Coachella day three review: Ariana Grande on fire and Pusha T on an iceberg

Empire Polo Ground, Indio, California
Grande closed the weekend with a Bang Bang, Pusha T brought dancing abominable snowmen, and Lizzo was a plus-size tonic

The gold, fluorescent green and animal print that defines Coachella’s wardrobe gives way to a sea of pink and lavender: Ariana Grande’s disciples have arrived. The queen of relatability closes out the weekend, but not before another typically rich and cosmopolitan array of global pop.

‘Blatant symbolism for cocaine’ ... rapper Pusha T at Coachella.
‘Blatant symbolism for cocaine’ ... rapper Pusha T at Coachella. Photograph: Valérie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

Nigeria’s Burna Boy opens up the main stage in the festival’s best outfit: a frayed, spliced, sapeurs-worthy Burberry suit. His 12-piece band strengthen and deepen his exuberant Afropop, which sometimes touches on a reggae pulse from the other side of the Atlantic. He warms the mood only for Pusha T to freeze it. The rapper appears atop an iceberg, flanked by dancing abominable snowmen and backed by footage of exploding powder, all of it extremely blatant symbolism for cocaine. Pusha is admirably on point, laying out his lyrics with the nerdish care of a domino player. The same can’t be said for fellow rapper Rico Nasty, who lets her backing track do most of the heavy lifting, occasionally rapping along slightly out of time, as if having an argument with herself. This chaotic-evil style does admittedly chime with her magnificently all-fucks-taken life essence, but it is ultimately hard to absorb.

Another rapper, Lizzo, earns one of the most rapturous crowds of the weekend, and for good reason. Not only can she rap like a Baltimore club MC, sing like Aretha and play the flute to a remarkably high standard, she is also a vociferous champion for body positivity, frequently telling the crowd things like “when you love yourself you’re never lonely”. Proudly twerking in a high-cut, silver-sequinned thong bodysuit, she is a really valuable tonic at a festival seemingly set up to fetishise a curvaceous-yet-slim female body that only the genetically blessed or doggedly determined will get close to. It’s telling that a large portion of Lizzo’s crowd is gay, fellow refugees from a mainstream culture that, despite its rainbow bracelets and plus-sized models, is still often hostile towards them.

‘A vociferous champion for body positivity’ ... Lizzo.
‘A vociferous champion for body positivity’ ... Lizzo. Photograph: Christopher Polk/REX/Shutterstock

The day’s other notable rap performance is from local boy YG, typically dapper in a waistcoat and commanding a vast crowd over the snap and click of DJ Mustard’s productions. He leads a powerful moment of silent contemplation for his close peer Nipsey Hussle, before performing their collaboration Fuck Donald Trump, still bracing for its Ronseal frankness.

After the insane kitsch of EDM star Zedd – proof, like so often at Coachella, that Americans can’t resist a comedy wobbling bassline – Gesaffelstein lays down stern, focused electro from behind an unsmiling metal mask. It’s a shame the Weeknd doesn’t turn up to guest on Lost in the Fire, but the French producer’s strongest tracks aren’t vocal-driven anyway; instead, it’s as if giant clattering machinery is rotovating the audience to life.

R&B star HER and Dev Hynes’ Blood Orange later bring gospel intensity to the second stage, but teeing up Ariana more directly are Perfume, a joyously OTT J-pop trio, and Scottish electro-poppers Chvrches, whose singer Lauren Mayberry counters the banal emotional bromides of so much US stage banter with tales of wet wipes and questioning “what does Coachella even mean” after Beyoncé aced the 2018 edition of the festival. They have a special guest in Marshmello, though given that he performs with a bucket on his head, it could have been any old random.

‘What does Coachella even mean after Beyoncé?’ Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches at Coachella 2019.
‘What does Coachella even mean after Beyoncé?’ Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches at Coachella 2019. Photograph: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella

The guestlist for Grande, meanwhile, is positively rammed: within 10 minutes she has very unexpectedly introduced ’NSync, who perform Tearin’ Up My Heart with Grande filling in for Justin Timberlake. Break Your Heart Right Back segues into the similarly Diana Ross-sampling Mo Money Mo Problems, ably performed by Diddy and Mase. Less successful are two Nicki Minaj guest tracks, Side to Side and Bang Bang, hampered by a bad mic.

It’s not the only wobble – poor timekeeping means Grande has to canter through the climactic A-grade material of Break Free, No Tears Left to Cry and Thank U, Next, having inexplicably made room earlier for lesser tracks like Goodnight N Go, and leaving little audience chatter. But her set is often excellent, particularly Dangerous Woman, given a slow, sensual, heavy-metal treatment.

With her headline set surveying her entire career, her work forms a fascinating, still-unfolding pop Bildungsroman: every sexual epiphany and personal milestone sketched out in real time, resulting in a uniquely involving opus. You can see why she is such an icon to a generation who also tell their own stories in public, via Snapchat and Instagram.

Fireworks herald the end of her set and indeed the first Coachella weekend, with a Groundhog-like repetition to follow next week. The pouting selfies at every turn make it easy to lampoon, but it is hard to imagine a more good-natured crowd – jocks apologise like cringing courtiers if they even slightly graze you – or a festival with a better setting or production values. Coachella has secured its #bestlife hashtags for another year.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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