This story is over 5 years old.

Coachella 2016

Prince Through the Eyes of Coachella

His music and memory remind us why we go to festivals in the first place.

Photo courtesy Goldenvoice

There was no escaping purple at Coachella last weekend. Purple bandanas, purple hair, purple lipstick, purple T-shirts, purple lighting on the palm trees, purple flags in the campgrounds.

At the festival entrance, a makeshift shrine to the Purple One sparkled violet and pink beneath the lights of the Ferris wheel, a poster of Prince’s headlining 2008 set adorned by ribbons, flowers, and a bedazzled homemade sign reading, “Nothing compares to you.” Everyone from post-collegiate bros in purple polos to 40-something tax attorneys in Controversy T-shirts to VIP-lingering fashionistas in purple garlands went their ways about the polo field in silent homage to Prince.


Pervasive as his spirit was among the crowd, his presence was even more pronounced across its eight stages. 2manydjs and Jack Ü offered up medleys while his likeness flashed across screens. Mavis Staples held a moment of silence. Ice Cube dedicated his set to Prince, while GNR’s Duff McKagan slapped a purple Prince symbol decal over his bass. Ellie Goulding galvanized a good quarter of the polo field into a singalong to an almost-a cappella rendition of “When Doves Cry.” LCD Soundsystem electro-fied “Controversy.” Gallant and Jhene Aiko offered up a brief rendition of “Diamonds and Pearls,” and the former returned again to play “Purple Rain” with Sufjan Stevens—two artists who know about the kind of ache of passion Prince specialized in if there ever were some. I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting.

I woke the up the next morning drained and a little heartbroken, due less to the fact that Prince had died than how great, how thrilling, how chameleonic and timeless his songs sounded in the hands of such a wide variety of artists. Each rendition illuminated how deeply rooted his influence remains across a range of styles and genres. There he was, in the ramshackle pulse of LCD’s synthesizers; again, in the unapologetic desire of Gallant’s wail; you could hear him in the genre-smashing of 2manydjs, and see him in the narrative fluidity and spectacle of just about every performance at Coachella.


Photo via Facebook

But, as he’d be the first to tell us, no one does Prince like Prince. In the lull before LCD’s headlining set, Prince’s voice echoed out from the darkened main stage with the opening lyrics to his now-famous cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” from his own 2008 headlining set.

The screens flashed on, and there he was—a hundred feet tall, done up in lights, a bespoke, guitar-slung duke from a funky dimension pacing the stage with frenetic scorn, like he was pissed off at the floorboards for daring to sully the soles of his platform boots.

Across the polo field, crowds stopped in their tracks. Many turned and headed back towards the stage. Then we started singing.

It didn’t matter if you were a Prince fan. Everyone knows the words to “Creep.” That was part his great gift as a performer—Prince knew his crowds, and he knew how to connect with them, whether it was to his longtime fanbase at month-long residencies in LA and Minneapolis, or to a crowd of clueless indie kids at the still-rock oriented Coachella in 2008. The performance would become one of the first Coachella “moments,” helping transform the festival from a gathering for devoted music fans into a cultural destination. But it pre-dated any spectacles or holograms or expectation of “surprises.” It was just a great cover, not only reinvigorating but taking ownership of a song so overplayed, it long ago lost any of its meaning.


Only Prince could take a song about self-loathing and turn it into a stance; only he could take the laments of a pasty British white guy and make it sexy. That was Prince’s thing—he was his own genre. He made it ok to be a creep, a weirdo, an outlier. Yourself. It’s up to us now to be a little more weird without him.

For about four minutes, Coachella felt rebooted. There was nothing to Instragram and no one to impress. It was just tens of thousands of people gathered in a field, singing the same song, feeling the same weird mix of joy and sadness that can only come from losing someone most of us had never met, but who connects us all the same. I think that’s why we started going to festivals in the first place.

"From now on, this is Prince's house," read the screen afterwards, inspiring a roar of applause.

About an hour later, LCD would be back on the same stage, performing their tremendous cover of “Controversy.” James Murphy would abandon all distant affect and cool guy shoulder shakes; he writhed, tossing his head around, wailing in falsetto, despite complaining that his voice was shot from the dust. The stiff bodies and folded arms I saw Weekend 1 gave way to what may have been the biggest dance party of Weekend 2. Suddenly all of the thinkpieces and discussions and overthinking about whether Coachella is “over,” whether LCD “deserved” a reunion, whether we’re washed, or sell-outs, or losing our edge, felt moot. Instead, it was some kind of relief. It was sweaty. It was present. It felt like permission to lose your mind a little, and that’s what Prince gave us so beautifully.

The last song I hear at Coachella on Sunday night is “Purple Rain,” courtesy a masked James Murphy spinning a DJ set in his anti-spectacle Despacio tent. I look behind me, and for the first time all night, he is looking up and out the crowd. The mask is off, and he’s smiling wide, swaying slightly against a post as he gazes up at the mirrorball. It’s ablaze in fuscia, magenta, indigo, violet—anywhere there is light, there is purple. The dozen or so of us dance floor stragglers keep moving. Some are looking up as well, some have their eyes closed, but no one is talking, or leaving, or on their phones. We’re just swaying, spinning, dancing, kissing. Gathered here together to get through this thing called life.

Andrea Domanick would die 4 u. Follow her on Twitter.