The Biggest Controversies To Hit Coachella

Unless you're one of those squares from an '80s movie who hates music and wants to keep the local rapping youths from opening a community center, you're probably familiar with the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Coachella, as it is often referred to for some reason, is a massive event held every year (except three, which you'll hear about shortly), bringing together acts from across the entire musical spectrum to perform for thousands of paying customers across several days. It began in 1999, with the inaugural event taking place just a few months after the ill-fated Woodstock revival of that year — but unlike that revival, which famously had a few small problems, Coachella has gone off without a hitch every single year it's been held.

Psych! You knew that wasn't true, you clever reader, because when you're talking about one of the biggest annual events in the world, bringing together many of the most towering egos from the freakiest sector of the entertainment industry, there will always be plenty of Controversy with a capital C to go around. Unfortunately, that's not about the Prince album, although Prince will come up soon; let's talk about all of the many, many ways that the festival's participants, organizers, and attendees have embarrassed themselves publicly over the last two decades and change.

Justin Bieber gets the heave-ho

It may not surprise you to learn that Coachella has often been the setting for the latest episode of Celebrities Behaving Badly, and in 2015, that particular show's featured guest was Justin Bieber. While Biebs was — even at that time — putting quite a bit of distance between himself and his former squeaky-clean image, he still wasn't exactly the type of guy you'd think would get dragged out of a major music festival by his head after trying to access a very restricted area. You wouldn't have thought that, yet here we are.

According to The Guardian, Bieber ran afoul of security when he attempted to enter an artists-only area, despite the fact that he was not performing that year, to get a better view of Drake's set. Bieber insisted that he was only there at Drake's invitation, security insisted that they didn't care, and after some unpleasantries were exchanged, Biebs was invited to leave the festival by way of the old "headlock-and-drag-out" combo. The incident did absolutely nothing to help the singer's swiftly faltering public image — but it did help him to miss Drake's set, which amounted to an arguably worse display of inappropriate public behavior by a ludicrously famous person.

Drake gets ambush-kissed by Madonna

This would be Madonna, after whom Drake named a tune on his 2015 mixtape, "If You're Reading This It's Too Late." After breaking out the song, the rapper shocked the audience by inviting Madge herself up on stage, where she got down with her own 1994 song "Human Nature" while Drake, er, sat in a chair watching her slink around. According to CNN, at the song's conclusion, Madonna seized a still-seated Drake from behind, tilted his head back, and just planted one on him — and it was no friendly little peck. Madonna, 28 years Drake's senior, went all the way in.

Drake would later take to Instagram to assuage fans of the notion that he had been less than thrilled with the sexy ambush, saying, "Don't misinterpret my shock!! I got to make out with the queen Madonna and I feel 100 about that forever" (via NME). Maybe you'd inclined to take him at his word, were there not a video record of the incident in which Drake's facial expression immediately after being released from the Queen of Pop's grasp definitively contradicts that word. Of all the questionable happenings to ever take place on the Coachella stage, it was perhaps the most ... squirmy? Wacky? Icky? Let's just go with "squacky."

Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg bring Tupac back from the dead

At the 2012 festival, fans were psyched to learn that they would be treated to an appearance by legendary rapper Tupac, who had not performed publicly in 16 years, according to Billboard. This is because, in case you missed it, Tupac had been quite dead for 16 years at the time. Nevertheless, headliners Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg called Pac in for an assist on a couple of iconic tunes — via hologram, one of the first uses of the technology for the questionable purpose of raising deceased entertainers from the dead.

After the set, which was received with an odd mixture of elation and extreme confusion, Dre and Snoop raised the possibility (via TMZ) of hauling Pac's hologram out on the road for a tour, a development which thankfully failed to materialize. (No ... pun intended? There might be a pun in there, and if so, it wasn't intended.) But the performance, which was part of a weird 2010's trend (via New York Times) of resurrecting dead musicians with hologram technology, certainly got people talking — and that discussion was a bit of a mixed bag, to say the least. As reported by the New Zealand Herald, pop star Katy Perry stated that she cried when she saw ol' Pac's ghostly image; Questlove of the Roots, meanwhile, bluntly said that the hologram "haunted [him] in [his] sleep."

Sly Stone's not-so-groovy freakout

Sly Stone is a funky legend; that is not up for debate. Albums like 1971's seminal "There's a Riot Goin' On" and culture-permeating singles like "Everyday People" and "Dance to the Music" made him a household name in the '60s and '70s — but the dude fell on a hard time or two in later years, a situation in which his former manager Jerry Goldstein played a part. That's the tale Sly told the crowd at Coachella in 2010; unfortunately, they had been expecting a little more music and a little less angry ranting.

