Among the many artists making their Coachella debuts this year, Mavis Staples undoubtedly has the most storied résumé. As a solo artist and former member of The Staple Singers, the 76-year-old's powerful voice has graced more than five decades of soul classics, including “I'll Take You There,” “Let's Do It Again” and a string of late-'80s and early-'90s singles for Prince's label, Paisley Park.
“We all been wondering what took you so long,” she said during her weekend one set, taking a good-natured poke at Coachella organizers Goldenvoice for waiting 17 years to book her. She was speaking on behalf of herself and her band — but over the course of this year's festival, it felt like she could have been speaking for female recording artists in general. In 2016, really for the first time in the festival's history, women were more than just a welcome anomaly on Coachella's many stages. And the festival was noticeably better for their presence.
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At many times throughout the weekend, it was possible to build an itinerary that involved seeing hardly any male-fronted acts at all. On Friday afternoon, for example, one could wander straight from Philly garage-rockers Sheer Mag, fronted by Tina Halladay, over to Nina Las Vegas' early Sahara Tent DJ set, then back to the Mojave Tent for British newcomer Låpsley, then into the Gobi Tent for Mavis Staples. In all, by L.A. Weekly's count, 46 of Coachella's 165 acts this year prominently featured women — still only about a quarter of the total lineup, but a marked improvement from last year, when only 26 female solo artists and female-fronted groups were on the bill.
Lack of female artists has not been a problem unique to Coachella; most major U.S. festivals have suffered from some degree of gender imbalance over the years. The festival gender gap became a major talking point in the press last year, with many media outlets (including L.A. Weekly) getting in on the discussion. One simple and powerful way to highlight the issue was to take popular festival fliers and black out the names of all male solo artists and male-fronted bands; the resulting fliers, as seen on sites like Slate, were startlingly bare.
A representative for Goldenvoice declined to comment for this story, so it's impossible to know for sure whether such criticism had any impact on how this year's festival was booked. But judging from this year's edition of Camp, Coachella's in-house magazine, it's something the festival organizers are at least aware of. In an article called “Festivalling While Female,” writer Rebecca Haithcoat (also a frequent L.A. Weekly contributor) discussed whether festivals can be “places of empowerment for women” with Chvrches' Lauren Mayberry. Another article, “Balance in the Booth” by Michelle Lhooq, who frequently writes about women's issues in music for Vice, discussed closing the gender gap in dance music with several of this year's prominent female DJs on the lineup, including Chicago's The Black Madonna and London-based Nigerian-Lebanese techno star Nicole Moudaber.
Speaking by phone with L.A. Weekly ahead of her Friday night set at Coachella weekend one, when she and her partner, British singer Skin, filled the Yuma Tent beyond capacity, Moudaber said she believes any issues of gender inequality in dance music are already in the rear-view mirror. “I play festivals around the world and I don't see there is a discrepancy,” she said. (Moudaber's publicist followed up our interview with a list of nearly 20 festivals the DJ/producer has performed at, including Electric Daisy Carnival, Glastonbury and Tomorrowland.)
Moudaber feels it's ultimately up to women themselves, in dance music and beyond, to change the “perception of promoters” who may still believe either that there aren't enough female artists, or that they aren't capable of holding their own alongside their male counterparts. “If women want to take that path, it's there. Nobody's stopping them. There are many, many women who are committed to playing music at a very high standard.”
Throughout both Coachella weekends, Moudaber's words rang true. Not only were women better represented at this year's festival, they provided many of both weekends' biggest highlights. In addition to Moudaber, Nina Kraviz and Ida Engberg (along with her partner, Adam Beyer) packed the Yuma Tent with the techno faithful. All-female post-punk quartet Savages delivered one of Friday's most bracing rock sets, while Australian garage-rock wunderkind Courtney Barnett stole Saturday afternoon with a sunset performance on the Outdoor Stage that was equal parts sardonic charm and unfettered, guitar-freakout fury. And no set on Sunday was more talked about than Sia's stunning mix of pop and performance art.
Even when the boys took center stage, their female guests frequently generated more heat. Kiesza and AlunaGeorge provided the highlights of Jack Ü's Friday night Outdoor Stage sets on weekends one and two, respectively; Lorde brought down the house during Disclosure's mainstage set with a spine-tingling version of “Magnets”; and not even Kanye West's two surprise weekend-one appearances generated bigger roars than Rihanna's climactic Sunday night turn with Calvin Harris.
In one of the first weekend's most emotional moments, Kesha took to the Outdoor Stage during Zedd's Saturday evening set to perform “True Colors,” the title track off the EDM producer's 2015 album. It was her first major public appearance since her recent legal battles with Dr. Luke, the producer she has accused of sexually abusing her. As that fight has dragged on in the courts — with Kesha's label, Sony Music, refusing to release her from a contract that creatively and financially binds her to her alleged abuser — many have come to see it as a proxy for women's fight for more power in the music industry as a whole. On Saturday, Kesha's powerful delivery of the song's defiant lyrics (“I won't apologize for the fire in my eyes”) turned her return into a moment of empowering triumph, especially as a crowd of 40,000 or more, men and women, enthusiastically sang along to every word.
That sense of female empowerment was everywhere at Coachella this year, and not just on the stages. As Haithcoat noted in her piece about Chvrches' Lauren Mayberry for Camp, “More women are flying solo at festivals these days, and many of those are looking beyond the bros to recognize the immense potential for meeting and bonding with like-minded sisters.”
During their ebullient Sunday afternoon mainstage set, drummer Kim Schifino of synth-pop duo Matt and Kim put it more bluntly. “The only people I've seen crowdsurfing all weekend are ladies,” she observed, “and I have a theory: Pussy runs everything.”