Who needs friends, when you’ve got brands
Earlier this month, people from all over the world descended on Palm Springs for music festival Coachella’s 20th anniversary – featuring an A-list roster of talent in the form of Ariana Grande, Lizzo, Childish Gambino, Christine & the Queens who all took to the various stages within longtime venue Empire Polo Club.
I was lucky enough to be in town with a free ticket for the first weekend, so attended stoned, solo, and for the first time to immerse myself in the goings-on. The grounds wildly differed from any UK festival I’ve ever been to. Rather than wading through a sea of plastic cups, it was almost entirely litter-free (good thing). But ultimately the festival-goers too seemed squeaky clean; I only witnessed one guy absolutely fucked, ignored by security while erratically doing star jumps on a table (bad thing).
“To attend an event so heavily populated with conventionally attractive white people roaming in packs was intense. Wandering around the festival was a strangely alienating and lonely experience”
To attend an event so heavily populated with conventionally attractive white people roaming in packs was intense. Sure, the people watching was enjoyable and the festival itself has to be seen to be believed, but even as a person who usually likes spending time alone, wandering around the festival was a strangely alienating and lonely experience. On the Friday evening, I left Childish Gambino early because of the crippling anxiety I felt not being with anybody else (although it could have also been the edibles).
Over the weekend, I saw everything from the extreme wealth of its attendees (at least apparently, maybe they were faking), their awful treatment of nearly everybody else, and just how weird it really was – here’s everything I learned.
HUGE BUT LIKELY ACCURATE GENERALISATION – THE PEOPLE ARE PRETTY TERRIBLE TBH
After picking up my wristband on the Friday afternoon, I met a pair of finance-tech bro stepbrothers from LA who asked if they could hitch a ride (they didn’t pay) with me to the venue. As long term attendees, they explained they come down every year with a group of friends, with one of them confessing to me in the back seat that it was his “highlight of the year” as an escape from his 9-5. The irony wasn’t lost on me when they told me (over the house music they blasted via the aux cord) that they were attending both weekends as VIP guests (tickets are $1000 per person, per weekend). So, they weren’t the worst of the worst, but they represented the majority of festival-goers – rich white jocks, who wandered around topless looking for a house tent to shuffle in.
Inside the venue, post-Ariana Grande, I was shoved out of the way by two Valley girls who exclaimed: “These people are all in the way and don’t realise this is VIP only!” (I was VIP also, god knows why, none of us were important). Elsewhere, I witnessed snapping fingers at bar staff and a full-on screaming match with security for asking a group to join a separate (empty) line because they had come through the exit. There’s obviously the regular pushing you get at all festivals, somehow made even worse with the American knack for being politely passive aggressive: “I just like really need to find my friends,” one girl said, barging to the front at Zedd.
EVERYONE WANTS TO TAKE YOUR MONEY
Following on from the success of last year’s event – which saw it as the only festival to gross over $100m (£114.6m) for the second year running – dubbed, #Beychella for headliner Beyoncé’s scalping of the main stage, this year’s event saw Sunday’s headliner Ariana Grande try and emulate that with the hashtag #Arichella. In addition to the official Ari merch, Coachella also sells its own tees and hoodies exclusively for the 2019 edition and its archive from over the years.
Every aspect of the festival feels like an opportunity to commodify. The tickets are already $400, with this site working out that even as a cheapskate you’re looking at spending $1000 minimum. Feeling boujier? It’s $5k plus.
Outside of the grounds, brands vied for increased footfall, featuring (but not limited to) the likes of American Express, McDonalds, Moschino, BMW, and Levi’s hosting activations for guests who weren’t even attending the festival. Surprisingly, Instagram only turned up to Coachella for the first time year, inviting guests to snap themselves in its house that had been transformed into a 70s festival.
IT’S LIKE SUMMER CAMP FOR INFLUENCERS
If Coachella didn’t exist, would Instagram? If Instagram didn’t exist, would Coachella? Almost everything was a photo-opp for the ‘gram, including the curation of art on the grounds – this year saw rainbow tower “Spectra” return, joined by an astronaut whose helmet displayed pictures of attendees and the iconic Ferris wheel. Employing these tactics, one influencer went as far as posting fake festival content to her 3.8m followers, claiming it was a comment on how easy it is to fake things.
The unofficial Coachella uniform – no, not Kanye West’s Rajneeshee-esque garms – was a mix of brands including (but not limited to) Vetements, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Balenciaga, Marine Serre and more, that made wandering the grounds impossible without inadvertently photobombing a white girl with Chun-Li buns.
Feathered headdresses seemed to have died out (I didn’t spot one) but instead, bros wandered the grounds wearing Navajo blankets wrapped around them. Beyond the absolutely correct conversations of cultural appropriation that have been going on for a while regarding people wearing cheap replicas of indigenous spiritual clothing while they do Jägerbombs, it just felt weirdly 2008 of people to still be wearing those kind of looks. When I asked a girl about the origins of the bindi she was wearing, she replied: “It’s just glitter on my forehead, I don’t see the big deal… black girls wear hair extensions all the time.”
THE GAYS WERE OUT IN FULL FORCE – I CHECKED IN ON THEM ON GRINDR
Despite Coachella’s founder Philip Anschutz openly donating to anti-LGBTQ+ organisations – anti-abortion and pro-gun ones too – the queer community was repping hard at the festival. Determined to get to the bottom of this, I interviewed some gay attendees on Grindr about their knowledge of the causes they were inadvertently contributing to.
The majority didn’t know, and nearly all gave me the same response I got from one user who travelled solo all the way from Montréal: “I honestly don’t care, I’m just here to have fun and get laid.” Exactly what Aaron Schock – former GOP congressman – spent his time doing, photographed with a gaggle of fit, white, muscular gays. Despite persistently voting against LGBTQ+ rights, Schock was spotted making out with one of his bros later on.
Another Grindr user native to Palm Springs proved more insightful than his peers, though he hasn’t attended the festival since 2007 despite it being right on his doorstep. “I didn’t know about the donations, but it adds to the number of reasons why Coachella is not on my to-do list this year; it’s retrograde to support organisations that affect your business’s demographic,” he says.
While he says the festival seems to have become a lot more organised since he attended, he still remembers when you could buy tickets for individual days, rather than the entire weekend. That, and a time before extreme social and commercial obsession: “It feels much more corporately controlled now,” he says. “It’s all about the capital, than the art. More about the Instagram moment than the musical experience.”