Are Australian Music Festivals Ready To Embrace The Popstar?

Popstars like Doja Cat and Dua Lipa make regular appearances at festivals overseas - and it looks like Australia is ready to follow suit.

primavera glastonbury photo

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It’s almost one in the morning and the crowd is flooding out the main stage for Dua Lipa’s headline set at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound.

Among a line-up that includes acts like Gorillaz, The Strokes, Lorde, and Phoenix, Dua Lipa’s name was heard most throughout the weekend. It makes sense. Lipa is currently Spotify’s fifth most-streamed artist in the world and easily the most-streamed artist appearing at the festival.

The stage is a slightly pared-back version of her sold-out ’Future Nostalgia’ tour. Her Primavera set is immaculate, complete with choreography and costume changes, bolstered by a crowd singing every single word. Lipa looks looser than she is at her arena shows, aware that festivals are meant to be a little rowdier. It’s surreal. Only 10 years ago, an artist like Lipa headlining a festival was unheard of. Festivals weren’t for pop music. They were far too cool for that.

There is, however, a shift afoot. This year, Lipa is headlining multiple festivals including Primavera, Sziget Festival, and Lollapalooza. She joins Halsey, Megan Thee Stallion, Billie Eilish, and Lorde as one of the most-sought after pop festival headliners of the year. Of course, they’re joined by the likes of Green Day, Arctic Monkeys, and The Strokes. But festival line-ups are changing. It was only 2017 when Pitchfork pointed out that the acts playing the most festivals in that year were The Killers, Arcade Fire, Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, and Ryan Adams — with Lady Gaga and Kesha featuring as the only mainstream pop acts.

Primavera, which has pledged gender equality in its line-ups since 2019, was quick to sprinkle pop throughout its festival. But others are catching up. The line-ups for summer in the Northern hemisphere suggest it’s going to be the summer of pop music — a trend that Australia may be a little slower to adopt.

Australia has almost entirely shied away from major pop acts at the top of the billing. Part of that has to do with the cost of pulling off a large-scale pop show at a festival but it’s also about the appetite for the genre. In the history of Splendour In The Grass only Lorde, Lily Allen and to a lesser extent Mark Ronson — all of whom performed in 2014 — stick out as mainstream pop headliners. This year, the all-male headliner trio of Gorillaz, The Strokes, and Tyler, The Creator is not pop-centric at all.

Falls Festival, however, paints a slightly different story by placing Lil Nas X at the helm. Last year, it was headlined by mainstream act Halsey. Both of them had had a number-one single within the year prior to the festival.

Festivals are slowly attempting to keep up with changing audience appetites, demands for gender parity, and growing budgets. Right now, all signs point to pop music.

Music Festivals Go Mainstream

Historically, music festivals weren’t made to promote pop music. Woodstock, the first festival to nab worldwide headlines, was built off an anti-mainstream aesthetic. It was for free spirits, and as such, the line-up featured artists who occupied genres like rock, soul, and folk.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s festivals were more about representing niche communities than anything else, while the ‘90s saw the introduction of the Vans Warped Tour and Lollapalooza, both heavily focussing on rock music, which dominated the charts at the time.

Coachella also launched in 1999, taking a few years to perfect the format and get ticket sales pumping. In the early ‘00s, approximately 50,000 people attended each day of the festival, now it’s up to 125,000. More tickets equal bigger acts and Coachella quickly started booking some of the biggest acts in the world including Rage Against The Machine (2007), The Killers (2009) and The Strokes (2011).

The most mainstream genre – pop – was still being largely shut out.

Rock had well and truly faded from the charts by the 2010s but still, Coachella, along with most of the major festivals in the US, UK, and Australia, continued to book bands, often looking to legacy acts. AC/DC, Guns ‘N Roses, and Radiohead all occupied line-ups early on in the decade despite not having any true mainstream relevance.

By the 2010s, festivals were mainstream. Brands had infiltrated and large promoters like Live Nation had started taking huge stakes. In Australia, Live Nation took a majority stake in Splendour In The Grass and Falls Festival in 2016. In 2019, before the world turned upside down, Bloomberg projected that the music festival economy would have generated more than $20 billion worth of revenue by the early 2020s.

Bloomberg reported that in 2013 fewer than a quarter of the artists with the top 100 selling albums of the year performed at SXSW, Coachella, or Lollapalooza. In 2018, that figure had risen to 40 percent. Huge acts, once reserved for arena and stadium tours, were being lured to festivals but the most mainstream genre — pop — was still being largely shut out.

Beyoncé Changes The World, Again

Generally, it takes one headliner set to change the game. JAY-Z disrupted the rock status quo at Glastonbury in 2008, facing huge criticism ahead of his performance but later proving the viability of rapper as headliners. It took Coachella another two years to follow suit, booking JAY-Z in 2010. Splendour In The Grass then booked its first rap headliner in 2011 with Kanye West.