According to LA Weekly (via The Guardian), Sly turned in a set that was a "sad spectacle," during which he would only sing a few bars of his classic hits at a time before pausing to wonder aloud how long he had to remain onstage to get paid, and also to go on at length about his financial troubles — which, in his estimation, were pretty much solely due to Goldstein, whom he accused of basically jacking him out of royalties. So angry and specific was his rant that Goldstein ended up suing him for libel over it, which turned out not to be a very good idea. Sly promptly filed a countersuit, and in 2015, a civil jury found that, hey, Sly was actually right. As reported by CNN, Goldstein, along with Sly's former attorney Glenn Stone, were ordered to pay $5 million in damages — proof that, as it happens, the dude ranting about how the man done him wrong was often really, truly done wrong by the man.

Prince covers Radiohead, wants everyone to forget about it

When the late, great Prince took the stage for a performance, you knew that things had the potential to get ... odd. So it was with his headlining slot at the 2008 festival, which of course was spectacular and featured an eclectic assortment of covers. Among these was an eight-minute version of Radiohead's "Creep" which, according to The Verge, was a highlight of the set. Shortly after the festival, a video of the cover made its way online — and for the Purple One, this simply would not do.

Now, Prince famously had a complicated relationship with the internet, just as Radiohead famously had a complicated relationship with "Creep" (which is to say it made them famous, but they kind of hated it). But despite the band's lead singer Thom Yorke publicly saying he had no problem with the cover being available online, Prince seemed to have made it his mission in life to keep anyone from getting their eyes on his (again, really awesome) performance. For seven long years, his legal team would issue a takedown notice any time the video got anywhere near the internet, and Prince being Prince, he never once explained why (despite the fact that his fans were clamoring for it). Finally in, 2015, NME ran a piece on the cover with the video embedded — and Prince acquiesced, tweeting a link to the article and allowing the video to stay. No one will ever get the chance to ask him why, as he tragically passed on the following year, but it's not like he would have explained himself anyway. He was Prince; that's why.

Coachella has a problem with women

As mentioned, Coachella has only missed three years: there was no event in 2000, the year after the inaugural festival, and the shindig was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This may have been a weird kind of blessing in disguise for the festival in 2020, as the lineup that was announced that year was poised for a not-insignificant amount of blowback. This is because, as the #MeToo movement was really getting up a head of steam, attention was being called to the fact that Coachella had only ever had four female headliners up to that point — and the 2020 lineup put a big, glaring spotlight on the issue.

It wasn't just that all three headliners, Rage Against the Machine, Travis Scott, and Frank Ocean, were a bunch of dudes. It was more the fact that sitting below those dudes, aced out of headliner status, was Lana Del Rey — whose 2019 album received widespread critical adulation and won an Album of the Year Grammy. Ocean, meanwhile, hadn't released an album in four years, and it had been ever-so-slightly longer than that for Rage, who literally have not released new music in two decades. As reported by Business Insider, the Twitterverse took notice, taking to the platform to blast the organizers up one side and down the other for this, and for the fact that several LGBTQ icons such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX were shoved way down underwater in the billing — and then COVID-19 hit, the festival was postponed and eventually scrapped, and at least for awhile, everyone forgot about it.

Coachella also has a problem with gay people

In 2018, Coachella kicked off its return with more bad publicity. You see, Coachella organizer Goldenvoice is owned by a giant company called AEG, which promotes tons of high-profile music and sporting events. That company's owner, billionaire Philip Anschutz, has somewhat of a problematic history with the organizations and politicians that he donates to on his company's behalf. Once you read the word "billionaire," you probably parsed out where this was heading.

It turns out that many of the ultra-rich tend to have conservative political views for some reason, and Anschutz has, as a matter of public record, donated a metric buttload of money to a variety of organizations which are not particularly fond of the LGBTQ and immigrant communities. As reported by Pitchfork, these include such lovely institutions as Dare 2 Share Ministries (which has dragged out the old "Satanic perversion" nonsense against gay folks) and NumbersUSA Education & Research, which euphemistically calls itself an "immigration-reduction organization." 

A lawyer for AEG issued a long-winded statement proclaiming the company to be a defender of LGBTQ rights while explaining its convoluted process for weeding out the bigoted and intolerant organizations Anschutz chooses to donate to, while Anschutz himself declared rumors of his anti-gay leanings to be "fake news" — a term popularized by a certain American president who couldn't seem to stop lying. In an interview with the New Yorker, Goldenvoice CEO Paul Tollett was even mortified by Anschutz's use of the phrase, saying, "I'm telling you, these types of things can kill you. There are big ships that go down over small things. You're riding high, but one wrong thing and you're voted off the island." Well, that's not exactly voicing staunch support for the gay community, but Tollett sure can mix metaphors like a world champion.

Travis Scott is radioactive

In November 2021, a horrible tragedy was in the news, to such an extent that you personally were aware of it whether you wanted to be or not. At the AstroWorld festival in Houston, 10 people died and dozens were seriously injured when an enormous, spontaneous crowd push occurred during a performance by festival founder Travis Scott, who was apparently oblivious to the horror unfolding just a few yards away from him, as reported by The Guardian. Scott endured rather intense public blowback after the incident, up to and including the online circulation of a petition — which gathered over 60,000 signatures, according to Billboard — to remove Scott from the lineup at the next festival on his schedule. Guess which?

