When Netflix announced the impending release of Homecoming, an exclusive documentary following Beyonce’s monumental 2018 Coachella performance, the news took over every social media feed, trended internationally, and sparked a host of articles dedicated purely to the hype behind the release. For musicians who produce a concert film, the general audience they can expect to be waiting in high anticipation is the dedicated fanbase who are likely to watch the film not just once, but on repeat for a week. The difference with Homecoming was clear: everyone was waiting.
What was so remarkable about the response to Homecoming was that even those who generally have little interest in Beyonce’s work were tempted to watch the documentary unfold. Maybe it’s to keep up with conversations in the workplace or comment on the bizarre festival culture that Coachella has cultivated. But one argument that could explain the appeal is perhaps the simplest of all: Beyonce’s Coachella performance was more than just another live show. It was a visual, cultural and all-round phenomenal experience that eschewed any of the usual expectations for a festival headliner and left audiences with the distinct feeling that this was a set that would be remembered for years to come. It took a regular performance and kicked it up a notch, which begs the question: do we expect more from a live show in 2019?
Gone are the days when The Beatles took to the stage at Shea Stadium with their respective instruments and a gusty yet inadequate sound system, drowned out by the sound of thousands of screaming fans but still charging valiantly on to complete a set that would go down in history. Nobody could hear them. There were no striking visuals in the background. The stage setup was simplistic and purely logistical at its heart. But those who were there that day speak fondly of the experience; those who wish they were lament their misfortune to have missed the moment. It didn’t matter that the greatest band in the world was practically inaudible. When you were seeing The Beatles live, nothing else mattered.
Take that situation and apply it to 2019. With the technology now available, it would be almost criminal for a band to struggle against sound issues so exhaustively in this day and age. To perform without a backdrop would be bizarre. The lack of a scripted encore made to look utterly spontaneous would leave audiences wondering why the band wasn’t coming back yet. The idea of what a live performance is supposed to be has evolved into more than a simple hour-long set; it’s become an all-encompassing entertainment experience. But are we right to place these expectations on musicians? Are we not satisfied with simply hearing a band sing into a microphone anymore?
Of course, if you visit a smaller venue and drop into a local gig, you’ll find the stakes aren’t quite as high. Here, you’ll be treated to what is arguably a traditional live show: the simple presentation of an artist playing music incredibly well. But once musicians reach that next level – once they reach the absolute height of fame – the expectations of what a live show should be seem to rise with it.
Some of this can be attributed to the often-astronomical ticket prices such musicians charge for their live shows. Punters want more bang for their buck and with the likes of Beyonce, they’re almost guaranteed to get it. At this point, if a musician was to step on stage with no preamble, no light show, no pyrotechnics or pizzazz, they would be likely to leave fans disappointed. This differs depending on the genre, of course. You wouldn’t expect to see a light show at an orchestral performance, nor would you need all the bells and whistles at the intimate gig of an indie folk group. But for the most part, a rise up the ladder of musical fame coincides with a rise in expectations for what a live show is supposed to be – not in terms of musical talent, but in the incorporation of extravagant accompaniments we just can’t seem to live without.
There certainly appears to be a blueprint to follow these days, to the point that originality can often be scarce and the element of surprise lost to the predictable presentation of songs that follows. This is where Beyonce took things in another direction. By incorporating elements from her culture, through adopting the persona of a marching band, by the sheer genius of creating a Battle of the Bands-style performance at a music festival, Beyonce ensured this Coachella performance wouldn’t be forgotten any time soon. More importantly, it wasn’t what anyone expected. And that’s the most impressive element of all.
In one set, an artist can alter expectations for the industry at large and render us incapable of appreciating a simple instruments-only performance in the same way we praise an event like Beychella. This year’s Coachella headliners – Ariana Grande and Childish Gambino – presented two opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of performance. Grande offered a set that followed a standard concert pattern, playing out each song consecutively with different choreography and visual accompaniment. On the other hand, Gambino presented an experience – just like Beyonce – only he did it in his own unique style, using minimal accompanists and somehow creating an intimate atmosphere amongst a crowd of thousands. But is it fair to say this rendered his performance superior to Grande’s, purely because he offered an experience? Or are we simply not willing to appreciate anything less than grandeur at this point in music?
It’s not an easy question to answer, and nor should it be. There are so many factors to take into consideration, not to mention personal preference. But it does remain undeniable that the bar is constantly being raised for what is expected of a live music event. The real question is what we’ll see next.
Dive into last month's Musicology feature article here.