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Coachella and forcing a cultural moment

by Ben Kling / Columnist • April 25, 2012

For the past two weekends, Coachella Valley in Indio, California was flooded with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the country and around the world. These pilgrims — many fans of dancing, ecstasy, and sweat — come to experience the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. I use the word “experience” because although it is, broadly, a music festival, people don’t come simply to hear music. You can listen to music on your computer, or a gramophone, or an ice cream truck. They come for the spectacle that is the Great American Music Festival.

Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bamboozle, Burning Man, Bonnaroo, and SXSW are all immensely popular festivals and, for the most part, consist of the same basic elements: a requisite handful of impressive headliners, a back-catalog of mid-level and rising artists, several stages, a village of corporate tents, and Stonehenges of supernaturally large speakers. Depending on the festival; there are often carnival rides, mushroom fountains, and a number of other very quirky things. This sort of neo-bohemian, anything-can-happen atmosphere is largely manufactured and largely performed. Lollapalooza will never be Woodstock ‘69, because Myspace didn’t have a booth at Woodstock ‘69.

Woodstock ‘69 is usually referred to as simply Woodstock, almost comically undermining the fact that Woodstock keeps trying to be a thing. Failed reincarnations in ‘79, ‘89, ‘94, and ‘99 made it abundantly clear that you can’t force a genuine cultural moment.

At the original Woodstock, Joe Cocker closed his set with a gospel rendition of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” followed by a thunderstorm that halted the events. At the end of the day, crowds of people, all covered in mud, many naked, lay on the ground, entwined with strangers, sleeping together in one of the most intensely communal, intimate, vulnerable, and unifying scenes imaginable.

At Woodstock ‘99, Rage Against the Machine burned the American flag onstage while playing “Killing in the Name.” It was covered by MTV and live coverage of the entire weekend was made available on pay-per-view.

Compare Woodstock to Coachella. Woodstock ‘69 sold tickets for $18. It eventually became free when it began drawing hundreds of thousands more attendees than had been estimated. Coachella charges $335 for a pass and a shuttle, and an additional $82 for a car-camping spot or a 10x15 tent spot. If that’s not to your liking, for $6,500 you can rent a “furnished shakir style tent with air conditioning, private restrooms & showers, golf cart shuttles to and from stages, free private parking lot, drop off area, breakfast and late night snacks, added security, outdoor chairs, shade tents + outdoor lighting, games and more!” 

Rock on.

The commoditization of rebellion is nothing new, nor is its failure to approximate the real thing. It becomes standardized and cross-promoted and documented, the memories of it sold back to the people who experienced it like the pictures taken by the roving photographers at Disneyland. Don’t forget Coachella merchandise and a YouTube channel of Coachella highlights. And then, like time has done to Woodstock ‘69, it becomes about having been there. (Translation: Instagram after Instagram after Instagram.)

One wonders if Jimi Hendrix would have checked into Woodstock on Foursquare.

Even the unsponsored bits of the modern music festival seem unbearably contrived. 

The lyrics to RENT’s hipster manifesto “La Vie Boheme” come to mind, in which the painfully artistic patrons of the Life Café belt, to the chagrin of a super-lame businessman, extolments of Buddha, turpentine, and “anything taboo.” 

This sort of super-consistent (ahem) and definitely not meaningless (AHEM) pastiche of values (read: aesthetics) is the foundation on which the spectacle of the post-Woodstock music festival is built; trying to be like something that wasn’t trying.

All of the big festivals are variations on this core endeavor. Burning Man is desert-themed and emphasizes art; Bamboozle is punk-themed and wears its Vans sponsorship with pride. Along with Ultra and EDC, Coachella features massive arenas of electronic music (and hip-hop with increasingly electronic beats), and it’s in electronic music, despite the contrived packaging of the festival experience, that the genuine thrill-seeker can find satisfaction.

In his book You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier, dreadlocked computer scientist (a creature probably native to Burning Man), wrote that after the late 1990s, we entered “the first-ever era of musical stasis.” I reject his claim that there is no musical genre that is distinctly millennial. Lanier either didn’t know about or severely underestimated dubstep.

Some detractors of dubstep are made physically ill and dizzy by it, because it blurs the definition of what constitutes a musical experience — the stimulation is mainly physical. I often compare the experience of dubstep to another simulation of danger: the rollercoaster. The feeling you get from a rollercoaster drop is the same feeling you get when you miss a step — a squirt of epinephrine to elicit the fight-or-flight response. If Coachella is a carnival, the towers of speakers blasting electronic music are the rides.

In the crowd at Coachella, or during any live set of electronic music, the flashing lights and vivid colors are not simply a garish part of a cheesy set dressing. When the spotlights shut off, the colored beams and the glow necklaces aren’t just for show. The pounding quarter notes, the teeth-chattering bass drops, the kind of heat that makes your lungs feel full of water, the exertion of jumping in time with 1,000 other people, and the syncopation of the pulse in your ears as your heart tries to keep up — this is a physical experience. Nobody is pretending. It is raw, it is visceral, and it is genuine.

Maybe it’s not the post-thunderstorm mud-nap of Woodstock ‘69, but it’s ours, goddamn it.