Coachella 20 Years Later – The Santa Barbara Independent
When a friend was looking for a festival partner in crime for this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, I ignored my natural “absolutely not” inclination and “forward” attitude towards the festival and I accepted without hesitation. I had glimpsed the lineup released that morning and recognized perhaps a handful of the 150+ acts spread over three days. So, I was definitely not there for the music. Leona was planning to bring her teenage daughters (Harry Styles fans) and I was ready to go around to hang out with my friend. I was really curious to see what the first post-pandemic iteration of the festival looked like and how I would feel 20 years after attending my first Coachella.
Like Leona’s 15-year-old daughter Morgan and her best friend Rachel, I remember my first Coachella vividly. In 2002, I was 24 years old, living in Santa Barbara, working full time at Visit Santa Barbara and serving as a waitress/bartender at Derf’s. My waitress friends Amber and Corey joined me on this inaugural pilgrimage to Indio. The festival was so stripped back then – it was two days, four stages, accommodation-shuttle infrastructure was non-existent, and food pick-ups were very slim!
We hit the road early on a Saturday morning and settled into our odd makeshift campsite surrounding a reservoir near the polo grounds. We arrived at the festival just as the doors were opening. I remember seeing The Beta Band, G. Love & Special Sauce and Jack Johnson that first day. The biggest highlight for me was Björk performing on the main stage at Coachella under the moonlight. The temperatures had dropped and it was very windy that night—we were freezing in tank tops with no jackets, a mistake I would never make again!
After Björk, it took us a good hour to find my nondescript white Ford Taurus in the endless rows of cars. Being the newbies that we were, I didn’t think to pay attention to where we parked when it was just an empty field earlier in the day. We returned to our campsite to find our tent wrapped around a nearby tree; the loose, gravelly sand was no match for those desert winds. Oh, young inexperience! We navigated the festival much more deftly on day two, with The Strokes, Blonde Redhead, Belle and Sebastian, Zero Seven, Elbow and Oasis among the artists who brought us to life. My indie-rock heart was thrilled and I was officially addicted to Coachella.
The five consecutive festivals I attended thereafter were memorable but intertwined. The festival has grown in sophistication year after year, just like the way I approached it. Food options have improved, crowds have grown, and a fifth stop has been added. Having learned the necessary luxury of a place to sleep and cool off from the elements, my cohorts and I stayed in budget condos and hotels.
In the years that followed, I was less concerned about being there early on for the lesser-known acts in order to preserve my stamina for the headliners. Back then, the endurance test when staying offsite was waiting for traffic to ease out of the congested parking lot late at night. During this six year run I got to see Björk again, as well as Radiohead, Sigur Rós, Beastie Boys, Blur, Kinky, The White Stripes, Thievery Corporation, Death Cab for Cutie, Beck, The Flaming Lips, Air, Spoon, Arcade Fire, Tegan and Sara, Scissor Sisters, Massive Attack, Phoenix and many more.
The last year I went at my own expense was the first year the festival ran for three days, in 2007. The music snob in me felt the quality of the lineup was diluted with adding an extra day, and there was a lot less of the original indie spirit. While I enjoyed better food, there had been a lot more people. I finally realized that I would come to prefer seeing the bands I loved live alone, outside of the din of the festival environment. I was about to turn 30 and realized I was past the experience that had long been one of the highlights of my year.
I thought I was done with Coachella. But in 2012, while working for Visit California in Sacramento and doing international PR, I had the wacky idea of bringing a media group to the festival. I knew how appealing the festival had become to international audiences, and the Safari Tent option was perfect for a self-contained group. The tents were on the polo field in a private complex that included a pull-out pool, massage tent and a huge shaded lounge area. There were snacks, wifi and air conditioning, and no real need to leave the site.
Our group included a dozen journalists from the UK, Australia and Canada, many of whom remain friends today through this bonding experience. Our passes gave us access to the VIP and artist areas. Golf carts took us to the stages, where we could be the authorized fools who didn’t have to fight for a good vantage point to watch exciting acts like Radiohead, Bon Iver, Feist, Florence + the Machine and CatPower. This meant we could fit more artists into our viewing rotation, less the stress of running from scene to scene…because golf carts! It was a dream scenario – great people, idyllic atmosphere, amazingly good music.
2012 was the year of Gotye’s big hit “Somebody That I Used to Know”. One of the many highlights of this festival was meeting him casually while waiting for a golf cart behind the scenes. I’ve also felt major butterflies sway alongside actor Alexander Skarsgård on more than one occasion; these VIP viewing areas provide so much more entertainment beyond who’s on stage! The press trip was such a success that we did it again in 2013 with another media group. I enjoyed every second because it was pure pleasure and as comfortable and pampered as possible. Not having to deal with the stresses of the festival as a civilian – lines, navigating large crowds, rude porta-potties – changes everything.
Fast forward to 2022, and I knew full well what I was signing up to buy regular general admission. Thanks to a travel industry friend, we were able to get a great rate at the Margaritaville Resort in Palm Springs, which was on the shuttle route. The shuttle went smoothly and was very convenient. Depending on traffic, it took between 40 minutes and an hour to and from Indio. I was also impressed with how smoothly things went through security. So much faster than before, thanks to technology and huge volume of workers.
Beyond seeing the improved logistics, I felt like a cultural anthropologist observing the festival-goers of 2022. Their joy and dizzying happiness were palpable. I also saw a lot of bare skin. Apparently, I became quite prudish at the ripe old age of 44, and I’m completely out of touch with what’s fashionable among younger generations! Think sheer dresses with visible thongs and micro-mini skirts with dangling bottoms. Aside from the cringe-worthy fashion trends, people were excited to be back and attending their first festival.
Highlights for me middle-aged were ‘Camp Kim’, Kim Crawford’s wine-sponsored lounge which had a VIP vibe and provided an attractive shaded area to enjoy a glass of wine while listening to who was on the outdoor stage . The sets I enjoyed the most musically included Phoebe Bridgers, Orville Peck and French DJ Madeon, who had some very cool visuals. We followed the lead of teens with artists like City Girls, Girl in Red and Alec Benjamin. Although I stayed for a handful of Harry Styles songs, I left before the other day’s headliners, Billie Eilish and the Weeknd, and I have no regrets for the extra hour of sleep that these first outings gave!
I soon realized that having no enthusiasm for music was the big missing piece for me. All the effort and discomfort is worth it if you like the music – the tens of thousands of footsteps, the long hours in the desert sun, maneuvering through crowds of people, breathing in dust, eating strange foods, find water and wait in long queues for the bathroom. Although my musical tastes have certainly evolved over the years, I remain a huge music fan. However, the lineup is much more pop than during my heyday at Coachella. That said, it was clear that the artists had huge fans and people were having fun. I am no longer the demographic.
I loved feeling the sun and the desert breeze on my skin and seeing the glow of the lights illuminate the hundreds of palm trees at night and the massive art installations. Like everyone else, we posed for pictures in front of the iconic Ferris wheel and took a ride one evening. It offered a temporary pocket of peace while taking in the bird’s eye view of the massive terrains, watching the constant stream of human bodies in constant motion below.
In conclusion, even though I reaffirmed that Coachella is not for me these days, I have no regrets that I went there. I wouldn’t say it lost its soul, as some critics claim. It just transformed to remain a cultural touchstone for teens and twenties – and people with different musical tastes than mine. The most interesting result for me is that it made me feel ready to give Stagecoach a try, which is just as reflective of my changing musical tastes. I listened to lousy country music in 2002 and was just beginning to soak up American and more twangier tunes in 2012. which will always hold a special place in my heart.
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