Delighted attendee Gupta opines that while the Coachella music and arts festival “may be the zenith of hipster culture” – with extraordinary food choices, music, flamboyancy and release, drugs and friendliness – “It’s all Walmart economy.”
Within 20 minutes I had been clocked in the face, pummeled by flying bodies and stripped of clothing. It was the best mosh pit of the day, and I wanted more. Hundreds thick of body or reckless by nature were circulating in a blender of whirling arms and legs propelled by the freneticism of The Descendents. It was exhilarating not knowing if I would be the bat or ball next. There was little risk of death or injury that led the Smashing Pumpkins and Fugazi to ban moshing at their concerts. When I fell down, hands pulled me up, backslaps were exchanged, and the good times rolled.
Bill, my companion at Coachella, remarked as another surfer was catapulted on top of the crowd, “It’s a great way to let out your social aggression.” I grinned in agreement as we dove into a wave of slam dancers surging and crashing.
After scoring a free ticket to the three-day Southern California music-and-arts festival, I cruised to the desert town of Indio with scant knowledge of the 175 acts rotating through eight venues, hoping I wouldn’t be bored. As I entered the 2.4 million-square-foot polo grounds, my anxiety vanished because it was an ADD delight. I wandered from one act to the next, people-watched, self-medicated, and tripped out on colossal mechanical insects and wind-sculpted balloon chains painting the sky.
Star power like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Nick Cave attracted a record 90,000 pilgrims each of two weekends in April, but the real draw was the crowd itself. In the digital age, unlimited music is on tap anytime, anywhere, and music-discovery services have reduced the search for the new from prowling obscure clubs and rifling stacks of unknown albums to opening a browser. It’s the shared live experience and the chance to star in your own social media firmament – by posting obsessively to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr – that’s elevated Coachella to the Superbowl of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
It’s revived the music-festival genre, along with events like Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo, for fans who treat concerts like iPods, shuffling from one act and genre to the next. Today’s festivals are far removed from the first rock concerts of the ’60s that were “beachheads of a new, ecstatic culture meant to replace the old repressive one,” notes Barbara Ehrenreich in Dancing in the Streets.
Now in its 15th year, Coachella is the highest-grossing festival in the world. For the region it’s a quarter-billion-dollar revenue generator, which outstrips Jamaica’s GDP on an annual basis. Tickets run up to $800, luxury Safari tents top out at $6,500, and everything costs: parking, water, showers, even charging phones. The dominant tribe is money-flush youth with the will to endure three sleepless days of being mashed in a delicious sound taco of Indie rock.
But Coachella is also the modern incarnation of medieval carnivals that revealed “another way of life that stood in stark contrast to the austerity and fixed hierarchy of the official order,” notes Al Sandine in The Taming of the American Crowd. We may imagine festivals like the original May Day, that celebrated the return of spring, to be as timeless as nature, but they are inventions, like Labor Day, Independence Day and Armistice Day.
Late 18th century French revolutionaries “invented a series of public events intended to furnish the novel and exciting world that had fallen into their hands with a revolutionary culture,” writes Sandine. These were solemn affairs with “maidens dressed in white” and ceremonies “marking brotherhood between rival villages,” but the desire for carnival could not be suppressed. On the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the orderly military parade in Paris turned into a days-long celebration with “parties, dances and parodies.” In the town of Saint-Andéol, Sandine quotes a contemporary describing a “love-feast,” where ” ‘wine flowed in the streets, the tables were spread, provisions placed in common,’ and people joined hands in an enormous dance extending outward ‘into the fields [and] across the mountains.’ ”
Libidinous festivals still exist in the global south, such as Rio’s Carnival and India’s Holi. Our public parties, Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day, are associated with frat-boy culture or are sanitized like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Libertine exceptions remain, such as Mardi Gras, Pride and Burning Man, but they have survived by adapting to the market. Radical noncorporate celebrations such as Rainbow Gatherings and Critical Mass tend to be squashed.
Because unplanned festivals are rare, they can be wildly popular. Tens of thousands joined Occupy Wall Street as it was a spontaneous outburst of history and living theater. Democratic, free, participatory, dangerous, unpredictable and open to all, Occupy was unlike the gated festivals that have colonized public space with pacified crowds.
While the elite used to fear the frenzy of the crowd, mega-festivals profit from assimilating the defiance and aggression of rock music. Coachella has successfully enclosed the ancient dance of joy and aggression around a bonfire. Bottling youthful rebellion draws devotees from Sydney, London, Tijuana and Hollywood for nostalgia and novelty, eros and excess. And it’s filling a primal need for mass, spontaneous revelry that’s largely disappeared from America.
Rob, 24, an expressionist artist who jetted in from New Zealand, said, “It’s the best music festival in the world.” Jane, a schoolteacher from Burbank had been dying to attend because her friends deemed it “epic.” “Was it epic?” I asked. “It was epic,” she replied with a delirious grin. “Teddy Bear,” a 20-something bro outfitted in more digital media than clothing, wondered how to optimally balance his intake of Acid, Mollies, and Sassafras with alcohol.
