Laneway Festival 2020 proves pop music can have a place at Aus festivals

Laneway Festival 2020 proves pop music can have a place at Aus festivals

While this year’s Laneway Festival was stocked with cross-genre talent, pop music constantly made itself known.

Header image and in-article images by Liam Fawell.

Australia has always had a weird relationship with pop music, especially when it comes to its festival circuit. Typically, pop music’s representation on Australian festival lineups extends only as far as triple j’s involvement with the genre: the same selection of few homegrown musicians, who are either in development of becoming something big - CXLOE is a prime example, having just played Falls Festival at the start of this year - or are big, but thanks to triple j having supported them since day-dot - Mallrat and Ruel two who immediately come to mind.

It’s a shame, because while Australian festivals battle complaints of being too “same-same”, other regions are tapping into pop musicians who haven’t found themselves on festival lineups until now, giving exclusivity and uniqueness that has come to give some festivals its stand-out moments. It’s hard to look past Coachella, for example. The US mega-festival is obviously in a league of its own that an Australian festival couldn’t compete with, but its sudden embrace of pop music - Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Ariana Grande all headlining the last three years; this year’s lineup including a range of pop music from K-pop kings BIGBANG to pop-punk forward-thinker YUNGBLUD - has given it somewhat of a new life that hasn’t been seen since its pivots towards hip-hop and dance music mid-way through the last decade.

We’re not saying that an Australian festival must suddenly make the plunge into full-scale commercialism - it’d probably help ticket sales opening to a whole new audience, however - but rather to just keep it in mind, and not be afraid to embrace the future. Pop music is as wide-open and broad as ever at the moment, and because of that, the stigma surrounding it is almost near-none. 

In the 2019/2020 festival scene, it felt like things were beginning to change, but there’s plenty of room to be made. In our annual survey of festival uniqueness, the most-utilised musician by Australian festivals is a pop musician - Mallrat - and she’s joined by a few others, albeit often ones that are typically boxed into hyphens like ‘dance-pop’ and ‘indie-pop’: Confidence Man and Hatchie particularly. In saying that, however, certain festivals made it feel like their embrace of pop was for mere novelty or meme-ness. Sure, Untouched is having a decade-late resurgence placing The Veronicas back into the spotlight, but why did it take until this meme-y moment for them to find themselves on festival lineups when they’re one of Australia’s best-selling acts?

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One festival whose pop music presence didn’t seem too performative was Laneway Festival.

Laneway has always been at the forefront of forward-thinking lineup inclusions, touring musicians that range from now-dominating heavyweights - FKA Twigs, Tame Impala, Florence and the Machine - to smaller acts that otherwise wouldn’t find themselves in the country for years to come, taking bets on bands yet to explode at their booking that always - somehow - tend to be on the cusp of their break-out by the time Laneway comes around.

In 2020, this forward-thinkingness was found in numerous areas across numerous genres. The 1975 are an incredible headliner, one previously overlooked by the indie world but now beginning to find their feet in the fandom-driven world of pop streaming; Earl Sweatshirt and J.I.D. ensured that rap’s left-field stars were represented, and it’d be hard to see an act like Omar Apollo at another touring Australian festival this year. In saying that, however, on the day it felt like pop music took control - and people are starting to wake up.

It happened from the second gates opened, actually. DULCIE are a now-familiar face to many in Perth, having suddenly risen amongst the chaos of triple j Unearthed last year. At Laneway, it felt like their strengths were on feature display, proving that their harmonies are just as capable of commanding crowds in a bright-lit warehouse as it is a tree-backed, open-air parkland. KUČKA was another early highlight; her twisted and warped combination of daring electronic and pitched pop seeing her navigate productions by Flume and Nosaj Thing with a lyrical/vocal skillset that’s going to surprise a lot of people this year, when her guest-packed debut album comes around.

From here, it became present that the depth of Australian pop music on festival lineups can go way deeper than the same few acts who find themselves wedged in between surf-rock and breezy indie. New Zealand’s BENEE (who we’re taking as one of our own, sorry about it) is an absolute star-in-the-making sure to be the world’s next big thing; her status as an ‘internet star’ - a gross phrase, but justified considering much of her international acclaim is thanks to TikTok - all but disappearing as she commands one of the festival’s strongest and most endearing crowds.

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Tones And I’s inclusion on Laneway Festival’s lineup felt a touch decisive on social media, but her crowd at Laneway Festival proved it was exactly that: a social media roar, which holds no grounds to her actual popularity beyond triple j comment sections. Ruel was - as expected - all class, with the beginnings of another future star finding himself serenading an afternoon-lit crowd that like BENEE before him, proved that the biggest stars are often those emerging through social media. Stella Donnelly, meanwhile, is faultless. It’s something she’s constantly cemented over the past few years, and will no doubt continue to for as long as she’s around.

Laneway Festival’s most obvious ‘risk’ in pop came from its top-end, however, via Charli XCX. While The 1975 are a band that could find themselves on everything from Falls to Splendour, Charli XCX seems like a booking solely workable for Laneway: her abrash electronica too harsh against Splendour’s tendency to go the Vera Blue-esque route of pop, but too pop-centric and melody-built to be represented amongst Listen Out’s often bro-packed grounds. It, for the most part, completely worked.

Charli XCX’s Laneway set felt like a vision of what other Australian festivals could achieve with an acknowledgement of pop music, that despite faults - starting 15 minutes late and ending five minutes early meant that many of her cult-adored favourites were cut from the setlist - ushered in the beginning of Laneway’s new future, one full of bold risk-takers that match the festival long-time knack for embracing exactly that. It was as rough and raw as the hammering breakdown on set highlight Vroom Vroom, but as polished and slick as the set-closing 1999, which finished with its wonky EASYFUN edition as one last tease of Charli XCX’s thick experimentalism in pop music. 

One thing worth mentioning though, is that Laneway’s embrace of pop music seemingly worked. Sure, any festival could bring an artist like Charli XCX across Australia, but the reason they don’t is that it feels ‘risky’ or too outside of a festival’s brand to capture the energy of pop music’s future. Laneway Festival, meanwhile, showed that there’s no risk associated - an acknowledgement of pop music by Australian festivals is something that can actually translate; it’s a gold mine largely yet to be tapped.

After a few years of questionable capacities, this year was the first time in a while where Perth’s leg of Laneway Festival (held in Fremantle) sold out before gates opened. Likewise, videos from Charli XCX and BENEE’s slots at Melbourne and Sydney prove that the passion is there - a literal cult-like crowd screaming every word, similar to what you’d see gazing beyond Beyoncé’s presence in HOMECOMING.

Will other festivals see this and follow suit? Who knows, but with festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza finding a second wind through your Carly’s and Charli’s, it looks like it could finally happen down here.

Book Gwen Stefani, you cowards.

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