After a short bout of hemming and hawing, Goldenvoice announced that Scott was indeed being booted from Coachella 2022, with Tollett issuing a public statement and complied, as Scott displayed "gross negligence and sheer lack of compassion for human life." Now, that is how you actually voice a strongly-worded condemnation.

Kanye West has a problem with Coachella

Coachella 2022 may have washed its hands of Travis Scott, but thanks to Kanye West, Scott wasn't done getting all tangled up in controversy surrounding the festival. West, originally set to headline along with Harry Styles and Billie Eilish, loudly called attention to himself (as is his wont) after footage surfaced online of Eilish, during a recent concert, announcing to the crowd that someone in the audience was having trouble, and she would have to wait to make sure they were okay before continuing. West, of course, took this not as an admirable display of responsibility, but as a direct insult to his buddy Scott, whom he had planned to invite onstage during his set, according to Rolling Stone.

Being a famously reasonable man, Kanye took to Instagram to demand an apology from Eilish in all caps, threatening to pull out of the festival if she failed to do so. (Eilish's deadpan response was perfection itself: "Literally never said a thing about Travis. Just helping a fan.") But in recent months, West had also been calling attention to himself for a different reason: His public, persistent, often terrifying harassment of his ex-wife Kim Kardashian and her new boyfriend, Pete Davidson, as reported by Billboard. After yet another online petition calling for his removal started to snowball, West apparently saw the writing on the wall — he went ahead and yanked himself from the lineup two weeks before the festival's commencement, prompting the ever-ready The Weeknd to step in as his replacement (via Deadline).

Big Bang almost makes a comeback

While the Korean boy band Big Bang (often stylized BIGBANG) are not a force in mainstream American pop, they are legends in their home country of South Korea. That country, though, requires its male citizens between the ages of 18 and 28 to serve in the military for two years, and it doesn't matter whether you're a huge pop star (at least, until recently, per BBC). As a result, the band was forced to take a hiatus, and for their big comeback, they planned to play Coachella in 2020. Of course, because of COVID-19 and all, that didn't pan out — but if it had, the band would have caused a significant stir by their very presence alone.

This is because, according to Billboard, they would have been down one member: Seungri (real name Lee Seung-hyun), who decided to "retire" from performing on account of a giant, black cloud made of legal problems that insisted on following him around. As reported by Variety, those troubles were due to his partial ownership in the infamous Burning Sun nightclub, a Seoul hotspot that doubled as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, sort of like that one joint in Mos Eisley. While Seungri claimed to be, like, totally unaware of all the drug running and sex work going on at the place he co-owned, he eventually pleaded guilty to multiple charges related to the scandal, which ensnared a number of South Korean celebrities. According to NME, he was initially sentenced to three years' imprisonment, a sentence which was later shortened to 18 months. Meanwhile, Seungri's bandmates were shafted out of the chance to get the Big Bang ship sailing again without him when the 2020 festival went down in flames.

Are celebrities paid to attend?

In 2014, the New York Daily News, a gossip rag which people interested in factually accurate reporting seldom pay any attention to, ran a story that was picked up by several major outlets (including Time) simply because it just sounded too plausible. In it, it was alleged that various non-musical celebrities — folks like Lea Michele, Aaron Paul, and Alessandria Ambrosio — were seeking and sometimes receiving big, fat paydays simply for attending Coachella and getting all social media-y about it.

Now, it wasn't reported that Goldenvoice was handing out the checks. Michele, for example, is alleged to have pulled down $20,000 to wear the clothing brand Lacoste to the event. Vanessa Hudgens, as reported by Spin, is said to have been paid $15,000 by McDonalds to ... you know, it's hard to say. Scarf a bunch of Big Macs while jamming out to Arcade Fire, maybe. Of course, no celebrity ever actually came forward to confirm that they had made beaucoup bucks just for showing up to an event that your average dude or dudette must pay hundreds of dollars to attend, but that's not terribly surprising — and the whole brouhaha sure did get those dudes and dudettes worked up for a news cycle or two.

Cultural appropriation: not a band name

For years, some high-profile festival attendees have taken a bit of flak over some of the fashions, hairstyles, and accessories they choose to wear to Coachella. Not because they're uncool; quite the contrary. According to Yahoo! News, celebs like Kylie Jenner, Vanessa Hudgens, and Alessandria Ambrosio have been accused of blatant cultural appropriation for wearing such festive accessories as Native American-style feathered headdresses and South Asian bindis — as well as hairstyles like cornrows and braids — in defiance of good taste and common sense.

This issue has dogged the festival for quite some time, because apparently when some people hear the phrase "cultural appropriation," all they hear is "appropriate." It's gotten to the point that many outlets (such as Teen Vogue, which has become an unlikely bastion of very solid reporting) are now running articles advising people how not to get all culturally appropriative at the festival. Look, it should go without saying, but here it is anyway: Don't swipe other cultures' stuff as if it were your own. Also, er, don't — let us review here — be anti-gay or anti-woman, raise rappers from the dead, kiss Drake when he's not expecting it, or be Kanye West.