This year, my sister is going to Coachella. My 21-year-old sister, who considers Coldplay to be indie music and still occasionally listens to the High School Musical 2 soundtrack unironically, will drive from the San Francisco Bay to Indio, Calif., with a group of like-minded friends to watch bands she has never heard of.
Attending Coachella for the first time last year, I found myself inundated in a sea of studded denim and cigarette smoke; the burgeoning popularity of Instagram allowed pseudo-hipsters from all across this great nation to artfully capture their eating watermelon while wearing Ray-Bans. Perhaps it was cynicism born from the 110 degree heat, but throughout the weekend, I could not shake the feeling that the majority of attendees were only there to blow money, take drugs, and document everything thoroughly to ensure the perfect new profile picture.
Today, big name music festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo are cash cows. Last year, Coachella made over $47 million in revenue from ticket sales. Twenty-somethings from across the country shell out $300 for tickets, and then hundreds of dollars more on hotels, travel expenses, and Aztec-print tank tops to stand in a literal desert and listen to bands that range from small independent artists to chart-topping mega stars. But despite or perhaps indicated by their growing popularity, these festivals are not really about the music anymore.
Woodstock is dead.
The first Woodstock music festival occurred in 1969, on the heels of a decade of social unrest and rampant activism. Held in upstate New York, the free festival was intended to be “Three Days of Peace and Music” amidst increasing contention around civil rights legislation, women’s rights, and continued American involvement in the Vietnam War.
The festival boasted big-names in music but was also implicitly political. The artists that performed — Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, etc. — were bastions of the feminist, equal rights, and sexual liberation movements.
When Woodstock’s last revival festival drew to a close in 1999, the San Francisco Chronicle called it “the day the music died.” Music festivals today are a different beast entirely.
While Woodstock and other early rock festivals catered to a marginalized, frustrated sub-culture, Coachella and festivals of the sort today are meccas of pop culture. The headliner choices are increasingly mainstream (see: 2 Chainz and his “coupe the color of mayonnaise”), and the crowds are littered with celebrities and models that you would probably recognize from their stints on The Hills.
Contrary to Woodstock, Coachella is almost a celebration of privilege; it’s life according to your Tumblr dashboard, where poverty, politics, and everything ugly cease to exist. Those who can afford to shell out $500 for what amounts to a weekend long party are not the bohemian artists the music festival image pretends to serve.
At Woodstock ‘69, the drugs and the sex were vices of a subculture that overtly rejected conservative family values and restrictive, mainstream norms. But today, “alternative” or “hipster” culture largely is popular culture; thus, everything from the substance-abuse to the hippie garb has no political significance.
Coachella encapsulates a “culture of cool” based on a tradition of the outcasts and artists who created it, but packages it only for those privileged enough to afford it. So it isn't really about the music, it’s about the collective illusion that for the right price, being “indie” still makes you special.