One of the most popular annual music festivals exists in a curious space: it’s both widely defined and ill defined. Massive, varied, and all consuming by those who attend, it initially spawned as a reaction to other festivals, but has itself spawned many others. It’s not just about music — but it’s not just about anything in particular. For many, especially those who don’t go or care, it manifests in the mind as something perhaps intolerable, often funny, and full of people who identify as mermaids, unicorns, hipsters, moon-children, and other majestic, spiritual, absurd creatures.
It’s Coachella, and I’m not sure if it’s unique or completely incidental.
As with anything notable in popular culture, it was bred as one idea and slowly evolved over time, soon holding a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people, probably simultaneously too cool for some and too lame for others. It was influenced by money, of course, and has seen some controversy, but it endures to this year. Here is a brief history of Coachella, best read with a constant slow scroll on your screen.
Episode I: A New Festival
In 1999, in the heat of southern California at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, amid uncertainty and high insurance prices, the inaugural Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival, or CVMAF, as no one called it, was held across two days in October.
In many ways, the festival wasn’t so much its own thing in its origins so much as it was anti-something else. That something was Woodstock ‘99, which earlier that year became a notorious disaster, in ways both funny and utterly tragic. Coachella was anti-Woodstock.
Instead of tarmac, there was grass. Instead of heat exposure, there were tents for shade. Instead of $4 water bottles, there were $2 water bottles; the first was free. Instead of Creed, there was no Creed. Whereas Woodstock was noted for its xenophobia (The Tragically Hip got shouted down for being Canadian), sexism (every woman was told to show…), and rape (lots of reports, one sexual assault charge), Coachella aimed to be loving and welcoming. Or at least, you know, not a hell on Earth populated by the lowest, most disgusting scum of our society listening to at least some objectively terrible so-called music.
A friendly and respectful atmosphere was relayed at Coachella, with reasonable prices on food and drink. Some people had bumps and bruises and burns, but otherwise people went into a public space for a music event and didn’t get assaulted. Of course, a talented lineup, which included The Chemical Brothers, Beck, Morrissey, Pavement, Esthero, and other acclaimed acts, provided the entertainment. Coachella was a hit.
Episode II: Return of the Music
While everyone involved had fun and the event drew accolades, ‘fun’ doesn’t pay the bills. Goldenvoice, the event’s organizer, lost money on the first show (nearly $1 million) and failed to make one happen the next year. The 2001 festival was in doubt as well, but it survived with Jane’s Addiction leading the way, albeit shortened to one day. And a financial loss was reported again. These early years seemed plagued by uncertainty — it wouldn’t be until the festival’s fifth iteration that they actually sold out (another way in which the first festival wasn’t like Woodstock, which was vastly overcrowded).
Still, in 2002, with Oasis, Bjork, and Queens of the Stone Age tapped, as well as a reorganization of ownership, Coachella extended back to two days and was able to satiate musically, artistically, and, I’ll assume, spiritually too, but to each his or her own.
Episode III: Coachella Awakens
In 2004, Coachella sold out, and continued to grow in size and scope. The bands were major names, the number of artists increased as did those in attendance, and money flowed in (though it was still mighty expense to pull off). The festival extended from two days to three in 2007, having proved its worth in past years by featuring Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Madonna, Depeche Mode, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It seems all the most popular draws in the world were showing up and have taken at least one slot over the years. (Except 3 Doors Down — I don’t know how Trump got them to play his inauguration!)
And still it continued to grow, not unlike some genetic experiment that exponentially gets out of hand and too big to control (though let’s not mix film genres here). Coachella went from three days across one weekend to six days across two weekends. Identical lineups and performances would take place on consecutive weeks. There were those media outlets that were concerned a demand would be lacking. In its first year with a new plan, the festival sold out in hours.
Episode IV: The Promotional Menace
Coachella is an opportunity. It’s a chance for a lot of different people to achieve various goals, some of which clash while others may work well hand in hand. Over the years, it’s become a venue to make money in a lot of different ways. Ticket prices naturally increased; but so have options. Where you stay, how you stay, what you wear, what you eat, what you see, and how well you can see it make attending the festival an exercise in decision-making and resource allocation. Lodgings, furnishings, and meals can all be provided in various levels of fanciness, in addition to, of course, figuring out what kind of pass you want to splurge on. And while you figure out how to get there and back.
What’s more, celebrities (more or less) are on hand to promote their favourite products, with ‘favourite’ meaning whatever they are told is their favourite that day. Seriously, if you have money, there is somewhere for it to go. Have your authentic festival experience by flying there in a helicopter, sleeping on queen size beds in an air-conditioned tent, having a four-course meal prepared by star chefs, and then hitting the spa.
Episode V: Attack of the Clones (This one works, huzzah!)
Coachella is no longer singular. Those who complained that the festival stopped becoming a unique experience when it was extended to two weekends must really hate it today. Artists who play Coachella play many others during the year, and cities realized that, if done properly, a generic music festival filled with popular bands and good vibes could be replicated. Please see FYF Fest, Outside Lands, Firefly, Panorama, Sasquatch, Governor’s Ball, Osheaga, Way Home, and many more.
Episode VI: Revenge of the Internet
Because anything big and popular must also be annoying and awful, Coachella is not immune to disdain and mockery from all corners of social media. Some people want to hate it because many people love it, while others may want you to know how they once loved it and then came to hate it because others love it. And stuff like that.
Those who attend are easy to make fun of; Jimmy Kimmel has taken care of that pretty well over the years. While it may be tricky to try and lump together some 150,000 plus people, there are a couple of prevailing stereotypes. There is the oblivious hipster and the trendy spoiled brat — both millennials, and they’re all about image. Coachella may be about what you hear, but it’s also about being seen.
Episode VII: The Last Experience
We as pop culture consumers continue to evolve, as does that which we consume, and it seems this evolution happens rapidly. Kimmel mocked Coachella attendees one year, only to have them catch on a couple of years later to his hilarious gag. There is still an issue wit the amount of female representation in the lineup, but Lady Gaga is headlining this year and Beyonce says that she will go next year. There is way too much self-promotion and capitalism, but there is also a lot of choice, including the choice to ignore a lot of what is going on. There is art, as well as plenty of culinary delights of which to indulge.
Like most things, the festival isn’t just one thing. It’s an experience. Basically, it’s whatever you want it to be. And of course, if you can’t attend, you can always livestream it.