By Katie Booth
I have yet to find any comprehensive, thoughtful critique of Coachella. Those I have found either revel exclusively in the music aspect or give some small insight into the culture, OR completely blast the entire concept/event in an offensive, ridiculous, completely unhelpful manner, clearly designed to create a negative attention frenzy. I was very fortunate to attend Coachella last year for the first time, gifted two VIP passes by a very dear friend of mine. After years of Coachella speculation, and hearing from multiple sources how “amazing” it is, I got to experience the festival firsthand for myself. And my reaction was…completely removed from any expectation I had had.
Maybe that was my problem. My expectations were TOO high. It is totally probable that hearing from multiple sources–people I’ve known for years, people I don’t know at all, internet people–how life-changing this festival is, and being that Coachella is the largest and most talked about music festival in America if not the world…yes, my expectations were high.
I’ll be blunt. I hated Coachella. Start to finish, I cannot say I enjoyed it. There were brief pockets of happiness and moments of sheer “holy fuck this is crazy” (looking out at 90,000 people in the middle of nowhere), most of which were attached to the rare and beautiful music moments. Getting to witness someone’s talent, to feel their energy, to experience it in the context of other people. There are some seriously brilliant people in this world. And I will say, good lineup or “bad,” as people contest, the music was hands down the highlight of the experience for me. The rest was a great, loud, wild moment for social, human, observation.
And this is what I felt, and couldn’t escape from for those three days: Everyone was trying so hard to fit in. To be beautiful. To be “unique.” Different. Free. How hilarious this is. A festival dedicated to freedom of the human spirit, and with so many people decked out in hallmarks of the hippie movement–flowers in their hair, indian/tribal gear, flowing dresses–and they completely embodied the polar opposite of what they were claiming to represent. The hippie movement was about Freedom. Sexual freedom. Freedom from social constructs. Fighting war. Fighting Oppression. Experiencing love and ecstatic human experience in a way that was unheard of before. This was not that. Coachella was a bunch of girls standing in line for the porta potties with compact mirrors at the ready to fix their hair.
I felt stressed and small. I felt like whatever I was wearing was not good enough, would never be good enough. I didn’t just feel small in body, in stature or importance. I felt small in mind. What a small-minded, silly thing to think in the midst of such an experience. I don’t look pretty enough. But it was infectious.
On the afternoon of the first day, the sun beginning to set behind me, my comrade, who is truly one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen, tall, leggy, blonde, said to me, “Do you feel like we’re surrounded by a bunch of entitled, white people?”
Holy crap. Yes, I did feel that way. It was exactly what I had been thinking in the moment prior to her statement. It was like we were of one brain…(a Coachella miracle?) Whatever it was, it was an affirmation of the way I felt. Like I was surrounded by 90,000 people who were trying their darndest to be trendy and “free.” And it was the fakest, most ridiculous thing I had ever seen. It infected me like a plague. I live in Los Angeles, which is throughout the world considered to be ground zero for plasticity, fake-ness, pretension, you name it, we’re called it. And I had never in my five years of living in Los Angeles–in Hollywood no less–experienced the level of peer pressure I felt at Coachella in that moment.
Most of the time I wonder why L.A. gets such a bad rap. Almost everyone I know is smart, talented, hard-working, thoughtful, engaged. Los Angeles is an aggregate for people from all over the world who dream big and want to change the world for the better and create. That has been my experience. I don’t know everyone in L.A. obviously, but I’ve had overwhelmingly positive over negative experiences here.
The world should (and maybe it already has and I just haven’t heard yet) take the reputation of superficiality that L.A. has and transfer it onto the entire population of Coachella, because that would be a more accurate cultural model. Los Angeles can be somewhere in the middle.
Aside from the entitled, unconscious world view of these Coachella “hipsters,” another thing I noticed, surprise, is that there were practically no people of color there! Yes, white privilege, we get it, you suck. I think at one point I tried to look around and actually count the number of ethnicities I could determine other than Caucasian–Asian (some), Hispanic (maybe a bit more), African-American (…). I’m not gonna say there were no people of color there, that’s not true. But it was overwhelmingly white free people. I’d also venture to say that most “artists” (musicians, actors, writers, etc., since this is a music and arts festival) probably weren’t in attendance. The obvious exception being celebrities. Because Coachella costs upwards of $400 just for the ticket (not including camping or an alternative place to stay, bus, transportation out there, food, alcohol, drugs, new clothes! etc.,) and pretty much all artists are broke, which everyone knows.
In addition to the unshakable feeling I was somehow witnessing the start of the apocalypse, there was also the sense that you were always on camera. On display. Being judged. Between the instagram photos (I actually saw one girl holding her friend’s iPhone out, while said friend danced in the distance far off–not to music, just for the picture–so she could snap the perfect “effortless” Coachella instagram shot) and the professionals running around snapping fashion pics, it did not inspire a feeling of freedom or of being “in the moment.”
Another adorable anecdote: Paris Hilton arrived on the scene, walked straight to the front of the VIP line, by which my friend and I were standing, and then proceeded to turn around, face the crowd of people and pose. Not for photographers or paparazzi, but for people. Just standing there. Waiting in the line she so merrily jumped while pretending to talk on her cell phone. This actually happened. For several minutes. It was startling. I felt like I was watching a car wreck and should’ve looked away.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about this whole experience is that it was so totally alien to everything I had ever heard told about Coachella. Yeah, people make fun of the tweets and the outfits etc., etc., but pretty much all around the feeling is, this is a really good time and damn I wish I was going. I know people who go every year. Who have gone every year for years. I know people who plan their whole year around it. Maybe it was because I didn’t camp. I’ve heard that camping is almost better than the festival. Maybe it’s because I’m pretty much an introvert and super sensitive to stimuli. Maybe I wasn’t drunk enough or I’m just not a festival person (which might be the case). There is a part of me still trying to figure out why I don’t hear more often about similar accounts. Why I can’t find any articles online that tell my experience.
“Ohhhh, yes I know what you are saying,” my friend Natalie Pasquale tells me. This year will be Natalie’s ninth Coachella experience. It’s safe to say she got in before the buzz. Natalie started going because of an “obsession” with hippies and the ‘60s movement. “The whole idea of Woodstock in 1969 was a dream to me,” she said. As for today?
“I still go for the music. I go with my best friend and we frolic all over that field and don’t let the molly zombies with their Coachella uniforms ruin our time. We know where to stand and how to get around to be able to enjoy it fully. I am able to still see the old magic of it. I couldn’t imagine starting to go now and finding that.”
I know what you’re thinking. Man this girl is a bitch (me). What a little fun-hater. My Coachella #regrets: I wish I had come with a stronger sense of self so I wouldn’t have been so susceptible to the crowd. And that’s on me. It’s hard to feel like an individual in this world. One of these days I’d like to go back and try to have a different experience.
I do remember the feeling I walked away with though. (Aside from the other feeling, which was three days of depression and contemplating very seriously giving up my chosen profession because I just couldn’t hang.) It was the conviction: I will never try to be cool again. Because confronted with it, time and again, in small and big ways, on the faces of my fellow humans as I walked about from stage to tent to food to stage was… This feels a lot like fear. Wanting to be liked. To be included. To be adored. And it was the most uncool thing I have ever seen in my life. I hope I remember this, day in and day out for the rest of my life, as I travel and live and cross the street and drink in a bar and love someone and buy food. I hope that I only do or say or wear or read or listen to what speaks to me. I hope I never feel compelled by a trend. I hope I fully know myself to the point where NO ONE can shake that. Not even 90,000 people in the middle of the desert. Because “the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
And yes. I did just quote Almost Famous. THE END.