Cynics sneer at the vapid self-indulgence. Desperate-to-be-cool attendees gush about fake bands. Lindsay Lohan delayed her court-ordered rehab to after the festival, a smart move for the Adderall and Xanax-popping train wreck as drugs are cheaper and easier to score than food. There’s little nostalgia for rock’s muddy, tie-dye, bad-trip roots. Today’s hippie chicks buy fake flower headbands; music stars outsource their beats; and the 40,000 campers herded into the tent Serengeti eye the air-conditioned VIP quarters with envy.
But criticizing the base desire misses the point. Excess is the goal, and everyone is participant and spectator in the swirl of drugs, performance, fashion, art and above all, flesh. It could overwhelm, like the two sweaty groundskeepers who stood frozen with beer in hands as a flood of pecs and boobs, abs and butts coursed around them. One of the most popular spots was where the water guns were spraying overheated crowds dancing to DJ sets behind the motor-home-sized psychedelic snail oozing a foamy mucilaginous trail. Under the cooling jets, hundreds gyrated in slippery polyamorous frottage like wriggling spermatozoa building to a crescendo.
Without sex and drugs, attendance would probably dwindle to that of a minor-league baseball game. But there’s more to it than that. By feeding the need for human connection, Coachella’s revived the festival scene. The promise of an interconnected world on demand has turned out to be two-dimensional and alienating. Iron-fisted policing has scared most Americans away from political crowds. Shared intimacy is elusive – even though every form is on sale from baby making to funeral mourning. That leaves bars, shopping and sports, all of which lack genuine community.
Coachella is so immersive, it feels like its own universe, which makes it hard to imagine another way of life beyond its utopian consumerism, sustained by austerity. We were all atomized consumers whizzing in a giant particle accelerator to explosive energies, unable to escape the electromagnetic spectacle. If Coachella is a universe, the dark energy holding it together is the free market.
There’s little space for politics. Reggae and dub pioneer Lee Scratch Perry chanted, “I am a Black Man” and “Burn IMF.” Flea declared, “We don’t like guns, and we don’t like drones,” and the Sparks crooned the biting crowd-mocker, “I am a Suburban Homeboy.” The words felt out of place because political music is a product of social struggle by the poor, peasants and workers, not West LA stoners.
Moments did defy cynicism. For her finale, a white-clad Janelle Monáe paddled across a sea of hands. She hypnotically drew us in with our eyes and hands reaching skyward to form the surf to buoy her. After Monáe passed overheard, not before timidly clasping my left hand – which I eventually washed – the crowd returned to earth. With faces aglow, we hungered to share the joy. But the fire dimmed when I caught the eye of a stranger rather than a friend. Like a good drug it was transcendent, but not transformative. Collectively we created a fond memory, but we couldn’t connect to each other.
Coachella may be the zenith of hipster culture – food choices included Kogi BBQ, wood-fired pizza, espresso bars and a farmer’s market – but it’s all Walmart economy. Its sustainability program encourages carpooling, not to save the planet, but to help it pare parking and personnel costs. It extracts unpaid labor from concertgoers by providing a free bottle of water for every 10 empties turned in. The youth who worked the water stands pleaded for tips, explaining they were unpaid, apart from free admission. Two leathernecks from Camp Pendleton, who had ditched their security guard posts, also claimed they were unpaid, with their Marine Corps battalion receiving their wages. Other guards said they were paid less than $10 an hour to work fully clothed in 100-degree weather and dust and pollen so intense that many people acquired “Coachella cough.”
Coachella Valley is one of the “poorest, densest areas” in the country, with farmworker families contending with “arsenic-tainted water, frequent blackouts and raw sewage that backs up into the shower.” Latinos at the festival were more likely to be low-wage manual laborers than well-heeled partiers at the Rose Garden bar. The workers are hired through layers of subcontractors, notorious for skimping on benefits while violating labor rights.
On Monday, a few dozen workers cleaned one of the vast fields that had corralled tens of thousands of partiers. Ron, a security guard who works the festival circuit, gave me a glimpse of the underbelly. He indicated the official attitude toward drug use was “I know nothing!” While festival workers diligently advised, “Make sure to stay hydrated,” there was no attempt to curb the pervasive and open drug use. Ron claimed one camper, arrested after stabbing a man in the groin and neck after finding him with his girlfriend in his tent, was found with 5,000 doses of ecstasy to sell. “What about sexual assaults?” I asked. “That’s not a problem,” Ron said. “But some of these girls are asking for it.” He paused. “I mean, no one’s asking to get raped, but have you seen the way they dress?” Security’s main concern was jumpers hurdling fences to get in for free and busting rings peddling counterfeit wristbands. Ron said violence was minimal compared to Stagecoach, the country music festival the following week. He explained many guys would get hammered drinking all day and then “wail on each other.” Unlike Coachella, Stagecoach’s web site is blaring with warnings about excess drinking, violence and public sex.
At that point, Ron’s partner dragged him away. A backhoe had struck a water main and a geyser was turning the road into a lake. A gaggle of workers exited the cleaned field; the only remaining evidence of Coachella was rows of thousands of square patches of grass yellowed by tents. The workers grabbed a patch of shade, and each one foraged through a clear plastic bag, examining hauls of T-shirts left behind. After a few minutes they were rounded up to clear the next field. One worker was absorbed in examining his stash – nearly as big as himself. He looked up, grabbed his bag and struggled to run after his crew as they disappeared in the distance.