After waking up in the back of my car, taking a dip in the pool, and consuming a breakfast of Snickers and Gatorade, I began my third day of Coachella at a party at the Ace Hotel Palm Springs. Turns out, there are thousands of people who come from all over Southern California during the weeks of Coachella just to attend parties like this one. (My festival wristband planted me firmly in the minority of party attendees, including The Roots’ Questlove, who deejayed the event.) Outside, in turquoise pools full of creatively attired partiers, I ate a burger and a slice of watermelon in a corner by myself.
Truthfully, my decision to walk around all day with my backpack and camera like some kind of giant white Dora the Explorer may have made me a bit unapproachable, but whatever — it was a decent burger.
From there I walked to another hotel, where some misinformation and crummy directions landed me on a shuttle with an Australian guy. Little known fact: There are also a lot of Australians at Coachella, who arrive via travel packages (priced at $3,000-$5,000) with all transpiration and lodging provided. Coachella package deals like this are common internationally, with other shuttle riders hailing from northern European countries like Sweden, Germany, and the UK. Departing the shuttle, I noticed some girls applying one of the shining temporary tattoos I had seen around the festival, which made me wonder — Can MDMA transmit through the skin?
Next, a long walk though gates and gates and gates, where I showed credentials and scanned in like I was headed through customs. There’s a frisk, but it’s light. They look in your bag, but not the bags in your bag. Then they tell you to have a great time.
Unfortunately, my venture to the Ace party cost me a chance to see Chance the Rapper, a personal favorite who happened to bring the child-king Justin Beiber onstage with him.
Thankfully, I got off of my anonymous hotel shuttle in time to catch a glorious set from Blood Orange, wherein the UK’s Dev Hynes delivered an exquisite and intimate set that still feels criminally under-attended in hindsight. Truthfully, the lingering fear of the booming baselines never felt as present as it did while I walked from the Outdoor Stage to the press tent, past one of the electronic wind tunnels, where Flosstradamus bludgeoned away with hit track “Rollup”, producing tremors reminiscent of the T-Rex’s footsteps in Jurrasic Park.
Simultaneously, dance music-meets-power-balladeer Calvin Harris drew one of the weekend’s largest crowds (certainly behind Outkast, and probably behind Kid Cudi). It’s hard to imagine another artist better equipped to whip tens of thousands of people into euphoric frenzy, even without a Superbowl halftime show’s worth of cameos (a la Girl Talk’s Friday night set). This, to me, means it’s probably safe to assume Mr. Harris will be joined by Ellie Goulding, or even Rhianna come weekend two — but that’s just speculation.
A day prior, Kid Cudi’s set was similarly well attended and received, though a quick search of Twitter would reveal widespread contempt for Cudi’s wardrobe choices. Coachella attendees’ devotion to Cudi is nothing if not impressive, and their reception of “Pursuit of Happiness” and “Day n’ Night” seemed to win Cudi over artist after a somewhat lethargic opening.
The experience of watching Kid Cudi on the Mainstage at Coachella, in the light of recent headlines and rumors, felt like a great example of the dynamic relationship between an artist and an audience, even when that audience numbers in the tens of thousands. By the closing performance of “Mr. Rager,” Cudi’s enthusiasm was obvious — a pleasant surprise following his early promise to finish quickly so everyone should see MGMT. A negative example of this phenomena? Let’s just say the word wasn’t great about Surfer Blood’s Sunday afternoon set.
Neutral Milk Hotel followed Blood Orange on the Outdoor Stage on Sunday, opening with a full orchestra and a lot of flannel. No press photos were permitted during their set, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with frontman Jeff Mangum. I tried to watch Neutral Milk Hotel’s set, because I honestly can appreciate the significance of their reemergence, but trying to focus on the songs that made me introspective in high school proved too daunting with Calvin Harris’s “Feeling So Close” thumping in the background. (This also ultimately prevented me from partaking in Daughter, another personal favorite.)
It was early evening by the time I had sorted out all the wristbands/stickers necessary for the remainder of the day’s events, so I beelined it to the Outdoor Stage to take in the spectacle that is Lana Del Rey.
Del Rey’s cultural significance feels difficult to gauge, save for the masses of frenzied teen girls who spent Sunday evening pressed against barricades with tears flowing down their faces, flowers and gifts in hand. Knowing full well that she (probably) dated Axl Rose, its hard to shrug the feeling that Del Rey’s semi-grotesque allure speaks perfectly for a generation that spends countless hours managing their online identities. From the minute Del Rey walked onstage (to a chorus of “Lana” chants that had persisted for the 15-ish minutes prior), she owned it. She opened with “Cola.” She floated around the stage and, eventually, into the crowd like some sort of royal (sorry, Lorde). “She’s like Marilyn Monroe,” said one security guard to me while we exited the photo pit. It’s a lofty comparison, but one that would probably make Del Rey either blush or weep.
The crowd was thick enough at Del Rey’s set that a shady entrance to the backstage realms seemed like my only option if I was going to make it to the Main Stage for Beck. Rushing hurriedly from stage to stage became a theme for the weekend, wherein flashing my iPhone flashlight and achieving a flow-like state proved to be the most useful strategy in navigating through the thousands of human beings. “Your pupils are so big!” said one friend, who I met after scurrying across the polo fields in order to catch a glimpse of Jay-Z the day prior. “You look totally zoned out.” I checked my pulse and noticed it was racing, and squeezed my eyes together, trying to remember how to blink. Maybe next year I won’t drink so much complimentary RedBull.