In 2011, Glastonbury led the way again with Beyoncé. She was the festival’s first female pop headliner (Kylie Minogue had dropped out in 2005) and the choice didn’t come without criticism. As Beyoncé does though, she silenced the critics with one of the most talked about Glastonbury sets of all time. In 2018, with two more albums to her name, she headlined Coachella. She’d been booked the year before as the first female pop headliner but was replaced by Lady Gaga after her pregnancy delayed the appearance by a year.

Beychella, as it came to be known, became the most-tweeted performance of the weekend followed by Justin Bieber’s appearance with viral sensation Mason Ramsey. It’s a set that will go down in history as one of the most impactful of all time. A masterclass in how stadium-ready pop shows can be translated to a festival setting. That same year, Eminem and The Weeknd were also billed, marking the first year that Coachella had booked only solo acts.

There was an audience for pop music and the conversation surrounding them was beginning to change. Ariana Grande took the headline slot the following year bringing out Justin Bieber as a surprise guest. In 2019, Lollapalooza also booked Grande, Glastonbury had Kylie, Janet Jackson, George Ezra, and Miley Cyrus atop its bill and Primavera booked Robyn and Rosalía in top spots.

This year, nearly every major festival has booked a pop headline. Even Reading and Leeds, one of Britain’s most notorious rock festivals, has given Halsey top billing. Harry Styles’s Coachella debut, meanwhile, reportedly attracted 100,000 festivalgoers, one of the largest crowds in the history of the festival. After years of scepticism, pop is working at festivals.

Girls Run The Main Stage

You can’t adequately analyse the history of festivals leaning towards pop headliners without specifically noting the skew towards female pop headliners.

In an excellent NPR op-ed, Ann Powers pointed out that the history of popular music is often seen through a male lens. Mass music festivals, in a way, attempt to tell a story of where music has been and where it’s going. It’s why Guns ‘N Roses can headline the same festival as Calvin Harris. Audiences like nostalgia and they also like to appear on the pulse.

It’s re-writing a history that has seen female rockstars, rappers, DJs, and popstars shut out of major opportunities as headliners on festival stages.

Rock, rap, and electronic music have a history of sexism — and while pop does too, its fans are typically the most likely to embrace a female star on a mass scale. Gender parity in line-ups should be a priority for every major festival right now, and it is for the likes of Glastonbury and Primavera who have made it one.

It’s re-writing a history that has seen female rockstars, rappers, DJs, and popstars shut out of major opportunities as headliners on festival stages. Coinciding with an appetite for pop music at music festivals, female pop-adjacent artists are finally being put in the big font on lineups, albeit slowly. P!NK is headlining Austin City Limits, Halsey is up the top at Governors Ball, Dua Lipa took on Primavera and Billie Eilish will headline Glastonbury as the youngest ever headliner.

This shift doesn’t mean that other genres are being shut out completely. The others still have a heavy presence, it just means that a genre that has been typically overlooked in a festival setting is now finding its feet.

The Music Festival As ‘Alternative’

Despite being very heavily part of mainstream culture, music festivals have often presented, falsely, as alternative through the boho vision that they conjure. You only have to look at the fashion of major celebrities each year at Coachella to know that.

Pop was seen as too uncool to fit this narrative, meaning that music festival billing was dominated by nostalgia and alternative blogs. In the mid-2010s, however, we saw the rise of ‘Poptimism’, whereby reputable music sources began to approach pop music in a critical, positive way. Justin Bieber, who had once been dismissed, was now garnering reviews on Pitchfork, and Taylor Swift’s 1989 had taken her from a guilty pleasure to an artist who could be both appreciated and professionally critiqued. It’s taken years for festivals to catch up but it seems they now understand that popstars can fit into their vision of a ‘serious musician’.

Australia is in a slightly different position. The definition of a festival artist hasn’t been set by the blogs so much as it has been by triple j. The major music line-ups in the country read similar to triple j’s playlist and most of them are sponsored by the station.

After all, a festival’s success is largely dependent on the community it creates.

Only recently has ‘poptimism’ reached triple j. This year, Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, The Kid LAROI, Doja Cat, and Lil Nas X appeared in the Top 10 of the countdown, marking a huge shift in listener habits toward mainstream pop music. Appropriately, Lil Nas X will now headline Falls Festival alongside Arctic Monkeys.

Primavera’s 2022 performers, featuring gender parity, offer a glimpse into what the future of music festivals could be. One where we can move between Dua Lipa to Gorillaz, from Charli XCX to Tyler, The Creator, from Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Megan Thee Stallion.

It’s a true representation of audiences’ listening habits where they’re just as likely to embrace a fresh Lipa cut as they are to run up the numbers on an old Yeah Yeah Yeahs song that’s gone viral on TikTok. When variety is key to a line-up, it’s reflected in its crowd. After all, a festival’s success is largely dependent on the community it creates.

Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. He also co-hosts the podcast Flopstars. Follow him on Twitter