Lady Gaga will make history when she performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival this weekend, marking a decade since a solo woman has been billed as a headliner on the prestigious musical stage.
Beyonce had been slated to headline the festival in Indio, California, but backed out because she’s pregnant with twins. Bjork was the last solo female to headline Coachella in 2007, so it begs the question: Why has it taken so long?
Women have always performed at Coachella, which began Friday, since it was launched in 1999. In the last few years the number of female performers has grown, including acts that blend alternative and pop, such as Sia and Tegan & Sara, to mega genre-mashers like M.I.A., Janelle Monae and Santigold.
Coachella is known as the festival for cool kids — and musicians. That leaves little to no room for acts that dominate Top 40 radio, where women have a strong presence, from Katy Perry to Rihanna.
Halsey, the Grammy-nominated singer who is readying her second alternative album and had one of last year’s biggest pop hits with “Closer” alongside the Chainsmokers, performed at Coachella last year. The 22-year-old said women who perform alternative music are often billed as pop artists because of their sex.
“Festivals like Coachella, they pride themselves on being part of the counterculture, being tastemakers, upholding themselves to a certain standard of the artists that they include, and I think one of the problems is that female artists are so often tainted as pop artists even when they don’t necessarily intend to be,” Halsey said. “Female artists can put out the same style of a record as a male artist and when a male artist does it, it has a certain type of dignity, it has a certain type of edge … as soon as a woman puts out a record of the same caliber, it’s immediately filed as a pop record no matter what.”
Halsey said it’s something she’s experienced in her own career with the success of “Closer.”
“It was this giant pop record and immediately I was a pop artist even though I put out an alternative album, I played alternative festivals and I was on alternative radio,” she said. “As soon as [you] do one pop record it’s like the kiss of death for a female artist sometimes.”
Gary Bongiovanni, CEO of concert trade publication Pollstar, said he didn’t think the gap between male and female headliners at Coachella was calculated.
“I don’t see that there’s any sexism. There’s nothing more than trying to put together a bill of artists that the public wants to see. And we live in a world where a significant majority of the acts are either male or male-fronted bands versus females or female-fronted bands,” he said. “If you look at the level of business all of those artists do and you try to cobble together a lineup that’s going to be appealing, it’s difficult, and there are a lot of the female acts that may not lend themselves to performing in front of 60,000 or 80,000 people in an open field, versus headlining an area or more likely a theater.”
In last year’s Pollstar chart of the 100 top-grossing North America tours, women made up about 15 percent of the list, which was dominated by male acts and male-fronted bands. Only two women cracked the Top 10: Beyonce was No.1 and Adele came in fifth.
Coachella is sold out before the lineup is announced, so the festival has the luxury of picking performers instead of relying on acts to help sell tickets.
Along with Gaga, this year’s headliners include Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar, who released his hotly anticipated new album Friday. Some of the female performers include Lorde, Banks, Tove Lo, Kehlani, Nao, Kiiara and Bishop Briggs. Yukimi Nagano, who fronts Swedish band Little Dragon, is returning to Coachella for a third time.
Nagano said she was surprised that it’s been 10 years since a woman headlined the festival, adding: “I think it’s a really positive thing.”
Jason White, executive vice president of marketing at Beats by Dre, said the company is purposely, and exclusively, giving attention to women at the festival: Their space at Coachella will only feature female performers, including Erykah Badu, DJ Kiss, Ana Calderon, JCK DVY and Jasmine Solano.
“I think it really meshes incredibly well with what’s going on with Coachella because you do have Gaga, we’re excited about seeing Kehlani [and] there’s some really solid performers this year,” he said.
Halsey, who spoke over the phone Thursday as she drove to the desert to watch Coachella as a fan, said she was thrilled to see Gaga take the stage. She said the recent Super Bowl halftime performer is one of those pioneering female acts that haven’t been boxed into a genre, though she knows “the extremes [Gaga] has to go to maintain that counterculture are much greater than that of what a male artist has to do.”
“Drake is still considered a rap/rhythm artist even though he is essentially a pop artist when you look at the decisions that he makes and the climate that kind of surrounds his projects,” Halsey said.
“And when you have a female artist in the same lane, they get written off as a pop artist simply because they’re female, simply because the conversation with them, it goes to fashion, makeup or whatever, and those are questions and comments that don’t surround the brand and surround the career of a male artist.”