The effortlessness with which Beck brilliantly executes his repertoire makes his live shows incredible experiences, as those who were treated to one of his “warm-up” shows at the Arlington Theatre last week will attest. Simply put, if you see Beck perform you will know a lot of the songs, even if you haven’t listened to Morning Phase yet. Within three songs, Beck’s Sunday night set morphed from rock show to white people dance party, and then again to a sing-along, all while the man himself scampered and danced his way around the stage like a delightful shaggy-haired marionette. Anyone in doubt of Beck’s capacity for musical dominance should watch a video of Sunday night’s performance, which whipped a weary and semi-burnt-out crowd into a renewed frenzy thanks to songs like “E-Pro” and “Gamma Ray.”
Disclosure would follow Beck on the festival’s Outdoor Stage, drawing a gigantic crowd because seemingly everyone has heard of, and now loves Disclosure. Disclosure’s more refined brand of European dance music stands, seemingly, in stark contrast to the Four Loko breakdowns of other dance duos like Flosstradamus and Adventure Club. There’s nothing so telling of the youths’ insatiable appetite for dance music than the fact that thousands turned out to see brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence stand behind keyboards. Disclosure wasted no time in delivering the goods, either, opening their set with ”When A Fire Starts to Burn,” a song recognized by music fans everywhere as “that Disclosure song”. Cameos from Sam Smith and Mary J Blige were, frankly, some of the festival’s coolest, particularly Blige’s, who seems to be in total control of her emergent status as a dance-pop paragon — even without showcasing her infamous abs.
After another quasi-gauntlet run to the Main Stage for Arcade Fire, a conversation with a security guard about the weekend would shed some light on what life is like for the hundreds of people whose chief job is to maintain some semblance of order in the world. He, along with a large number of his gigantic, muscle-bound friends from the Inland Empire, were brought out to for the event, with lodging provided as an added incentive. When asked what his favorite performances were over the span of the past three days, we discussed Chance the Rapper (still a sore subject) and The Pixies, an answer telling of the cultural disco use and stream-crossing that happens at Coachella. Also, he explained that the “toughest part of the job” is staying on top of the various wristbands and access cards. “How many are there?,” I asked. Two separate keys were produced from his pocket, showing the different types of passes that granted access to the VIP area, depending on the artist. And at certain times, a bracelet that would be allowed in one area wouldn’t be allowed later on. The Coachella bracelet game would not relent.
Unfortunately, my rush to shoot Arcade Fire would prevent me from taking in up-and-coming R&B Singer Jhené Aiko, and subsequent Childish Gambino/Drake cameos (a gigantic bummer, since I could have rapped along with every verse of “From Time”). But, even now, I don’t regret the decision.
Arcade Fire more than fulfilled their duties as festival closers, delivering a grand finale performance that would have proved outstanding even without the stirring production, the giant bobble-head of super-fan David Bowie, and a visit from Blondie’s Debbie Harry for a cover of “Heart of Glass.”
Walking through crowds of smiling, exhausted concert goers, frontman Win Butler’s lambasting of the festival’s overwrought bracelet Game of Thrones felt like some sort of justice, as did his shout-out “to all the bands that play instruments.” Their subsequent performance of “The Suburbs” felt like poetry in a moment now tattooed in my memory, as I left the photo pit with a handshake and respectful nod from the security guard who had given me issues previously, and proceeded to share a cigarette with an anonymous dark haired Coachella siren before wandering through sea of empty water bottles and RedBull cans.
“Alright guys, we’re gonna give you every ounce of what we’ve got if you give it back to us,” said Butler. “I just want to say that there’s a lot of fake VIP room bullshit happening at this festival. Sometimes people dream of being there, but it sucks in there so don’t worry about it.”
With that, leaving the polo fields felt like a journey out of some sort of whacked-out Wonderland. A VIP wristband doesn’t grant it’s wearer much, but it did grant passage into the VIP beer garden, where I’d see a handful of celebs riding bikes, drinking, and pretending to like Disclosure, all while I ate an incredible cheese pizza from Los Alamos’ own Full of Life Flatbread, who had brought their marvelous portable oven to better serve the festivals cultural illuminati. Most importantly, though — my stupid, semi-useless green VIP badge would grant me an exit that didn’t resemble a Black Friday mob scene.
Without a ride or a car, following an hour-and-a-half of walking down dirt roads, I’d hail a cab and get sort-of lost on the way to a hotel room I booked minutes prior. But when I finally made it to my room, I’d immediately sit outside and put on my headphones and turn on “The Suburbs,” because before anything else — the wristbands, the diet of CLIF Bars and mango popsicles, the swimming pool baths and dust-filled tear ducts — Coachella is supposed to be about the music. Over the course of the weekend it was obvious that some, perhaps even a majority, of festival attendees might feel differently about that. They might site the bikini tops and abundance of substances/lack of responsibility as the primary impetus for their investment in a Coachella ticket. This isn’t to say that these aspects are meaningless — constant social interaction, no cell service, and loads of free time makes a potent combo for self-discovery. But those are just scene-setters — mental and emotional eye dilation, if you will. The real transformation that happens at Coachella — the memories, the growth, the ecstasy — is fostered by the artists and the audiences. It’s the people, rather than the place itself.
All of this means, of course, that my assumptions about Coachella were wrong, but that’s okay, because I’ve never been more happy about being wrong in my life.