Outside Lands is gunning to be the West Coast’s Lollapalooza: a preeminent three-day festival in one of the most significant metropolises in the United States, drawing the biggest names in alternative music. And if Twitter is a valuable metric for cultural influence (an argument I would take up), Outside Lands has formally been crowned that title.
Yesterday, nearly every major music publication reported on the nine-year-old festival’s lineup release, and most endowed it with heavy praise. Cultural critics as wide-ranging as MTV’s Jessica Hopper to Stereogum’s Chris DeVille explicitly remarked on its superiority to Lollapalooza’s lineup, with DeVille going so far as to call it “the best North American festival lineup and it’s not even close.” With all the amenities and attractions added in previous years firmly entrenched as tradition — from the wonderfully bizarre GastroMagic Culinary Stage to the exceptionally curated Barbary comedy tent — Outside Lands might now be said to have hit a stride that is truly threatening to its competitors.
The festival’s peers officially include national behemoths such as Governor’s Ball and Coachella. Yes, Outside Lands is now at this level: Tickets sell out within minutes and attendees fly in from across the country, drawn both by the curated talent in addition to the overall San Francisco experience. It’s a summer destination, having evolved from its roots as merely a local favorite overlooked outside the region. Recent ticket prices reflect the festival’s rising profile, increasing yet again this year by a substantial margin. Many locals and Bay-adjacent fans of Outside Lands have officially been priced out, yet so long as SF tech and out-of-state vacationers are still interested in being seen on social media at such a high-profile event, Another Planet Entertainment has nothing to worry about in regards to getting rid of their increasingly expensive access passes.
So is this year’s Outside Lands lineup reflective of all this added prestige and ticket fees? Perhaps. For many, 2012’s heavy-hitter headliners of Neil Young, Metallica, and Stevie Wonder (with Foo Fighters, Jack White, Beck, and Skrillex all acting as sub-headliners in a year they could have headlined most festivals on their own) was the peak of the annual event’s now substantial history. That festival’s undercard featured yet-to-break gold in Tame Impala, Father John Misty, and Alabama Shakes, cementing it top-to-bottom as a lineup that seemed important, both at the time and in retrospect. This year isn’t that, but neither have any other iterations of the festival been since. What we have in 2016 is a hybrid of the crowd Outside Lands used to cater to back when it’s identity was a bit more rustic and rock-oriented, and the crowd it has attracted as festivals across the country have increasingly appealed to younger and younger demographics. At Outside Lands, you’ll see the following acts share poster space: Ryan Adams and J. Cole. Sufjan Stevens and Zedd. Lionel Richie and Lana Del Rey.
That last juxtaposition is perhaps the most representative of the festival as a whole. It’s a summative pairing clearly showing how little Outside Lands cares about having a cohesive image in the North American festival scene. Lana Del Rey is expected to lead into Lionel Richie on the main stage Sunday night of this year’s program, mirroring the same way Sam Smith opened for Elton John last year. It’s a pattern Outside Lands adheres to of sticking a vital millennial hero right before a storied musical legend in a manner that blends crowd types and reveals how little of a disparity exists between today’s icons and those of the past — Sam Smith can be championed by the same people who cherish Elton John. For those who put down the music they don’t listen to because it doesn’t resemble the nostalgia they’ve gripped on to for fear of the unknown, you need not apply for a wristband.
Chance the Rapper is also one of a number of legitimately impressive hip-hop artists featured on this year’s lineup, a first for the festival, which has consistently turned its back towards one of the immensely popular genre. When Outside Lands would occasionally include a rapper in the past, it would often be a mediocre and culture-biting one appealing to “fans” of hip-hop who don’t otherwise listen to the originators of hip-hop. I was never sure if this was a conscious decision on the organizers’ part, and it definitely doesn’t discredit the few times they’ve really hit the mark with great rap acts (The Roots, Kendrick Lamar), but I was starting to think that if you were a rapper without a predominantly white fan base than you wouldn’t be welcome in Golden Gate Park. I’m happy to have those fears quelled, with Anderson .Paak, Vince Staples, and the aforementioned Chance the Rapper signaling that Outside Lands has finally found the last glaringly missing puzzle piece in its genre-smashing approach.
Outside Lands doesn’t commit itself to any one set of tastes — it chooses acts based on influence. This open-mindedness, always present but increasingly better expressed, is on full display at present. Saxophone phenomenon Kamasi Washington is bringing masterfully executed jazz to the festival circuit, meanwhile French-Cuban electronic duo Ibeyi will be representing the Afro-Cuban rhythms they were raised on. Julien Baker will keep everyone hushed under the trees in the early afternoon with songs transparent and tender, while Grimes will get her crowd dancing with her indelible art-pop. But while those last three artists are female performers, the rest of Outside Lands’ current lineup is problematic in much the way most festival lineups tend to be — failing to highlight women-driven talent abundant in music today. With only five female-fronted musicians in the first four lines, there exists an 80%-20% gender gap at the top of the poster for a festival that has never in nine years featured a non-male headliner. That was spectacularly disappointing in 2008 when the festival first launched, and it is even more distressing in 2016. While other festivals aren’t doing much better, it’s always sad to see your hometown fall victim to such an easily remedied flaw.
Speaking of acts Outside Lands has never booked, there’s a pretty long list of artists that have played all the major festivals across the country but have yet to grace the Bay. There’s a lot of fresh blood on this year’s lineup, but J. Cole isn’t as stimulating of a booking when you consider that the far more exciting Ice Cube is playing Coachella in a similar slot. Outside Lands is presenting Lionel Richie, who is a rare figure at U.S. festivals and notably headlined Glastonbury last year, but that legacy slot has gone in the past to names so overwhelming they defined the entire weekend, making a slightly washed-up Richie mostly mildly dissatisfying.
However, you can’t keep focusing on what could have been when what you have is still something altogether thrilling. French Phoenix contemporaries Air have so far only announced themselves for one other U.S. festival, and is a booking choice outside of Outside Lands’ usual wheelhouse. Sufjan Stevens isn’t exactly unfamiliar this festival season, but should be celebrated anytime there exists an opportunity to see him perform. Whitney is one of my favorite new bands releasing their debut album this summer, and I’m stoked to see that they are also on Outside Lands’ radar. And yes, let’s address the elephants in the room: Radiohead, after having played the festival’s inaugural year (infamously under less-than-ideal sound circumstances), is back to revisit Golden Gate Park for what is a rather exclusive upcoming headlining tour. This is a big deal, one that cannot be understated: They are one of the best bands of the last 20 years and show no signs of descending from their already hallowed legacy. LCD Soundsystem are also bringing their Outkast-inspired global festival tour to San Francisco, which, depending on your tolerance for the business ethics inherent to the band’s reunion, is either incredibly exciting or distastefully tacky. Regardless, James Murphy and co. are still exceptional live performers, so shut up, let them play the hits, and dance until you pass out.
In as much of a summary as I can provide for one of the festival’s most shambolic lineups, Outside Lands has defined itself as a musical grab-bag. As has been the case in years past, the festival has suffered from trying to be too many things to too many people and ending up being not enough for anyone. No single EDM fan, rap-head, or rock purist is going to find enough here to be totally satisfied all weekend. But Outside Lands isn’t for any one type of listener, anyway — it’s for those willing to submit an entire weekend to experiencing a wide array of art in one of the best settings and backdrops in the United States. In this regard, Outside Lands is the best fusion platters out there. I mean, who else is booking The Muppets?