Glastonbury needs to take a gamble

U2, Coldplay and Beyonce are far too safe a line-up for the enduring pop festival, says Elisa Bray
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The Independent Culture

Last week U2 confirmed the news we'd been waiting for – that they are Glastonbury's Friday headliners, fulfilling the headline slot that they missed last year due to Bono's injured back. That they are set to join Coldplay, with Beyoncé bringing the festival to a close, drew mixed reactions on the festival's Facebook page and Twitter. You can't fault any of the acts' superstar status, but is this the safest, most comfortably middle-of-the-road line-up of the festival's recent years?

U2 are not to be argued with; widely regarded as the biggest band in the world, their 30 years of performance and influential albums make them a coup for the festival. While Coldplay have the back catalogue, hits and popularity worthy of their headline status, pairing them with U2 is a perplexing combination, considering how similar they are, sharing in fit-for-stadiums anthemic rock. Coldplay, are, after all, inspired by the stadium rock of their predecessors and Chris Martin has himself compared his band to U2. "I always view our albums in terms of U2 albums", he has said. "Viva La Vida is our Unforgettable Fire in that it's less straightforward, more oblique." It's the equivalent of picking Britpop rivals Blur and Oasis, or rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West.

"Aren't U2 and Coldplay the same terrible band?" asked Tim Jenkinson on the Glastonbury Facebook page, highlighting the fact that putting two such similar rock bands on consecutive nights could alienate many Glastonbury-goers from the Pyramid stage. All three of the acts are of a similar crowd-pleasing, mainstream ilk. "U2, Coldplay and Beyoncé headlining Glastonbury. It's now a festival for the middle class and accountants," bemoaned one tweeter, Joe Richardson.

Festival founder Michael Eavis shook up the proceedings in 2008, when he attempted to make the festival less middle-aged, drawing younger festival-goers with a taste for cutting-edge music with American rapper Jay-Z taking the place usually reserved for a British rock band. In an interview before that year's Glastonbury, Eavis said: "We're breaking the tradition of having the big-name, Anglo-Saxon, white, rock'n'roll superstar types that we normally get.

"We're breaking from that tradition for the first time and we're having a black artist from New York. That's going to go a treat and hopefully pull in the young people." It was, most agreed, a tremendous success. If Eavis had wanted to shift away from the Anglo-Saxon-rock image with which the festival had found itself aligned, the line-up for Glastonbury 2011 is a step backwards. You don't get any more Anglo-Saxon-rock than Coldplay.

Glastonbury has always tried to appeal to as wide a range of people as possible by varying its headliners. Alongside Jay-Z in 2008, it covered contemporary rock with Kings of Leon and indie-rock with The Verve, while 2009 featured Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Blur. Last year saw a refreshing mix of the musically diverse Gorillaz, and veteran star Stevie Wonder, with contemporary rock provided by Muse. Emily Eavis, now sharing festival-organising duties with her father, booked Beyoncé to keep the festival diverse.

Although I wouldn't call Beyonce's R&B-flavoured pop diverse, she at least stands out from the stadium rock of her fellow headliners.

As for Coldplay, Emily Eavis said in an interview that Glastonbury was "really lucky" to get them, but Coldplay's long-standing friendship with Glastonbury is well-known. This will be the soft-rockers' third time at the festival – they played in 2002 and in 2005.

"We can call on old friends, like Coldplay and Oasis as well, but they've all done it so many times that it's not fair for me to expect them to do it over and over again," Michael Eavis said last year. It hardly feels as though innovation or imagination is the order of this year – while Coldplay put on a masterful show, you can't help feeling that were chosen because they are the safe option, and proven successful with the Glastonbury crowd.

Though not for some, who are lamenting their blandness: "This is the absolute worst news this year, This is so so terrible news, I don't [know] if I can bring myself to pay for the rest of the ticket", said one who has reserved one of the 175,000 tickets, costing £195.

Radiohead would provide the kind of musical diversity Glastonbury craves, but the band have long had an open invitation to the country's greatest gig and not accepted since their legendary 2003 performance.They refused to play in 2008 because of poor transport links, which contradict their environmental credentials. Arcade Fire would also be a hit with younger music fans, but have yet to be invited.

Rock legends The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, both mooted as possible names to take over from U2 last year, have yet to play, and Michael Eavis has been trying to book the former for years. Seven-time Grammy-winner Prince would have been a more thrilling choice, as would legends such as Paul McCartney or David Bowie, who have both played the festival previously. Or why not a truly urban star such as Kanye West, whose album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was regarded as one of the best of last year?

That Glastonbury has worked hard to shed its image of being too middle-aged and middle-class only makes these safe choices more of a disappointment. It needs a challenging headliner.