beychella

What It Was Like to Be in the Audience for Beyoncé’s Historic Coachella Show

Beyoncé’s stunning performance at Coachella lit up the internet this past weekend, but how does watching it on a YouTube livestream compare to having seen it in person? Vulture editors Dee Lockett and Kyle Buchanan were both in the audience of that historic show, and below, they discuss what the home viewers didn’t see, clear up misconceptions about the crowd, and relive the high of what’s come to be known as “Beychella.”

Kyle Buchanan: Dee, it’s been three days since we experienced Beyoncé’s performance together, and during that time, I’ve happily thought about little else. Like you, I’ve even watched the whole show several times since, thanks to the official Coachella replay and a now-snuffed archive of the performance that was on Beyonce-Legion.com. How have you been dealing with the Beychella comedown?

Dee Lockett: Kyle, whew! I don’t know about you, but I’ve been living in a fugue state for days. I have no recollection of life pre-Chella. My former self has been erased and I now exist exclusively in a world dated as A.B., After Beychella. Let’s start with where my memory begins: Watching her crew set up her stage, speculating about what every little aspect of the design could mean. We had talked about the possibility that her gargantuan Tetris-style wall of a stage could contain those rumored 100 dancers, each in their own cube. And I vaguely recall passing out at the idea. What was going through your mind?

Kyle: It’s interesting to think back on that anticipation, and how it colored what would come. For people watching the Coachella livestream at home, they had to suffer through a Post Malone performance broadcast from a different stage, and then Beyoncé began to stream shortly after. For those of us on the main field, though, we had used the Haim show two hours prior to grab as close a spot to the stage as possible, then spent an hourlong intermission already grinning at each other like lunatics as Team B set up all that scaffolding. It’s amazing that given how heavily hyped we were, the show that followed still managed to surpass our expectations. Do you remember how you felt when it began?

Dee: The moment I saw her drum major signal the start of the show, I was reminded of Beyoncé’s last Super Bowl halftime show (the one with Coldplay or whatever), which began similarly. What I was not prepared for was the parting of the drumline to reveal Bey, dressed in Balmain as a Nubian queen. The cape! The headdress! It was all too much. And then the scaffolding tilted back and elevated to uncage the rest of her 200-person marching band sitting atop bleachers. We were at a pep rally! I think it took others a half-second to realize the setup, which might account for our looks of bewilderment. But make no mistake, when Bey descended the stairs in her B∆K sweatshirt and “Crazy in Love” dropped, the whole field was bumping. It doesn’t seem like our energy translated on the stream, though.

Kyle: I saw a lot of tweets giving our crowd shit for being sleepy, or holding their phones out too often. To the latter point, I’d just like to say: If God descended from Heaven and landed on the sidewalk in front of you, wouldn’t you be a little tempted to throw that on the ’gram? And I think the phone thing was a bit overstated: Even on the stream, as Beyoncé strides down that runway in the middle of the field, you can see the phones rise and fall as if the crowd was doing the wave. They wanted their one amazing shot of Beyoncé as she passed by, and then they wanted to watch the show going on all around us! As for the crowd noise, I noticed that it was mixed super low for the livestream, which helped to preserve Beyoncé’s vocals but didn’t give nearly an accurate picture of how much people were losing their shit in the audience.

Dee: That’s an audio trick all live events being broadcast typically use so the crowd doesn’t drown out what’s happening on stage for the folks at home. I saw some accusations that we didn’t swag surf on cue and to that I say: Have you ever tried to move an inch where there’s only a centimeter? Believe me, I carved out all the space I could to ride my surfbort, as did everyone.

Kyle: There was truly no room! All you could do was put your hands up and shimmy just a little bit, if that. I was pressed between you and a dude who had packed his backpack full enough to go on The Amazing Race, so my only priority was filling my lungs with enough oxygen to scream for Beyoncé (or for paramedics, should a stampede start).

Dee: I should also point out that Kyle and I were positioned so close to the action that we could hear the collective meltdown over Rihanna and other celebs as they entered before the show. When Beyoncé flew above us on that crane, there was triple the pandemonium, at least in our section. My neck is still sore! If ever we appeared lifeless, it was because Bey took the life from us. And we haven’t even talked about the reaction to her surprise guests yet.

Kyle: Dee, I will never forget when Beyoncé said she wanted to bring her sister out onstage, and when I turned to you, I realized you were still so stunned from the first hour and a half of the show that you had not yet parsed that statement. I got to experience your reaction to the Solange cameo as it happened.

