Coachella Fest and Me: Part I

April 25, 2013 § 3 Comments

I did not go in.

I did not go in.

When I told my students I was going to Coachella Fest, I might as well have said I was pregnant. Dropped jaws, wide eyes, looks of incomprehension. What? Mr. Emerson is going to Coachella? Some were amused, some were vaguely proud (a couple students who long ago appeared to have dismissed me as lame appeared slightly inspired with renewed hope), and some looked horrified. They let YOU in there? Rows of students furrowed their collective brow into an expression that said, “How can this be?

“Coachella Fest,” or simply “Coachella,” is the insider lingo for the classier sounding and more misleading official name of the event, Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, which makes landfall every spring in Indio, CA, a town only a few minutes from where I teach and live. The full name includes “arts,” but people go there for art the way people go to museums for coffee. The hundreds of thousands of people who herd into the concert grounds do not come for art. They come for music. They come for transcendence. They come to see and be seen and participate in a version of freedom not usually available among those who do their bills and pay taxes.

And it’s huge. Over the course of two consecutive weekends, from Friday night to Sunday night, almost two-hundred bands perform on six different stages, representing all musical genres. On one stage might be hip-hop, on another, Indie rock, and on still another, something indefinable, a musician mixing genres and sounds into a melange of noise that sounds like it was produced by Jackson Pollock. This year’s lineup included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Vampire Weekend, Dropkick Murphys, and many other bands with names like Infected Mushroom, How to Destroy Angels, the Airborne Toxic Event, the Postal Service, Trash Talk, Of Monsters and Men, Social Distortion, and Spiritualized. “What do those names mean?” you ask. Exactly.

I went to Coachella at the urging of good people and good friends, hoping to share their excitement for music and wanting, I admit, to see it for myself. I didn’t want to be lame. What was this event like? Why did students treat it like Pentecost? What drew the attention of international news outlets? It would, I thought, be an experiment, a way to apply the lessons of my own class to my own life.

The Single Story

In the course I teach, Senior Synthesis, we begin the semester by reading and then watching a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. The talk is about the “single story,” which Adichie defines as a one-dimensional, limiting viewpoint that we form about people, places, experiences, and many other human situations. It’s similar to a stereotype. She talked, for example, about how she formed single stories about literature because the only books she had as a child were British books. She didn’t know that people like her — people with her skin and hair — could exist in novels. When she came to study in the United States, her roommate thought Adichie listened to tribal music and didn’t speak English. Adichie had to inform her that English was the official language of Nigeria and that, rather than tribal music, she liked Mariah Carey. Her roommate, in other words, had carried a single story about Africa and Africans.

Adichie gives other examples, and the overall message is that single stories impair our understanding of ourselves and the world. They might contain some truth, but they are incomplete. The world is more complex than a single story. Our mission, then, is to be open to multiple stories, to confront our own ignorance and our own wish to see things through a self-fulfilling narrative.

The talk is excellent. Every year it becomes the most influential reading I assign. I assign it to invite students into a conversation about the limitations of our knowledge, about the ways it’s obscured or malformed. I assign it also to shake them up a bit, to get them wondering whether they have relied upon single stories about God, about religion, about the possibility of faith. It’s very effective, and it nicely clears a path for the rest of the course, which includes more explicit religious themes.

Did I have a single story of Coachella? Had I wrongly assumed it to be a gathering point for drifters and drugs? From stories of previous attendees, I imagined the whole rock star scene . . . clusters of small clouds drifting up from addled concertgoers concealing cigarettes and joints . . . strange fashion, few clothes, harrowing tattoos . . . and the generalized retreat from civilization that I associate with fraternity parties or Oakland Raiders fans. I assumed I’d be uncomfortable, unable to relax. I assumed the music wouldn’t be worth it.

IMG_0444

Ah, food.

I knew, however, that I might have a single story. I was willing to let it shatter.

But I also wanted to go for another reason, a reason arising from my role as an Ignatian educator. In a key document about Jesuit education, the authors write:

Similarly, personal care and concern for the individual, which is a hallmark of Jesuit education, requires that the teacher become as conversant as possible with the life experience of the learner. Since human experience, always the starting point in an Ignatian pedagogy, never occurs in a vacuum, we must know as much as we can about the actual context within which teaching and learning take place. As teachers, therefore, we need to understand the world of the student, including the ways in which family, friends, peers, youth culture and mores as well as social pressures, school life, politics, economics, religion, media, art, music, and other realities impact that world and affect the student for better or worse.

-from Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach (para. 34)

Regardless of its reputation, our students embrace Coachella. They love music. In the days leading up to it, campus is charged with fresh energy. On the Friday of Coachella’s first weekend, the weekend when many students attend, they carry the excitement that precedes summer vacation. Some kind of liberation, they feel, awaits. Something amazing stirs. It’s not a concert, it’s a pilgrimage.

So I wanted to go to understand their context, to understand what fills them with such smiling anticipation. How could I talk about the journey to faith if I couldn’t relate to what they most cared about? I had heard so much secondhand, it was time to see it directly, lawlessness and all.

I would go to Coachella.

What would I find? Stay tuned for part II.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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