Each year, as the Ides of April approaches, a deluge of douchebags, trust fund babies, and payment plan-enticed artistes join a gaggle of celebs in donning wacky, barely-there duds (think: Dazed and Confused on MDMA) and head out to the desert of Indio, California, for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. What was initially intended to be a celebration of music has degenerated into a weird marriage of fashion and commerce.
This year’s edition is spread out over a pair of weekends—April 11-13 & 18-20—and features headlining acts: Outkast, Muse, and Arcade Fire. But the music, these days, is really more of a backdrop when it comes to Coachella. It’s about the scene and being seen.
But more on that later. To fully wrap your head around this behemoth, let’s take a walk down memory lane of an event brimming with moments that range from the resplendent to the downright bizarre.
There was the 2009 edition, which brought us this equal parts mesmerizing/horrifying viral video of a naked, LSD-drunk wizard with a micropenis being tased repeatedly by angry cops as a crowd of obnoxious, pseudo-outraged onlookers shrieked, “The world is watching!” (The bewildered victim was, judging by the video, very enthusiastic about Sir Paul McCartney’s performance that evening.) Or how about Hologram Tupac, a life-sized, shirtless, pants-sagging apparition that materialized onstage in 2012 to rap alongside fest headliners Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. The f/x monstrosity was created by Digital Domain, the effects studio that transformed Brad Pitt into a wrinkly baby in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If that weren’t enough, there’s also the ubiquity of Paris Hilton, clad in a variety of neon bikinis and floral headdresses. The list is endless.
This year introduced a new, risible entry to the cultural lexicon: “The Coachella Diet.”
“There’s more competition style-wise now,” 22-year-old Kyla Rae, who will be headed to the fest for her seventh time, told the health blog Well + Good. “The number of Coachella virgins increases every year, and, if anything, they’re really into the image aspect.”
Indeed, in order to squeeze into the midriff-baring, boho-chic outfits (bikini top, denim/khaki booty shorts, floral headdress optional) favored by female Coachella attendees, many young, image-conscious women have taken to juicing, crash-dieting, or drastically increasing their workout regimens in the days leading up to the party in the desert. The Coachella Diet even has its own Twitter handle, and just this year, Kirsten Potenza and Cristina Peerenboom, creators of the Pound Rockout Workout, introduced “Cut By Coachella,” a 30-day workout calendar for people headed to the fest with prizes for participants.
As far as the backwards fashion sense at Coachella goes, I think style icon Chloe Sevigny said it best: “I was at Coachella this year and I kept calling them ‘denim underwear,’ because all the girls wear the denim underwear and it’s, like, a little obscene!”
The Safari Tent—a luxurious, fully-furnished “Shikar-style tent” equipped with two queen beds, air conditioning, electrical outfits, tables, and chairs... that’ll cost you $6,500
Paris Hilton isn't the only famous face getting weird in Indio. A horde of B-list celebs are now reportedly being paid by various brands to attend the festival wearing their fashions. Glee star Lea Michele will allegedly be paid $20,000 to rock Lacoste, Vanessa Hudgens will net $15,000 from McDonalds (will she dress like The Hamburgler?), and Joe Jonas is apparently seeking around $20,000 (?!) for a brand to sponsor his Coachella experience. Stars, they’re just like us!
If you're an average Joe, good luck getting into any of the brand-sponsored daytime pool parties (which look like outtakes form The Wolf of Wall Street) or afterparties, too, if you’re not giving lip service to a promoter.
But wait, there’s more. Coachella is a booming business these days, with the 2013 edition bringing in $67 million, up from $47 million in 2012, according to the Los Angeles Times. Goldenvoice, the promotion company that stages the fest, estimated that 90,000-plus people purchased three-day passes to it last year (although this number doesn’t count complimentary passes to press and celebs, or admission for artists and their sizeable entourages). General admission 3-day passes run attendees $375, while a VIP pass costs a whopping $799. The VIP pass, when I attended the fest a few years back, was a total cash-grab, and only granted you access to a VIP area situated very far from the main stage.
As far as cash-grabs go, the VIP pass is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s camping fees, which run festivalgoers $85 per spot. Too lazy to erect your own tent? Opt for a 4-person tent along with 4 VIP badges for $4,700. Not fancy enough? Then there’s the Safari Tent—a luxurious, fully-furnished “Shikar-style tent” equipped with two queen beds, air conditioning, electrical outlets, tables, and chairs. That’ll cost you $6,500 for two people, and $1,500 for each additional guest. There are dozens of these lux-tents located in a space dubbed “Safari World.”
For the first time, Coachella will also offer foodies the option of a four-course meal in the fest’s brand new Coachella Rose Garden. They’re calling it “Outstanding in the Field,” and dinner will run you $225 a pop.
All of these amenities are, of course, in addition to the basic issue of getting there. If you’re not carpooling, you need to fly to Palm Springs International Airport (my flight ran me upwards of $800 round-trip), and then drive 22.5 miles to the Empire Polo Club in Indio, where the fest is. Instead of camping, you can stay at a number of hotels in Indio, Indian Wells, or Palm Springs, although the options close by typically sell out months beforehand and come at a premium of $500+ a night. If you choose to stay in Palm Springs, the hotels are cheaper, but there’s that 45 miles of driving per day you’ve got to worry about to/from the festival grounds. There’s also the option of gathering a big group together to chip in for a house on rental sites like Airbnb or HomeAway, although that presents a different set of problems (dealing with the homeowners, cleanup fees, etc.).
Oh, and may I remind you that the festival is held over two separate weekends now? It’s not even a unique event anymore since the exact same fest lineup plays over both weekends—a decision Goldenvoice began implementing in 2012.
The biggest issue when it comes to Coachella, however, is that the quality of performers has been steadily declining in recent years. Back when I attended the fest in 2011, the headliners were Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, and a double-headliner of Kanye West/The Strokes on Sunday. The second-tier acts included The Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, and more. This year’s headliners are Outkast, Muse, and Arcade Fire. The reunion of Outkast is a big deal, until you take into consideration that the group is playing over a dozen more festivals this summer, including New York’s Governor’s Ball (which boasts a far superior lineup overall), Sasquatch!, and more. Hell, they’re even playing the Firefly Music Festival in Delaware.
Coachella’s transformation into this ghastly goulash of capitalism and vacuousness is all the more ironic when you consider how it began.
Back in 1993, Pearl Jam was in the throes of a European/North American concert tour to promote their sophomore LP, Vs. But the group, led by frontman Eddie Vedder, was outraged by the lofty service fees that Ticketmaster was imposing on ticket buyers so, on the evening of Nov. 5, 1993, they held a protest of sorts: a Ticketmaster-free performance for 25,000 fans at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California. The under-developed site had never hosted a rock concert before, but the historic event helped set the stage for future mega-concerts in the space. And six years later, Coachella was born.
That show is famous for another reason, too. During its midway point, fans in the pit began hurling shoes and bottles at Vedder, forcing the band to exit, only to return and finish their set situated behind a giant wall of speakers.
Maybe the venue’s always attracted assholes.