Dee: I was frozen in time. I so distinctly remember you looking at me and mouthing the name “Solange.” Then I looked up, saw all that bleached blonde hair, caught a glimpse of her angling for the most satisfying twerk you’ve ever seen in unison with her sister, and just lost it. Nearly dropped my phone behind that dude with the obnoxious backpack. This all happened in a matter of seconds and you witnessed every single slo-mo frame of it. It was truly my final form. I’m pretty sure you also were dead on the arrival of Destiny’s Child, which, same.

Kyle: I have to hand it to Beyoncé, because the first hour of that show was so incredibly forward-thinking that I couldn’t comprehend how she would fit a nostalgia play like the Destiny’s Child reunion into it. You know what made that work, to a degree that I’m not sure the home audience is wholly aware of? The marching band. It was a stroke of genius to rearrange all of the songs in Beyoncé’s catalogue as jubilant HBCU halftime anthems, which gave the whole enterprise so much aesthetic cohesion that “Check On It” sounded like it could have come from the same album as “Freedom.” But while the livestreamers could hear the band’s triumphant contributions, they couldn’t see the musicians rocking out during all two hours, because the camera was usually on Beyoncé. For those of us in the crowd, it was impossible to miss the dozens of band members backing Bey on those risers, and their joy powered ours. I saw it reflected on all of our exhilarated faces, a communal experience that I’ll never forget.

Dee: Beyoncé took a lot of inspiration for the level of her marching band’s participation from Solange. While touring A Seat at the Table, Solange had her band perform choreography, be vocal, and play their instruments all at once. They weren’t an afterthought and neither was Bey’s band, who took her golden oldies and made it feel like we were hearing them for the first time. They often had to hold down the intermissions alone, but I was never any less entertained even when Beyoncé wasn’t present. Jay-Z, on the other hand … What does it say about the consistent superiority of this whole event that the surprise appearance of a rap legend barely got a rise out of the crowd? Honestly, it probably says more about the Beyhive’s vitriol for the man who wronged their queen than it does about his quality as a performer. (Though, admittedly, he’s sounded better.) Still, I couldn’t help but notice the people within earshot were more preoccupied making jokes about his hair than taking in his performance.

Kyle: Well, it’s proof that you can’t just go out there and wing it at Coachella. I mean, technically you can, but you’ll look like an amateur next to Beyoncé, who’s giving that stage her all. It was instructive to compare Beyoncé to Friday’s Coachella headliner, the Weeknd: Abel was in beautiful voice and up there by himself, but the bigger the hit he performed, the less of it he would sing. Instead, he’s turn the mic toward the audience, as if to say, “You want it? Then you sing it.” Beyoncé, on the other hand, was invigorated by updating her hits. It was a real master class in how a veteran performer can still feel cutting edge while giving the audience what they want: Nostalgia has never felt so much like a preview of what’s to come.

Dee: Kyle, I’ve been thinking a lot about Miss Tina’s concern that Coachella’s white audience wouldn’t understand the cultural references to black college life. As one of the many white dudes in the crowd, I’m curious how much of that symbolism was lost on you?

Kyle: We’re gonna go deep now, but the sitcom character I related to the most growing up was Dwayne Wayne on A Different World, because he was a skinny guy who wore glasses but could still play the lead. (I have watched Dwayne crash Whitley’s wedding on YouTube more times than I could count, just to make sure all my emotions are still working properly.) In the most casual but purposeful way, that show gave me an entry point into a different culture than my own, and as I watched Beyoncé’s performance, I was not only reminded of A Different World but dispirited to realize that there simply isn’t anything like it on the major non-streaming networks anymore, save for Grown-ish on Freeform. NBC used to program an iconic slate of black sitcoms like The Cosby Show, 227, and Amen, and if those giant corporations are increasingly less invested in bringing those experiences to the airwaves, then props to Beyoncé for using her spotlight to do so.

Dee: I’m so happy A Different World primed you for Beychella. I got my own education from attending a PWI that fortunately had most of the Divine Nine on campus, so seeing Beyoncé establish her own fraternity and stage its inaugural probate really brought me back. I got emotional for my friends who pledged Alpha Phi Alpha, seeing Beyoncé, her dancers, and her pledges re-create their steps, in their black and gold colors. Black people built their own collegiate institutions, traditions, and histories because it’s what we’ve always had to do. So to see that spirit not only acknowledged, but celebrated as a part of canon is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Did most white people near me “get” the story Bey was trying to tell? Given the chatter I heard from white folks on the way out praising the probate as if it was something Bey invented, probably not. But to quote Solange, this shit was for us. If it also encouraged just one white person to get interested enough in Black Greek life to Google it, then Bey’s mission is accomplished. Kendrick may have just won the Pulitzer, but Beyoncé needs her own award, in her own name, for the culture.

What It Was Like to Be in the Audience for Beychella