Ever since Coachella’s inaugural year in 1999, when the Chemical Brothers and Underworld, among others performed, dance music has always been a major part of the festival. Tiësto and the Chemical Brothers both headlined the main stage long before the current EDM boom, and the lineup at the fest’s popular Sahara Tent has always been stacked with big-name DJs and producers. This year, Sahara’s Friday night lineup featured Afrojack, Datsik and Alesso, who were all greeted by an exuberant capacity crowd. Paul Oakenfold, who was on hand to support 17-year-old French wunderkind Madeon in his impressive Coachella debut, told Rolling Stone after the set that the scene at the tent felt very much like it did when he opened for Madonna there back in 2006.
But while Coachella’s embrace of dance music hasn’t changed, the genre’s surge in popularity was readily apparent at the festival this year. French duo Justice received a deservedly lavish reception on the main stage on Sunday night, and Kaskade’s closing set on Saturday at Sahara lured a significant throng of music fans away from Radiohead’s main stage performance. The extent to which dance music has infiltrated mainstream pop was driven home, too, when Rihanna joined Scottish DJ-producer Calvin Harris for his Sunday night set (Harris produced a couple of key tracks on the singer’s most recent album). Emerging unannounced in cut-off shorts and a T-shirt that read, “Peace,” the singer sent the tent into a frenzy.
In response to their growing spotlight, EDM stars clearly turned up the production value for their sets this year, whether it was Avicii spinning tunes from inside an enormous head, Dada Life’s giant champagne bottles or Swedish House Mafia and Kaskade’s new, dazzling light shows. “It’s such a good place to debut a show because there’s other press there. At (festivals) that are so dance-centric, a lot of the mainstream press just doesn’t pay attention. Daft Punk knew that would be the case,” Kaskade told Rolling Stone, referring to the duo’s landmark set in 2006. “They said, ‘Let’s bring out the pyramid – let’s show what we got.’ They knew it would cause waves here, whereas if they did it in Miami at Bayshore Theater, I’m not sure people would have paid as much attention.”
Another reason to pull out all the production stops: since Coachella is as known for breaking emerging artists as it is for its headliners, it offers DJs a chance to convert festivalgoers into EDM fans. “A lot of people that aren’t necessarily into nightclubs might like the music and can enjoy it better here,” says Kaskade. “It attracts different people, and that’s why it has so much credibility. It’s all about the music at this festival.”
And that remained the case this year. For all of Dada Life’s onstage spectacle, it was their killer set that had the tent going crazy. Over at the Gobi tent, Gaslamp Killer’s quirky beats and incorporation of classic tunes like the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” – which seemed downright retro in comparison with the huge choruses being pumped into the Sahara tent – enthralled the crowd without any production bells and whistles. The music is paramount at Coachella, and from Dada Life and Porter Robinson to Alesso and Feed Me, there were plenty of emerging dance acts whose music stood tall.