Courtesy of the New York Times

Crowds at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival

April 28, 2016

SWAN | Woodstock Idealism in Coachella

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Last semester, I wrote an essay about American consumer culture as it arose from 1960s New Left activism. It began like this:

In the summer of 1999, Mark Puma, 28, a native of upstate New York, would be able to experience the cultural phenomenon that had occurred three decades prior and only a few short years before his birth. “Woodstock ’99,” as it was referred to, was expected to be a close emulation of “Woodstock ’69,” perhaps the only discrepancy being a different location – Rome, New York, as opposed to Bethel, New York. On the surface, Woodstock ’99′ really did appear to match the characteristics of its predecessor. A mix of contemporary rock music was being played for a large body of nude and enthusiastic fans, all synthesizing under the influence of marijuana and psychedelic substances. However, as Puma sprawled on the grass in the oppressive summer heat, he was troubled to learn that, before the festival finished, he had already spent $150 on food and drinks. At a closer examination of the festival, dozens of ATM machines adorned the masses of expensive concession stands, all occupied by long, stretching lines of concert-goers. Suddenly, at the finale of the last act, the festival erupted in flames as thousands of indignant fans rioted, many looting the concession stands and ATMs due to the exorbitantly priced food and souvenirs. Despite the riots, the City of Rome reported a massive profitable increase in sales tax for 1999 because of the summer festival. Was this really an embrace of the peaceful and free ideals of the original Woodstock, its organizers, and attendees?

The two most notable attempts to recreate Woodstock (in 1994 and 1999) deviated from the original in their high degree of commercialization, with Woodstock ’99 erupting in violence and fire over high prices. My original intent in writing this column was to criticize the Coachella Music and Art Festival for being no different than the failed Woodstock ’99. Indeed, I believed the festival to be a perfect example of counterculture commodified; a previously humble, Grunge-rooted jubilee whose organizers chose revenue over economic accessibility and genuine idealism once Coachella gained enough popularity. Meanwhile, during April, individuals celebrated the lives of Prince, Shakespeare and the Ramones, all of whom avoided the mainstream and thus made unique impacts on the world of art in the various ways they expressed themselves. For Shakespeare, it was the liberalization of standard blank verse and figurative speech. With the Ramones, it was perhaps the delineating of punk music as its own genre. Besides creating highly unique popular rock music, Prince blurred the boundaries between race, gender and sexuality in creative endeavors, approaching as close to the peak of musical nirvana as is earthly possible. Yet, an article lambasting Coachella for being vain and unoriginal would, surely, be vain and unoriginal.

Carrie Battan recently wrote an article about Coachella culture in The New Yorker, stating that its attendees desire “the idealism of Woodstock” by merely acting as “Coachella” as possible. Nevertheless, she concludes that “at a time when we are being encouraged to ascribe world-changing ambitions to each and every mundane thing we do, Coachella’s desires are hearteningly pure, simplistic, and self-contained…” Perhaps this is a more refined critique, as it is far too easy to confound Coachella and similar festivals to meaningless, hyperbolic attempts to recreate 1969 Woodstock. The profound, symbolic nature of the original festival lies in its spontaneity and unexpected grandeur, the very Abbie Hoffman-esque tumult that inspired its generation of attendees.

What, then, are the precise values of Coachella’s attendees? Battan asserts that fashion is indeed one primary concern of fans. A number of sites and outlets are devoted to dictating Coachella style, with H&M even releasing its own garment line for the festival. Once again, however, it would mischaracterize Coachella and its attendees by limiting them to a void of flower-crowns and tie-dye. The artistic inventions present at Coachella possess their own degree of creative merit. For example, the 2016 festival witnessed a partial N.W.A. reunion and appearances by artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Zack de la Rocha. There were unique and practical art installations, like Phillip K. Smith III’s “Portals.” Coachella is as strongly focused on music and arts as was Woodstock, albeit with different forms and genres. Some guests wielded Bernie Sanders sculptures and banners. This type of activism directly embraces the political values of 1960s youth — indeed, Sanders himself was a student activist during the tumultuous decade. Furthermore, and perhaps most pertinently, Coachella-goers seek an exclusively youthful pleasure from the festival they attend, not unlike those teenagers who romped around the mud-pits of Woodstock
Coachella may be praised for offering a relatively peaceful experience for its guests, and its fans truly desire the blissful amusement gained form musical and artistic appreciation. From this perspective it is perhaps closer to Woodstock than either of the two ’90s emulations. For many years, however, it has only achieved this tranquility by out-pricing potential guests at the initial ticket price, as one general admission ticket to the festival can cost hundreds of dollars. One might argue that Coachella organizers need such high prices to attract major artists. I’d like to think that, as Coachella has grown in popularity, it has likewise developed its own honest and genuine idealism, and so a reduction or absence in profit will not discourage artists and organizers when a larger number of fans can enjoy Coachella. Woodstock ’69 was an abrupt, divine and entirely unique occurrence, but it can not be denied that Coachella permits us to experience at least a fraction of that original glory.

Nick Swan is a freshman in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected].  Swan’s Song appears alternate Fridays this semester.