Coachella: The happiest place on earth

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APRIL 26, 2012

Saturday afternoon, I stood in the front row looking up at warrior goddess Merrill Garbus as she raised her melodic battle cry over Coachella. At one point, the singer-songwriter of tUne-yArDs fame asked the crowd to do her a favor. “I want all of you to close your eyes and slowly turn around.” The crowd members shuffled their feet to look away from the stage. “Now open and look where you are,” she screamed. I opened my eyes to a seemingly endless field filled with giant, surreal art installations and space-station-sized stages backed by a bright blue sky. Colorful balloons floated in an arc across the entire scene as herds of people migrated across it and orange mountains adorned the horizon. At once, the whole crowd shouted at the top of their lungs in ecstatic liberation. And as my own cry subsided, I finally understood the analogy that going to Coachella for the music is like reading Playboy for the articles.

When I first heard that phrase, I dismissed it as the opinion of a culturally ignorant, party-obsessed peer. I was going to Coachella because I genuinely appreciated the music that was going to be played there.

I didn’t care about the party aspect, or the hyper-trendiness of it all. I just wanted to see tUne-yArDs, The Black Keys and Radiohead play my favorite songs. But that was before I had ever been to Coachella or any weekend-long music festival before. That was before I realized that Coachella is like Disneyland for people in their 20s. And kids don’t really go to Disneyland because of the rides, they go because it’s “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Just like Disneyland, the point of Coachella is to create a whimsical space for consumers to escape from reality. Yes, it is about celebrating music and art, but those are only a means to an end.

Being inside Coachella was like being transported to an “Alice in Wonderland” themed carnival on another planet (a very hot planet, might I add).  And by the last set, the thought of leaving broke my heart.

It broke my heart partly because I realized that I would no longer be living in a care-free dreamland. But also because I came to terms with the artificiality of what I had just experienced. While I was expecting today’s Woodstock, what I got was today’s Woodstock theme-park. I had bought the commodification of the music festival experience.

Maybe it would have felt more special if I had gone the first weekend, and didn’t know as I watched holographic Tupac that thousands of other festival-goers had already witnessed his resurrection during the exact same set a week before.

As planes flew above me advertising countless other music festivals to come, I couldn’t help think about how dozens of girls around me were wearing the same crocheted shorts as I was, and they had probably Instagrammed the same picture of the ferris wheel that I had too.

We were all playing along so well, acting as if that moment (and that hologram) were made just for us, but individualism is the last thing that Coachella is about.

It seemed as if no band outside the genre of folk ended without playing a dubstep-inspired song, or surprising me with their overuse of bass. But of course, that was the case. That’s what’s popular right now, and Coachella is nothing without its mass appeal.

The oddest part about it, though, was that it was done so exceptionally well. And as I drove home, despite those realizations, all I wanted to do was go back.

Contact Sarah Burke at 


APRIL 26, 2012

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