A Field Guide for the Ethical Enjoyment of Coachella Music and Arts Festival

It is just before 6pm on a Sunday in April and I’m sitting with my husband outside of the Sahara tent at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, our backs to the material that wraps the tent’s walls. Or rather, I am sitting and he is lying down, because he’s trying to take a nap. But he is not napping, because I can see him mouthing the words to the quiet music playing in between Sahara sets (“Movin’ Out” by Billy Joel).

I am eating paella. It’s offered at multiple stands throughout the fest, and if you peer past the stands’ cashiers you can see lots of people gathered around an enormous paella pan, stirring. I am marveling at my current ability to eat a succulent seafood rice dish in the harsh desert, and stop to take a photo of my paella against the lowering sun, which gently illuminates the dust in the air, making the atmosphere hazy and incandescent, like the inside of an old-fashioned lightbulb.

A man walks by us, repeating the words “Duck Sauce.” This is probably because the next act we are trying to see at the Sahara is the DJ duo Duck Sauce (we had such a good time seeing them before in New York last year). He’s handing out little plastic packets, and I wonder if he is handing out literal duck sauce, the kind you schmear on a delivery egg roll. We receive our packets and realize they contain plastic duck bills, looped onto an elastic so you can wear them over your face.

It’s almost time for the set to start, so we scarf the rest of the paella and go inside the tent to meet our friends. My husband tries on his duck bill and a girl near us sees it and comes up to us. “Where did you get that! Did you bring it in?” I tell her of its provenance, and immediately offer mine to her to keep. I am one of four children born within four calendar years and my ability to share stuff isn’t always the best because I had to do it a long when I was younger, but I’ve also developed a reflex over the years where I can tell when a thing that I would merely appreciate would go a little farther in someone else’s esteem, and have no problem thus “giving it away,” as Anthony Kiedis might encourage me to do.

She is thrilled. “Thank you! Do you want, like, a lollipop or something?” My throat is actually quite dry and a lollipop sounds great. She goes over to her bag to look for it, rifles around a bit, frowns. I lose sight of her for a moment, catching up with the campsite friends who are arriving around us. Then she comes back.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any lollipops, but would you like a tiny hand?” She holds out a small plastic hand with a hole in its underside so you can pop it on one of your fingers.  I accept it enthusiastically. A perfect exchange. Duck Sauce starts playing and then I start dancing.

Photo taken by Molly

If you read any of the culture writing about Coachella 2022, you would probably think this festival was a nightmare.  The critical minds hired by the last few pop culture publications we have left all flocked to the polo fields and observed the proceedings. What they found was an influencer-strewn hellhole, a major label orgy, a delusional vibe shift, a wallet-draining boondoggle that left one with dust in their lungs and despair in their hearts. Sure, the musical performances were generally given good reviews — Megan Thee Stallion slayed! Doja Cat ascended! The Weeknd came through in the clutch! — but the vibes were gently mocked, if not overtly insulted.

There are lots of ways to do journalism…or so I was taught by my beloved college writing professors [sunglasses emoji]. You can go full gonzo, or kick it in a more New Journalism type of way, or just report the ‘straight facts.’ Regardless, if your job is to assess the scene at a festival, having that job will inevitably separate you from the scene. It’s hard to get fully immersed if you have some sort of publishing institution backing you, and a deadline to make, and the all-important Angle to chase down. And I don’t think it’s out of pocket to say we’re in a pretty bad place and time for culture writing on the internet. Every quarter seems to bring devastating layoffs to full-time writing staff. Old brands re-juiced with new talent are sucked dry again with the next earnings report. Iconic pubs like The Awl and The Toast give up the ghost, and everyone pays their respects with wistful tweets. The remaining freelancers paid to spool out opinions on the cultural products of our day are often trapped within the dual prisons of clickbait and search engine optimization. 

Which is why the coverage of an event like Coachella often ends up tinged with negativity. It’s the same impulse that sparks schadenfreudian blazes like the Fyre Festival debacle: good news for people who love bad news. So you hear about professional Instagrammers squabbling in a hot parking lot as they make their pilgrimage to the para-Coachella influencer carnival known as Revolve Festival. You hear about the gradual decline in musical programming from edgy independent artists to shiny pop machines that seem to all be signed to the same agency. You hear about how American Express had a line at their activation, and the activation was…tarot readings. (Maybe tarot cards are spiritual credit cards, in a way? The Hanged Man is pleased to offer a 0% APR for the first 24 months, and 3x points on purchases at big box stores.) It feeds into a bigger loop of negativity, the bad feelings about politics and the pandemic and the environment and the state of the world. 

Even as I write this, The Cut just published a short article about the phenomenon of the “Coachella cough,” a long-documented phenomenon resulting from 3 days of desert dust inhalation, using the URL slug “coachella-cough-covid.” It is still easiest to place the blame on people who want to see live music, even when Covid-19 regulations are being stripped at the federal level, and folks can now travel on planes and gather at huge sporting events and political rallies unmasked, and uninsured folks can no longer get cheap covid tests, and tracking case numbers has gone more or less out the window. The horsemen of the apocalypse are wearing spangled cowboy hats and twirling their lassoes to Harry Styles, it seems.

