by Sean Thielen
In the haze of the desert sun, music forces waves through crowds of thousands and a pair of hands rise above the sea of people. Cinched around one arm is a $375 wristband. Clenched between the fingers of the other is a $200 GoPro camera mounted on a four-foot pole.
“Quick, take a photo that looks candid,” the hands say to her friend.
They pose, as if in mid dance. The light on the camera blinks. The hands return to the crowd. Their owners stand, looking bored, for a few more minutes, and then leave.
This scene repeats itself over the three-day Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. Held on April 11-13, 2014, and repeated again the following weekend, the music festival draws attendees, bands, DJs, and artists from around the world. The festival has been a yearly event since 1999, and in 2013, saw over 190,000 tickets sold.
But what began as a music festival has, in recent years, transformed into a cult-like status symbol of fashion, culture, and celebrity.
“What has the event turned into now?” said Adam Hove, psychology major at Chapman University before answering his own question. “An over-glorified waste of $500+ to go see three-to-five bands you actually like, ignore 20 more that you either don't know or don't like, and ingest copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.”
For college students, Coachella has degenerated into a weekend of hedonism, drugs, alcohol and partying facilitated by the swipes of credit cards and clicks of cell phone cameras, with music playing in the background.
Festival fashion, the so-called “Coachella diet” plans to get slim in time for festival-season that perpetuated by lifestyle and trend magazines, and celebrity spotting appear to be higher priorities than actually seeing music performances.
“I think we saw eight different shows. They were all really good,” said Heather Midler, 23, who flew all the way from Ohio to attend the festival.
Over 150 artists performed during the weekend.
Of course, not everyone attends to take drugs and photos of sunsets. There are still many who attend for the music and festival experience, to see some of their favorite bands in an incredibly unique and communal setting.
“I’m here for the music. I like to go into the festival early and see the smaller bands—every year I’ve discovered someone new. Sure, it’s fun to party and do all of that, but at the end of the day, it’s really about the music for me,” said Chase Klitzner, junior communications major at Chapman.
But while groups of die-hard Coachella veterans still attend the festival, they have, over the years, come to know and love, the very format of the festival itself is changing in order to accommodate these new groups, who are more concerned with the status of the Coachella festival, rather than the quality of its performers.
“I realize Coachella is supposed to be an expression of all different forms of art, but this year it was basically half hip-hop show, and half Electric Daisy Carnival. There are festivals for both of those people already,” Hove said. “Maybe go back to what Coachella started out as, and have it be a badass collection of rock, punk, alternative, and indie bands, with a few artists like Paul McCartney or Elton John thrown in.”
This year, the festival featured more than 70 electronic DJs and 20 hip-hop acts. The size of the beer gardens and VIP sections—where $800 buys access to a separate, front-row section to enjoy the music outside of the crowds—were increased to accommodate the number of festival attendees who choose to enjoy both of those perks. The festival organizers even added a $225 four-course dinner to the mix of dining options.
Major media outlets such as the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times sent journalists to the festival to take photos of attendees’ outfits and people eating large slices of watermelon—a staple snack from vendors within the polo grounds. Variety magazines like LA Weekly cover the after-parties and gossip about celebrity attendees.
On Monday, after the festival ends, this event becomes the subject of hundreds of thousands of Instagram and Facebook photos juxtaposed against captions about withdrawals from this life-changing event.
But rather than photos of bands, the photos are of shoes, sundresses and beer bongs.
The music has become nothing more than an excuse.