Penina Su visits the American desert for a music festival staple.

Illustration by Emily Woods.
Illustration by Emily Woods.
Illustration by Emily Woods.

“You’re going to Coachella? You’re going to love it. It’s like the epitome of Californian hippiness,” a friend from Sacramento told me a few days before boarding my cross-country flight. I travelled from Washington D.C., where I am on exchange for a semester, to Los Angeles to attend the second weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Drawn in by the line-up, which included Outkast, Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel, I made the financially foolish decision to go. A two-weekend, three-day music festival located in the Colorado Desert a few hours out of Los Angeles, Coachella is one of the largest music festivals in the United States, with 184 acts and 225,000 attendees per weekend.

When Coachella first started in 1999, the festival was just a couple of stages and a dance tent. Tickets were $65. A few dusty stands sold hot dogs and Cokes. Now, tickets start at $375. Food and drink options this year include artisan popsicles, craft beers, and salted caramel popcorn. If the scorching 30-degree heat was bringing you down, you could pop into an air-conditioned Sephora tent and purchase cosmetics. The few phone charging stations were perpetually packed; god forbid people lost their opportunity to Instagram the (beautiful) desert sunset.

Whilst watching Blood Orange, I overheard someone drawl, “duuuuude, this is totally like Woodstock,” referring to one of the pivotal countercultural moments of the 1960s. But one has to wonder whether Joan Baez would have checked into Woodstock on Facebook, or if Jimi Hendrix would have been okay with the option of paying $6500 to rent a “furnished shakir style tent with air conditioning, private restrooms & showers etc.,” for the weekend.

The commoditisation of rebellion is nothing new, nor is any attempt to approximate the real thing. But at Coachella, that manufactured neo-bohemian atmosphere manifests in wearing religious symbols like bindis, regardless of how offensive and insensitive it is to do so. According to festival-goers, counterculture in the twenty-first century has a new face, and it wears a Native American headdress.

Nonetheless, I had an incredible time at Coachella. I met fascinating people at the campground, including people who had gone on multiple tours to Afghanistan. I saw a renewed Outkast, who delivered a tight and energetic set that was apparently better than their performance on the first weekend. I watched the last act of the festival, Arcade Fire, climb down from the stage and finish their set amongst the audience with megaphones.

It was stiflingly hot, dusty and dirty, but I had the time of my life.