Harry Styles headlining Coachella is a triumph of music’s influencer era

·5 min read

While the traditional rock band may have fallen from favor, the ascent of Styles suggests something rising from its ashes

It was only 12 years ago that Harry Styles took the day off from his job at a bakery in Cheshire, north-west England, to go and sing Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely for Simon Cowell at an entirely unremarkable audition for The X Factor.

This week, it was announced that he would be joining Billie Eilish and Ye (the artist formerly known as Kanye West) as one of the three headliners of Coachella 2022 – marking the end of a decade of an incredible transition from boyband heartthrob to credible rockstar. Other acts announced include Phoebe Bridgers, 21 Savage, Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Baby, Doja Cat and Maggie Rogers.

It must be a pinch-me moment for Styles, who like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé before him, has found that sweet spot between critical acclaim and mass popularity. To play in the Indio desert, known for its psychedelic culture and heavy magic mushroom use, will be the icing on the cake.

Festival lineups are not curated out of thin air, they are painstakingly put together – in a New Yorker profile the Coachella boss Paul Tollett discussed the vast array of metrics he studies to decide not just who gets booked, but who gets to be in larger font on the poster. The final lineup is a reflection of what audiences want and where promoters believe music is heading.

It’s no surprise there are very few bands on the bill. Bands have slowly been erased from most metrics of popular music over the past half-decade, as solo artists with big Instagram followings and a powerful sense of image take over. The lineup page on the Coachella website could easily be mistaken for the directory of a modelling agency.

Spotify publishes its top five most streamed artists each year and there hasn’t been a band in the mix since 2016 (when US duo Twenty One Pilots squeaked it in at number four). Among the top 20 most popular artists on the streaming service this month, the only non-solo artists are Coldplay and Imagine Dragons. But on festival bills and in concert arenas bands have maintained some dominance – Rage Against the Machine, Tame Impala, Radiohead, The Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Metallica, Wolf Alice and Foo Fighters have remained dominant.

This year not only are none of the headliners bands, but neither are any of the 20-odd acts in the tier below, with the exception of the Mexican banda artists Groupo Firme and Banda MS – both exciting groups with record-breaking stints on the Billboard 100 for Mexican artists but, with their heavy use of woodwind, not typical festival rockers.

While the traditional rock band may have fallen from favor, the ascent of Styles suggests something rising from its ashes. He is arguably the most successful indie musician in years – his album draws on Laurel Canyon classic rock and Pitchfork favourites such as Phoenix and M83. His tours centre musicianship and the traditional band set-up.

Styles, like Eilish and Ye, has found a way to make interesting music in a culture obsessed with personal brand and influence. He’s an actor, a TV host (he often fills in for James Corden when Corden is off on the Late Late show) and one of the most followed people on Instagram. He acts like a celebrity, yet the music he’s making, influenced by Peter Gabriel and Crosby, Stills & Nash, is part of the traditional rock canon. He’s indie without any independence, a rock band while being a solo artist, jumping through the hoops of what it takes to become a headline act in 2022. By riding the wave of influence and image that’s driven popular culture over the past decade, he’s become arguably the biggest rock artist working today.

Ye was in some ways a pioneer, constantly trying to move back and forth between music, fashion and celebrity, furiously fighting for a seat at every table. During Trump’s presidency, West’s brand seemed to be under threat but the Coachella lineup suggests he’s been forgiven for his Maga support and his comments on TMZ in 2018 that slavery “sounds like a choice”. Around that time, influential figures in hip-hop radio including Hot 97 host Ebro, and Shay Shay and BiGG from Detroit’s The Bounce promised to boycott Ye. Those boycotts appear to have faded and after a critically acclaimed album, Ye is back in favour.

But perhaps the most radical thing about the Coachella lineup is how little reverence it has for what’s gone before. Ten years ago Coachella was still obsessed with the golden oldies – the 2012 festival had Madness, Jimmy Cliff, Dr Dre, Buzzcocks, Pulp, Noel Gallagher and Squeeze dotted through the lineup.

This time around that sense of indebtedness to heritage acts has almost completely disappeared. The only acts on the 2022 bill that were releasing albums in the 90s are Spiritualized, Fatboy Slim and film composer Danny Elfman. A much greater chunk of the acts on the lineup weren’t even born in the 90s. Eilish, aged 21, will be the festival’s youngest headliner ever, and is reflective of a lineup that has managed gender balance without making a song and dance about it.

For years people complained about the same old headliners playing every year – this feels like a new starting point for live music.