Covid clickbait aside, I do understand the impulse to call attendees careless, and to call influencers stupid, and to call the headliners basic, and to call the ticket price expensive. Coachella should have kept a vax-and-test requirement for entry and it sucks that they didn’t. I think the influencers should really consider wearing more comfortable shoes and clothing and they’ll have a much better time. I wish Rage Against The Machine could have held onto their headliner slot. And I think Coachella should offer up a lot of free tickets, especially to locals in the area, especially teenagers, because accessing everything the festival has to offer should be their birthright. It is far from a perfect operation.

I understand that after two-plus years of government abandonment that forced us to rely on each other for care, the concept of spending a ton of money on a concert ticket and gathering en masse seems idiotic or even hurtful. A while ago I tweeted about going out for the night and one of my followers, who I believe suffered from long Covid, chastised me for wanting to do so. I think about them all the time and I feel terrible that my own fun seemed to upset them. The pandemic was and is a moral test in addition to a physical, financial and political test, and sometimes I think I’m just straight-up failing it, and I don’t know what to do about that. 

But at the very least, I don’t think it helps for the media to keep framing music festivals as frivolous. I think we need them now more than ever! Communing safely and sanely around live music is something that we should be doing if that is our desire. Human beings have been doing it ever since we discovered fire and drums. I think the health of a society is directly tied to how much that society is able to get together and dance like maniacs — in keeping with the ‘bread and roses’ theme of socialism, let’s call it “water and glow sticks” or something.

Molly in the midst of the madness

I tried to do some due diligence for this piece and look up stats on festival-going demographics and was not super stoked on what I found — according to a 2018 Nielsen study, festival goers are likely to be millennials, and also 35 percent more likely to come from households with more than $80,000 in annual income. People in their 30s with more money should not be the only people enjoying fests like Coachella! They need to be accessible to everyone, especially younger folks who are growing up in a world that seems to be causing a crushing amount of anxiety, not to mention in a world of digital interactions that are increasingly replacing the warmth (and, of course, the risk) of in-person connection.

A few years ago Lorde was on WTF With Marc Maron and, while talking about her goofy ‘interpretive dance’ 2017 VMA performance that she did whilst sick with the flu, she commented on the fact that people don’t think joy is cool and chic. To that point I saw first hand that there’s a Coachella story that doesn’t get reported very often, because it’s not actually that interesting: the story of pure joy, connection, silliness and fun. 2022 was my fifth time attending Coachella. I go camping with a fairly large crew of people all now in their 30s; some folks drop off certain years and some bring new friends into the fray. This year we all slept within our quadrangle of spray-painted lines, drinking smuggled batched cocktails and poring over the printed schedules to figure out common musical ground. We lent each other face jewels and weed gummies, took body-wipe showers and Polaroid photos, did shots of warm vodka with our neighbors, and braved the portable toilets.

We went into the festival grounds each day, sometimes crewing up or going our separate ways and meeting later. I headbanged at 100 Gecs and twirled at Maggie Rogers and moshed at King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. A thought came upon me when I was dancing like an idiot at Dom Dolla: that I really didn’t learn how to enjoy live music with my body until I started going to music festivals in my mid-20s. I grew up in the arms-folded, head-nodding world of indie rock, too self-conscious to move more boldly than the stiff people around me at Bright Eyes or MGMT. I started to break out of my shell in college, but it wasn’t until I experienced the particular combination of open space, intense production values and vibe-y people offered by a festival that I finally figured out how to dance the way I wanted to dance. How to really let go. And I genuinely believe being able to let go in this manner has made me a better, saner, more gracious, and more empathetic person.

One of the last acts I saw was Jamie XX, which took place on the smaller of the two outdoor stages, on Sunday evening. After sitting for a spell on the ground and deprogramming after the techno-maximalist Doja Cat set that broke my brain, I got up and started shaking my butt once more. Mr. Jamie XX was spinning tunes in a genre that a google result accidentally displayed as “electronic future garage post-dubstep house UK garage trip hop,” and the field was filled as far as the eye could see with evenly-spaced-out dancers trying out every possible type of dance move. Four younger women were near me, all going bonkers, trying out bits of improvised choreography, kicking their legs like Rockettes.

Then a groovy and soulful rock song, the Chambers Brothers song “Love, Peace and Happiness,” boomed out over the field. It came out in 1969: the Summer of Love, and also an intense and fucked-up time in American history.

All our love, peace, and happiness

We’re gonna give to you now

All our love, peace, and happiness

And you can share yours too

God, it’s almost too corny to consider. But that’s the silly thing about joy: joy is so unbelievably corny. And believing in the idea that peace, love and happiness are things you can “give” and “share” — believing that you have the power to transmit these things to other people, through what you say and what you do — it feels crazy. But it’s possible, if you give yourself over to joy.

 I yelled over to the quad of young ladies that I loved their energy.

“Come dance with us!” they yelled back. And I accepted their invitation.

Thanks to Molly both for writing this fantastic piece and for providing the photography throughout

Leave a Reply