As I sat in a camping chair on Saturday afternoon, mute from heat exhaustion, a pale, skinny teenager wearing a pair of tiny white underwear bounded up to our tent. “Hey, do you have any Sour Patch Kids?” he asked breathlessly. “I need them to drop acid on.”
“I do,” said one well-dressed camper, and gave the entire package to the boy, who ran off ecstatic into the baking desert heat. At the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, generosity is highly appreciated, and separation between classes is stripped away, at least technically. Aging hippies, high school ravers with feathers stuck in their hair, scenesters in high-waisted skirts and gladiator sandals, and odd celebrities like David Hasselhoff all get down under the same sweaty rafters, eat the same overpriced gyros, and forego modern conventions, such as toilet paper and running water, in favor of getting back to the “basics,” like steamy porta-potties and empty hand sanitizer dispensers.
However, with temperatures topping 100 degrees, and 150,000 in attendance trying to see over 120 bands, many of which play at the same time, opportunities for heatstroke and irritation multiply. As Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) shouted at the audience, clutching her red electric guitar, “There’s so many of you! And you’re all so fucking hot!” This wouldn’t matter if the sheer amount of people didn’t preclude intimacy with the bands, and in many cases, prevent fans from seeing their favorite acts.
This reviewer was only in attendance on Saturday, due to highly anticipated sets like Portishead, Animal Collective, M.I.A, and Prince. After parking in the wrong lot and forlornly trekking through dusty desert roads and asking misinformed parking attendants for directions to Lot 5, I entered the festival at around 4:30 in the afternoon, just as the Empire Polo Field was beginning to “cool off,” in time to see Steven Malkmus and the Jicks. Plagued by indecision and heat, I stuck around long enough to hear a few songs, but Malkmus lacked the fire of his previous band, Pavement, and failed to be truly compelling. Off to the Mojave tent, which was much too packed to see Kate Nash, the articulate and chirpy British singer-songwriter. So I made my way to the Sahara tent, which was too crowded to see Hot Chip, but at least provided a bit of lawn space to bob my head to the beat.
By the time M.I.A. and Animal Collective went onstage – at the same time – I was becoming woozy. As nearly the entire polo field flooded the Sahara tent, I stood on the sidelines, barely able make out the first strains of “Bamboo Banga” and see the pea-sized M.I.A. jumping around in a platinum blond wig. The crush of people at M.I.A. allowed for a bit of room at Animal Collective, but the band failed to impress. While the audience waited in eager anticipation for songs from Strawberry Jam, Animal Collective seemed deliberately un-engaging, playing a few new songs and a weirdly unsynchronized rendition of “Fireworks.” Still disappointed, I went to the expansive Coachella stage to sit down in the grass and watch Portishead and Beth Gibbons, who still sings “Wandering Star” in a perfect, melancholy soprano.
After this, Prince took too long to take the stage, and I was too tired from the heat to stand up. Apparently, Melanie Griffith and Sienna Miller were in attendance at Prince’s set. And, allegedly, Prince covered Radiohead’s “Creep,” surely the most memorable moment of this year’s Coachella. Of course, I wouldn’t know. On the verge of passing out, I made it back to my tent after Prince’s first song, where I fell asleep, only to be woken at 2 in the morning by a conga line of drummers, possibly on acid, chanting “Wake! Up!”
This experience, while interesting, was not what I was hoping for. Perhaps five or even two years ago Coachella was a more dynamic and exciting place, but due to the crowds and the excessive publicity, it seems to have been robbed of its authenticity. Why would someone go to a festival where it is too crowded to see the music? And why do so many rave about performances that are not exactly spectacular? Perhaps concertgoers’ denial of the exorbitant ticket prices elevates solid performances to frenzied, nearly religious experiences in retrospect. Perhaps this buzz makes everybody wish they had been there and maybe this is why even more people shell out the money to go the following year, making for an even more chaotic and crowded Coachella. It’s a cycle almost as vicious as the sweltering heat.