The Uncanny Valley: Huck’s April Newsletter

The Uncanny Valley: Huck’s April Newsletter

Emma Garland reflects on what we can learn from this years’ edition of Coachella festival – the canary in the coal mine of US pop culture.

Hi, I’m Emma Garland, former Digital Editor of Huck and current writer about town. In this monthly digest I’ll be dealing with some of the biggest cultural issues of the moment – from the flailing state of the creative industries and how they’re being reshaped by technology, to the relationship between art and activism in an age when everything is politics. Let’s have it.

Emma Garland

Is it just me, or did it feel like Coachella was back this year? And by “back” I mean in the sense that Crystal Pepsi or Freddy Krueger could be said to be “back” – not a welcome or invigorating return to form, you understand, but a strained resuscitation of the past. 

One of the largest and most financially successful music and arts festivals in the world, this year’s Coachella was loaded with references to its early-2010s heyday, giving it an Uncanny Valley feel. The headlines, certainly, felt shipped in from the blogging era: ‘Tyler, The Creator brings out A$AP Rocky,’ ‘Surprise appearance from Sky Ferreira,’ ‘Grimes apologises for technical issues.’ The action on the ground, too, was giving remember back when… Between Evan Peters dry humping a small blonde woman during Lana Del Rey’s set, Billie Eilish DJing hits from the late-2000s/early-2010s (shout out ‘Rack City’), and Kesha joining Reneé Rap for a duet of ‘Tik Tok,’ it was hard to tell whether the festival footage was being beamed live from 2024 or 2014.

Is this a good thing? Probably not. The first major festival on the calendar in the United States, Coachella is often the canary in the coal mine of pop culture. It has a reputation for capturing the zeitgeist and preserving it, Polaroid-style – mirroring the era back at itself while foreshadowing what’s to come. Beyoncé’s 2018 headline set was a watershed celebration of Black artistry in America and a reinvention of what a headline set can even be, for instance, while Odd Future and Lil B’s 2011 collab signalled indie rap’s imminent mainstream ascent and the rise of digital micro-genres (sure, they’re mostly shouting “swag” over blown out hard techno, but there are cathedrals everywhere for those with the eyes to see). In 2009, The L.A. Timesphoto round-up featured a man in a green neon suit crawling through a piece of installation art called ‘the Elastic Plastic Sponge,’ which speaks for itself.

The festival has also typically been the first to offer more sinister premonitions of brand dominance and hologram performances – something we don’t blink twice at in an age when an avatar of ABBA has taken up residency in a purpose-built arena at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. But when a rendering of Tupac was conjured in 2012 to roar “What the fuck is up, Coachellaaaa!” alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, it was a decision so contentious that Questlove said it haunted him in his sleep.

“Overall it felt like watching a simulacrum of a simulacrum of the late-00s/early-2010s – that brief but exciting period of exchange between digital and real life, and perhaps the last identifiable moment of meaningful cultural innovation.”

Emma Garland

Coachella’s more recent snapshots of pop culture elicit a similar response. This year’s livestream captured a few flashes of electricity from Tinashe, Doja Cat, and Jamie xx B2B Floating Points B2B Daphni, but overall it felt like watching a simulacrum of a simulacrum of the late-00s/early-2010s – that brief but exciting period of exchange between digital and real life, and perhaps the last identifiable moment of meaningful cultural innovation. As Jeff Weiss wrote in a blistering overview of Weekend 1 for The Ringer, “There has always been nostalgia, but it has evolved from a mawkish novelty to the animating force of culture [...] Even for artists with a unique spin, it is baked into the collective mitochondria.” On the other hand, Gen Z indie sleaze revivalist The Dare said that “this is the first year since Obama was president that I will have Coachella fomo.”

Whichever way you look at it, this is the second year in a row that Coachella tickets have still been available the weekend of. Economic circumstances will be a factor, but can’t be blamed entirely considering similarly priced events like Stagecoach and Lovers & Friends have long since sold out. Given that Coachella tickets were reliably snapped up within hours before the line-up was even announced, that certainly says something about the vibes and how they might be off.

To take a more optimistic view of things, some of the artists being most loudly celebrated at Coachella now – among them Tyler, The Creator, Sky Ferreira, and Lana Del Rey – were maligned throughout much of the 2010s. Tyler, The Creator’s lyrics were so controversial they launched a thousand op-eds about alleged misogyny and homophobia (the latter deeply misplaced, all things considered), while Theresa May’s Home Office banned him from performing in the UK for 3-5 years. Sky Ferreira’s career has been plagued by false starts, many of them the result of behind the scenes industry issues. This time last decade, Lana Del Rey and her flower-crowned followers were considered to be harbingers of the festival’s downfall by real music heads (plaid-shirted followers of Jeff Mangum). For those who rallied for those artists at the time, it is gratifying to see them get their flowers now.

But maybe it’s inevitable for the sun to start setting on Coachella. For as long as it’s existed the festival has been accused of being an interactive AMEX advert with no bearing on real culture. Indeed, Pitchfork’s review of this year’s event features the terrifying sentence: “Lupe Fiasco’s Sunday night set at the Heineken House was so popular that fans assembled to peer into the corporate activation from a nearby food plaza.” There’s hardly a shortage of festivals – independent or otherwise – in California, the rest of the States, around the world. We can stand for the focus to shift a little and leave Coachella in the rear-view mirror, shimmering and casino-like in the middle of the desert, like a mirage.

Besides, could there be a more fitting note for the festival to end on than Lana Del Rey leaving on the back of a motorbike helmed by a Hells Angel to a song by the Caretaker that’s intended to mirror the loss of memory and identity that comes with the progression of dementia?

Staff recommendations for fresh:

Emma: Since it’s April and the weather is typically – in the UK at least – mental, I’ve been gravitating towards art that either feels grounding or matches the chaos I see out of the window. Cascada, the latest EP by Chilean DJ and producer Valesuchi, somehow does both. Taking a sensual approach to bass music that opts for tropical textures and slow burns over incessant kick drums and instant gratification, Cascada brings the sounds of the jungle to your living room (or the top deck of the bus, or the kebab shop, or wherever you happen to be). My favourite track is “333,” whose hypnotic percussion and thick humidity makes you feel like you’re being drawn into a hallucination.

Alex (Senior Editor): The iconic Bruce LaBruce treads a unique space at the intersection between gay porn and fine art cinema. His latest (explicit) feature The Visitor, doing the festival circuit as we speak after premiering at Berlinale, is a queer pornographic reinterpretation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema – well, of course. Taking Pasolini’s 1968 surrealist psychological masterpiece as a starting point, LaBruce manages to weave together a banging soundtrack from Hannah Holland; a delicious sense of humour and self deprecation; and very-2024 revolutionary, anti-xenophobic and pro-immigration messaging, with slogans such as “Eat out the rich,” “Sex has no borders” and “Open borders, open legs” – all blasted at the audience in seizure-inducing technicolour. It shouldn’t work but it absolutely does.

Grab yourself a copy of Huck 80 featuring Ziwe and so much more!

Sign up to the new Huck Newsletter to get a personal take on the state of media and pop culture from Emma Garland in your inbox every month.

Help ensure our future by becoming a member of Club Huck.