga will not be slowing down in 2017. Let’s hope more headlining festival performances are in her near future.
For Coachella-goers actually craving the superstar cameos missing from Gaga’s one-woman revue, other Saturday performers did not disappoint. Future brought out Drake, Ty Dolla $ign, and Migos; Gucci Mane’s star-studded show featured Diddy, Lil Yachty, Rae Sremmurd, and another Migos cameo; ScHoolboy Q was joined by Tyler, the Creator and A$AP Rocky; A$AP Rocky made another appearance, along with Charli XCX, during Mura Masa’s set; DJ Snake brought out Lauryn Hill; the Weeknd played a trio of his hits with Nav; and the Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald even popped up in the Mojave tent to jam with electrofunk artist Thundercat.
Other collaborative highlights included Banks & Steelz, aka the unlikely super-duo of Interpol’s Paul Banks and the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who played Judgment Night soundtrack-reminiscent alt-rap-rock on the Outdoor stage with an assist from indie-pop ingénue Bishop Briggs, and Dreamcar, a supergroup comprising AFI’s Davey Havok and No Doubt founding members Tony Kanal, Tom Dumont, and Adrian Young, who during their festival debut (and sixth-ever live public concert) brought moody New Romantic vibes and spectacular, Simon Le Bon-worthy new wave showmanship to the Mojave stage.
The Coachella Music & Arts Festival concludes Sunday with Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, New Order, Hans Zimmer, Justice, Future Islands, and more.