Before we really dig into what ACL is and isn’t, we have to address the elephant in the room. So, let me tell you a story about Metallica.
A few years back, when the X Games were a thing that took place in Austin, they had the good sense to book Kanye West to perform. It was a wild, fun time that showed that people who don’t care about skateboards will show up to something with the right music act on the bill. So, the year after, they booked Metallica. The thing I will never forget about the 2015 X Games is that the majority of the crowd could care about who was flying through the air; they were there to see Metallica, and if a sporting-event broke out next door, good for those people. The show was massive and exciting and I assume that ESPN made a lot of money that day.
There are those who will argue that Metallica doesn’t fit the vibe of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Perhaps you think that ACL’s general ignoring of hard rock and metal is a feature, not a bug. But with dad rock being so well represented with the likes of Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers and even acts like A.F.I. and Blue October sneaking into early in the day slots, a major metal performer was always in the cards; I had secretly always hoped for Slayer but assumed that was a bridge just a little too far.
If we’re being honest, I don’t know if ACL really has an identity. Sure, it’s the most laidback of the major festivals, and it is certainly more friendly to the singer-songwriters and acoustic acts of the world, but let’s not pretend like a festival that book The Chainsmokers as a second-line-on-the-post-tier act isn’t trying its very best to be considered one of the cool destination festivals on the market.
Think about it. Coachella sets the pace for the rest of the festival season. Bonnaroo is the festival where it feels like anything can happen. Lollapalooza feels like the greatest hits of
Which is why I think this year’s lineup is actually really great, the most interesting top to bottom since 2015. It’s not without criticism—when Odesza, who are very good but have played every festival with a zip code, is your top tier EDM act, why are you even trying?—but I think it does a really good job serving all masters, which is really all you need for a Texas’ one shining moment of festival glory these days. Because ACL isn’t really anything, it can shift from year to year to be whatever it wants.
This has actually been the most boring year of festival lineups in recent memory. It’s only because Beyoncé put on the performance of a lifetime that we’re talking about Coachella. Booking Metallica and Paul McCartney is a really aggressive move that makes ACL more interesting than their contemporaries.
Sure, The Arctic Monkeys booking is a little weird, as is Hozier still being so high up on the poster, but this lineup is really deep, and judging it by the relevance or non-relevance of its headliners is a mistake. Consider:
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Khalid: a rising star with a ton of buzz.
David Byrne: putting on, by all accounts, the best shows of his career since the Stop Making Sense tour.
Chvrches: perhaps on the brink of becoming major stars with a new album on the way.
Deftones: your favorite hard rock band’s favorite band.
St. Vincent: always an incredible performer.
Janelle Monáe: only Texas dates from the artist who just dropped what might be the album of the year.
The Breeders: “Cannonball” is one of the greatest songs ever written.
There are plenty of other smaller acts worth championing, include a few that might see their stock rise greatly between now and October. It’s a lineup that screams “you won’t be bored waiting for the headliner,” which I think is way more important than who released an album when.
With all due respect to my colleague Clint Hale, “Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino is certainly a unique and credible act, but are people really willing to pay upwards of $300 to see him?” is a weird question, and not just because Childish Gambino has a dedicated fanbase that absolutely has diehards willing to shell out that much just to see him. Very, very few people buy festival tickets to see one act. They buy tickets for a festival in totality. They buy it so they can see a Beatle and groove to “Redbone” and watch Travis Scott go wild and to see David Byrne sing to a brain and so on and so forth until you’re at the very bottom of the lineup and you see somehow Lisa Loeb is on the bill and you think, “neat!”
But you know who just might pay $300 to see one act? Metallica fans. And there is no day I’m looking forward to more right now than the day they play, just to see the makeup of the crowd.