Coachella and Me: Part II, Life on the inside

April 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

This is the second post on my recent weekend at Coachella Fest. For part one, see here.

My first impression, when we arrived on Friday, was of Halloween. People came in every style, the only rule apparently being not to wear too much. Tank tops, t-shirts, polo shirts, ripped shorts, plaid shorts, jean shorts, spandex, mandex, bathing suits, lingerie (seriously), jeans, flip-flops, sandals, Vans, tennis shoes, no shoes . . . long hair, short hair, unwashed hair, something-is-growing-in-it hair  . . . girls with flowers in their hair (innocent and sweet little arrangements, like Jenny wears in “Forrest Gump”), men donning Native American war bonnets . . . rings through noses, rings through ears, rings through belly buttons . . . tattoos, all over.

Shortly after entering the main gate, I saw one shirt that said, “Sex, Drugs, and Rap” and another that proclaimed, “I lost my virginity in the Sahara tent” (the Sahara tent is one of the rave tents at the concert).

Imagine, in other words, a reality show blending an American mall, a red light district, a costume store and “Kim and Chloe Take Miami,”  and you have something of the sartorial vibe. On Friday I wore a plain t-shirt and jeans and felt very normal and also very unjudged. In the variety and strangeness of style, in the recognition that everything goes, one notices a paradox: though gawking is natural, so is acceptance. Knowing that everything was tolerated made me pleasantly self-forgetful. It didn’t matter what I wore.

Reaching the concert grounds, in front of the stages, it seemed we had entered a neutral space, a kind of demilitarized zone where inhabitants, refugees from civilization, would be left alone so long as they didn’t get out of hand. Cops and concert workers were stationed here and there, but for the most part there was an obvious absence of authority. People milled and sauntered about with ease; they sat down wherever, slept wherever, danced wherever, did drugs wherever. A second paradox: people were not allowed to bring alcohol outside of the beer gardens, but if they wanted to smoke a joint, they could light up pretty much at will, so long as they found a space of darkness or a few people to give cover.

Enter at your own risk.

Enter at your own risk.

Over the course of the weekend, I don’t remember how many bands we saw, or all their names. For me, most of the music was forgettable, and my chief joy came from having fun with great people. My happiness was knowing they were happy, knowing that they were part of a revelry they had long looked forward to. Since I wasn’t too focused on the music, I had time to contemplate.

I realized that to really enjoy Coachella, to make the $350 worth it, you have to love, love music. But not just music. Loving music alone will not power you through the clamor and the frenzy and the long nights. You have to love the clamor and the frenzy and the long nights themselves. You have to love the smoke rising from the food vendors and the smoke rising from those smoking weed. You have to love the sense of stripping away that beckons at every corner. You have to enjoy everything that comprises the music “scene,” all its brilliance, all its strangeness, all its pathos, all its blurry combinations of the best and worst of humanity. You have to love that guy who falls to the grass, looking frighteningly cadaverous, only to be yanked to his feet seconds later, revived by friends who will not — yet — let the intoxicants win. You have to love that guitarist, the one on the right side of the stage, isolated and addled, who is not so much playing his guitar as attacking it, strangling it, demanding that it surrender the cry of sound which, for him and the assembled, promises eternity. You have to love the thrill of waiting; waiting among throngs, waiting with your arms and neck warming with sweat, waiting with your knees feeling brittle from long standing, waiting for the first sign of performance . . . perhaps a flicker of the lights, a movement behind the stage . . . You have to love not just particular bands, but bandness itself, song itself, the very idea of humans coming together to respond to that ancient, mysterious, and elusive god that unites Beethoven and the Beatles, Chopin and Jimmy Hendrix: the numen that captures our heartache, confirms our rage, utters our sadness, and magnifies our joy.

If I speak in religious terms, that’s because, for a great many people, Coachella is nothing short of a religious experience. One misinterprets Coachella to think of it only as a modern project, as the result of superficial iconoclasm or “kids these days.” Although this triduum of libertinism does occasionally feel like a fraternity party, the behaviors and attitudes at Coachella are more significant than mere undergraduate stupidity. Surveying the arms thrusting into the air, the convulsing of torsos, the ingesting of mind-altering substances, I saw a quintessentially human longing to be transported, to be elevated into something beyond, into something unclassifiable. I saw a hint of that desire that all of us feel from time to time, and which, theologically, points to something both beautiful and dark: that desire to live without constraint, to be unlimited in the pursuit of satisfaction.

But if Utopia charges me $9 for a warm beer, that’s not my version of paradise. Moreover, if there is anything particularly modern about Coachella it was its disorderedness. My Catholic and classically trained mind kept looking for meaning, for purpose, some kind of unifying philosophical expression in the sights and sounds. My mind searched for an overall something within the chaos. But I was not going to find it.

If we’re really going to get deep, Coachella Fest perfectly reflected the post-modern attack on any enduring themes, motifs, or frameworks of meaning. Weird contraptions sat on the concert grounds, one of which looked like the head of a bug and served, apparently, as a ride. An enormous inflatable snail crawled across the grass for reasons that no one seemed to know. One creative use of lights and images made it look like people were walking through a makeshift apartment. And one performance art piece called “The Coachella Power Station” was described by Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times this way: “Characters wearing industrial white jumpsuits and giant hippopotamus heads danced inside a small building beneath a pair of smoking stacks, pretending to work the station’s controls.”

I don't know either.

I don’t know either.

Like all post-modern efforts, the message Coachella Fest conveys is deconstructive of social order. The message is that there are no unchanging values or belief systems to which art or culture must give expression. There is no truth, or no truth that is not whatever you want it to be. Be whomever, or whatever, you want. Find meaning in things, or don’t. By Sunday night, I detected the thread that connected my observations: absent from everything I saw was purpose, some kind of ultimate and uplifting and meaningful purpose that could ennoble those walking the grounds. It was, instead, the opposite, a Woody Allen movie without the funny lines. Most of what I saw reflected a people conflicted, uncertain, fearful, and divided. If culture is the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Coachella Fest answered, “I have no clue.”

I came to Coachella with an open mind. I wanted to be converted. I wanted to be able to relate to my students, to be able to say, “I get it,” to not be a curmudgeon. But I found that I could not. Coachella Fest is an unhealthy environment, filled with toxic sights and sounds, both literal and metaphorical. It licenses behaviors that the overwhelming majority of civilized and virtuous people reject as unworthy of the human being. Modesty, purity, self-respect, temperance, hard work, respect for law: at Coachella, it all comes under powers of dissolution. Clothing options objectified; people did drugs casually and without consequence; some of the musical acts shouted obscenities and made light of people getting high; crowds acted like docile pets (one performer told the entire crowd to take off their shirts and throw them into the air, and a few seconds later, hundreds did).

As a teacher, I was appalled, and as (perhaps) a future parent, I was saddened. One can enjoy good music and not encounter these corrosive, demeaning side effects.

This is not to say it was all unenjoyable. Some of the bands — Vampire Weekend, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Of Monsters and Men — were very good. I enjoyed watching firsthand an event that energizes my community and gains worldwide fame. The coffee was good. I enjoyed the bike rides to the concert and the walks back home, chatting and laughing with wonderful people, the kind of people who give me hope that the worst elements of Coachella Fest will be, in the end, thoroughly repudiated.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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