IT'S a gross generality to say that kids today have an inborn sense of privilege. Disapproving (bitter?) elders say that privileged young people expect it all — lifelong comfort, satisfaction without much effort, drive-through food and instant Internet access. Such judgments are silly.
But the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where youth rules, literally and spiritually, supports one conjecture: Certain kids do expect it all from their music, if "all" means smarts, integrity and booty-shaking beats.
Artist after outstanding artist during the eclectic fest's first two days, Friday and Saturday at Indio's Empire Polo Club, could have been classified as dance music and rock, the two genres that inspired Coachella's founding. The tribal squabbles that once afflicted music-scene devotees seemed mostly a misty memory. Hard-rock singers gyrated like disco fools, crafters of retro pop built their songs around samples and preprogrammed beats, and a former punk drummer in a white suit led a packed dance floor toward sweaty fulfillment.
That howling gentleman was James Murphy, the producer and wise guy behind LCD Soundsystem, whose set at the dance-oriented Sahara Tent (one of Coachella's five stages) was one of the most crowded and emblematic. Leading a full band augmented by members of Hot Chip and !!!, Murphy intoned hilarious lyrics in an agreeably pedestrian voice, banging on his ever-present cowbell. Indie-rock forefather Frank Black looked on approvingly from the crowd, perhaps remembering when his band, the Pixies, pioneered a different style of danceable rock two decades ago.
That era, the dawn of "indie," gave rise to the split between guitar-oriented rock and danceable pop — a division that also surfaced in the late 1970s but never survived very long. Icelandic innovator Björk, for example, has dipped into both realms for years. Friday, she took the main stage in what looked like the late Sun Ra's mock-royal robes, intoning her new single "Earth Intruders" and pacing like a lioness. Underneath, a grass skirt paired with a bodice painted like a skeleton embodied her blend of the organic and the future-looking. An all-female brass section and chorus gave Björk's set, mostly consisting of older songs, an empyreal quality. Heavy grooves brought the singer and her angel choir back to Coachella's earthy dance floor.
The Arcade Fire, like Björk, makes danceable music with a rock edge, using non-rock instruments including French horn and hurdy-gurdy to extend the rock blueprint. The Montreal group's show Saturday was a triumph — nothing new for one of today's most lauded live bands. Singer Win Butler, fresh from sinus surgery, retained his trademark stentorian yowl, a relief to fans. But he rarely raised his voice alone. Whether it was Butler's wife and co-band leader Regine Chassagne gesturing like a queen while she sang, several band members banging on snare drums and then each other, or the violinists dancing and riffing, each player in Arcade Fire treated this set like a bid for glory — a win that would only have meaning if it were mutual.
Communal zeal characterizes many of this year's best Coachella artists. Abandoning rock's formulas changes group dynamics. Hot Chip, the English dance-rock ensemble, squeezed onto the stage behind banks of keyboards, no one player taking the spotlight, each dedicated to the groove. The band's ferociously energetic set was one of the festival's best so far and all the more thrilling because it came from a bunch of nerdy guys pushing buttons.
But none of this weekend's amalgamating artists — outside the dance-music tent, anyway — simply pushes buttons. In today's have-it-all indie scene, DJs strap on guitars and rock-star demeanors, while rock performers aim for the shamanistic charisma of club kings (and sometimes queens). Bicoastal party band !!! captured this unifying spirit most charmingly, blending punk's spastic aggressiveness with disco's sexy posing. Vocalist Nic Offer recalled a would-be Will Ferrell with his corny poses and ridiculous swim trunks, but his fervor outshone his goofiness.
Coachella's unifying spirit has extended to include most indie styles. English pop has been well represented, with great sets from Jarvis Cocker, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Arctic Monkeys, among others. Roots-rock upstarts the Black Keys and Kings of Leon brought the blues. Regina Spektor showed that a singer-songwriter could command the main stage during the blazing afternoon with little more than a piano and great charm. Stephen Marley represented for reggae, and Julieta Venegas offered rousing grass-roots Latin pop. But hip-hop has been scarcer than one would expect, despite sets from stalwarts Ghostface Killah, El-P and the Roots. Maybe that's because "indie" or underground hip-hop doesn't always make people dance.
Wise words have had their place this year — Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, performing under his solo moniker the Nightwatchman, intoned his incendiary political songs to a huge, rapt audience. But people really want to engage their hips. Just ask Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, whose dizzying, mashed-up remixes got his audience jumping even though there was no show beyond him manipulating his laptop. Paris Hilton even joined the coterie dancing onstage as he performed. And that is one young woman who expects it all.