Governors Ball festival 2024: Coachella gets a strong, and cheaper, run for its money

Governors Ball festival 2024: Coachella gets a strong, and cheaper, run for its money

At least judging by the press, music festivals are having a tough time. In this economy, they have to court audiences to pay ever higher prices for an ever-more stratified experience; in a post-Beychella era, they’re in a taste war between midlife crisis millennials, Gen Z in their raving prime and the (terrifyingly) ascendant Gen Alpha, the oldest of whom are just old enough to traipse through concert lawns alone. Coachella, North America’s largest and most capital-E Event music festival, failed to sell out its weekend passes for the first time in a decade, prompting premature eulogies and widespread declarations of its flop era.

Governor’s Ball, New York’s much smaller and far less dusty alternative, fared better. The three-day festival in Queens managed to sell out all of its day passes for a lineup that, should you listen to the largely older indie-heads gloating online, was just as disappointing as the west coast’s signature event, and with the same $16 price for tall boys. Not so at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, which buzzed with enthusiasm for a slate of bold, ultra-confident female pop acts: Sabrina Carpenter, Reneé Rapp, newcomer Elyanna, triumphant headliner SZA and, most insistently, pop’s new girl of the moment Chappell Roan.

Music festivals always skew young, but Gov Ball, being relatively affordable (keyword relative: weekend passes start at $310, compared to Coachella’s $499), open to all ages and accessible via public transit, has a reputation for skewing especially young. As in, pint-sized high-schooler cartoonishly dragging a joint to Friday headliner Post Malone young. (Even the ever-amiable Malone, at 28, seemed to be feeling his age – “I can’t drink as much beer as I used to,” he said while gagging a little on his second foamy one out of his trademark red Solo cup.) But as one “washed-up” 26-year-old in line for the bathroom put it to me, this year’s Gov Ball wasn’t so much for the teens as it was “for the girls and the gays” with several queer artists and Pride Month’s beloved Carly Rae Jepsen. “How are my token straight boyfriends?” Reneé Rapp asked during her Sunday set. “Yep, I don’t care.”

A group of revelers react during a performance by Renee RappView image in fullscreen

Assumedly even the token straight boyfriends turned out in force for Roan, who has experienced a rapid ascent since opening for Olivia Rodrigo and a statement-making Coachella debut. There was no artist I overheard talked about more this weekend, with more people visibly dressed to see her, as the 26-year-old “midwest princess” from Missouri, whose Sunday afternoon set – far from the biggest billing – drew an overflow crowd.

Emerging from a giant apple dressed as “the biggest queen of them all” (the Statue of Liberty) in head-to-assless-chaps green, Roan delivered on the hype, even if her mic wasn’t always tuned loud enough to carry over her taxi cab-suited band and the thousands screaming “HOT TO GO!” Wardrobe malfunctions aside, Roan delivered a barn-burner set, called out the White House for inviting her to perform for Pride (“We want liberty, justice and freedom for all. When you do that, that’s when I’ll come”) and quoted Lady Liberty’s “huddled masses” inscription for trans rights, women’s rights and “freedom for oppressed people in occupied territories” without directly naming Palestine.

Others were less coy. Saint Levant, a 23-year-old singer and rapper who was raised in Gaza, dedicated parts of his Sunday performance to the victims of Israeli attacks and spoke openly of his “complicated” feelings playing an American festival days after an Israeli attack at a Palestinian refugee camp killed more than 200 people. “I’m here now … trying to share a moment, trying to celebrate my culture and be here with you, but in the back of my mind all I can think about are these children, these women and these men” he said, to cheers of “free Palestine!” in a crowd dotted with keffiyehs. “Liberation will come.”

ElyannaView image in fullscreen

Up-and-coming Palestinian-Chilean singer Elyanna, Coachella’s first all-Arabic-language performer, played her song Olive Branch to a graphic reading “All Eyes on Rafah”, though the 22-year-old didn’t have a down beat in her entire set; from 2pm until she wrapped 45 minutes later, my jaw was on the floor, on the strength of her siren voice, Shakira-esque dancing and Latin-inflected Arab beats.

Both Elyanna and Saint Levant are previous Coachella performers bringing their case for stardom eastward; so, too, were this year’s notables Sabrina Carpenter, in a butter-yellow number with a heart-shaped cut-out and sugary confidence to match. Her Saturday set, debuting new single Please Please Please (sans boyfriend and music video star Barry Keoghan), only served to underscore that “that’s that me espresso” is the line of the summer. Former Sex Lives of College Girls star Rapp, performing on the main stage just after Roan, made the case for a Broadway-to-pop pipeline – “don’t talk to me about a crossover!” she said when recalling a male peer who dismissed her songwriting as too “theatrical” – with such infectious, unshakeable insouciance that it was impossible not to be charmed.

Reneé RappView image in fullscreen

Rapp, less than a year off her first album, was one of several artists to evince the generational divide not unique to Gov Ball, with a crowd heavy on the twentysomethings. Indelible to me is the shock of hearing just how many in that crowd know the lyrics of Roan’s Red Wine Supernova; so, too, is watching a little girl headbang so hard on her dad’s shoulders while listening to the the Killers that she fell off. The Las Vegas-based rock band, celebrating 20 years of Hot Fuss and thus now a legacy act (sorry to elder millennials), reliably delivered a highlight of the weekend on Saturday night, with a classics-heavy set that did not lull once for 90 minutes and which made closer Mr Brightside seem genuinely extraneous.

Their headliner energy was matched only by SZA, also in the anniversary spirit as her seminal album Ctrl was released seven years to the day of her Sunday night set. Note-perfect, casual, barely pausing between numbers amid her nautical set (and looking hot in her thematically unrelated rabbit furs), the 34-year-old performer appeared both seasoned and impossibly loose, powering through songs on a whole decade’s worth of mistakes, healing and growth. Minutes before the night’s strict curfew, she bounded from a tower to the front of the stage for a festival-closing acoustic rendition of Ctrl track 20 Something. “Hopin’ my 20-somethings won’t end / Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends / Prayin’ the 20-somethings don’t kill me,” she sang, in a prayer for festivalgoers old and new.