This weekend, along with tens of thousands of students, music lovers and poppers of Molly, I'll get in the car and drive two hours east from L.A. into the desert. My destination: the annual clusterfuck and celebration of fun, pure and simple, known as Coachella.
Since I didn't pay hundreds of dollars for a wristband, I plan to spend the weekend at the different house parties and hotel environments around Palm Springs where DJs will play poolside throughout the weekend. To me, this seems a bit like how many experience Austin during SXSW, avoiding the convention center and official showcases, and opting for the peripheral gatherings instead. Both events activate the host city's play-spaces to their full potential by infusing them with extra bodies, too much liquor and music. But while SXSW is an activity that many in the media and other creative industries regard as a professional Spring Break—under the guise of light networking—when Coachella comes around every April, it's a rite of spring for journalists to fly across the country just to throw shade at the festival's scorched polo grounds.
The crowd is "a deluge of douchebags, trust-fund babies and payment plan-enticed artistes," we're told by The Daily Beast. Concertgoers aren't real music fans; they're attention-starved. And in many cases, they're literally starved after months of juicing, CrossFitting and shopping just to look cute in selfies.
But it turns out they failed at that, too. Coachella style is "wacky, barely-there duds," a pastiche of dated irony, cultural appropriation and slutty exhibitionism. Celebrities's carefree, bohemian looks have actually been "styled to the nines," according to Harper's Bazaar stylist Anita Patrickson. Some girl on Glee was supposedly paid $20,000 to show up in Lacoste, of all brands.
This year, the media has offered click-bait correctives, like Complex's guide to not looking like a douche. For all the basic bitches, the Cut offered a well-timed self-help post, and VICE pitched in with a Coachella guide tailored to their needs. The L.A. Times' preemptive advice includes, "Coachella's great if you're rich, tan and beautiful, but those who fall outside that demographic should know that it's not all rose gardens, $15 artisan cocktails and Baco Mercat wraps."
When I revealed to some of the pasty folks "outside that demographic" that I was going—particularly, my friends in New York—they scorned me as well (or replied with "lol" over G-chat). It's a bit like revealing you're on the Paleo Diet: "You're one of them?"
And who are they? (Or do I say, "we"?) Apparently, whoever you want to hate: ravers and artists ("think: Dazed and Confused on MDMA" suggested The Daily Beast's Marlow Stern); that SoCal everyman, the bro; or the one-percenter college student, partying on daddy's money. The New York Times' ominous take fuses the last two phenotypes: "He wears black sunglasses, sleeveless shirt or none at all, backward baseball cap or headband, a water-pack on his back. He is a flat, hardy example of power and privilege. He seems to have no history. If style is something specific to a time or place that pleases the eye and the mind, he has no style. His time is running out."
Really, he's the void, a blank slate to project upon whatever it is you dislike about privileged, mainstream culture on display (however ambiguously defined). The consumerism, first and foremost. The conformist attempts at nonconformity. The addiction to technology. The lack of self-awareness. The substance abuse. (Regardless of whether or not anyone is actually guilty of any of those things, they just look like they are.)
Coachella bashing has less to do with reporting on the fans and mainstream youth culture than defining the onlooker himself—and his readers, by extension—as alternative to it. It reinforces the positioning of the media as its own detached subculture, made elite through intellectual labor and by resisting pleasures of the masses. Turning over capital in exchange for a weekend dedicated to pushing the body is a "ghastly goulash of capitalism and vacuousness"—as opposed to just, "having a good time." If you engage in it, you're part of the pop machine.
Taking Coachella-goers to task for buying into such excess, The Beast's Stern gives a breakdown of their budget: An $825 round-trip flight to Palm Springs (next time fly to LAX, brah), a $500 hotel stay or a four-person tent with VIP badges for $4,700. "It's not even a unique event anymore since the exact same fest lineup plays over both weekends," the Daily Beast reminds. Sure, that ruins the "authenticity" of the moment, or something. Another perspective is that it's "double the fun," held by those I know in L.A. who are going for both weekends.
What seems odd about these kinds of articles is the way journalists are unable to take seriously other people's good times: The critic can't give in to the crowd, or she loses her edge. But this means the reporter in charge of recording the experience is not actually having it. (After all, missing from the budget is the most important line item—drugs, which suggests Stern doesn't know the prices in that marketplace.) So what we're left with is half-glimpses of what really went down, a perpetually detached and distorted sense of today's zeitgeist.
For a recent New Yorker piece, writer Nick Paumgarten reported on the history of electronic music in Berlin, culminating with a visit to what's considered to be the world's best nightclub, Berghain, home to some of the best DJs and drugs in Europe. His report could be summarized as follows: Got to the club. Didn't get high. Didn't have sex. Went home. And that will forever be the definitive "Berghain piece," even though the dynamics of the bathroom drug bazaar aren't explored and no bodily transcendence of any kind takes place. Berghain is boring, and Coachella is "too much." And the experience recorded is something that almost no one else there actually lived.
Indeed, there are publications that are closer to their subjects. VICE, of course, put outs a view from the bottom, or from within. Even still, their self-reflection is more like "Fear and Self-Loathing" than Fear and Loathing. Its Basic Bitch guide reads, "Basic bitches love music, but they love music festivals even more because DRUNK! SUN! INSTAGRAM! DANCING!" (Which is the exuberant attitude I'm advocating, more or less.) When not skewering its subjects, its seedy reports on "that time I did ketamine for breakfast" offer little to the conversation, while giving cultural commentators who don't want to be seen as "so Vice" a clear target to steer away from.
The lack of honest reporting on fun, mass experience seems lost in outdated discourse about authenticity. The question, "How can you enjoy Coachella when it's something so fake?," seems to guide the media's coverage. But even Woodstock, the original festival experience, was a corporate one. As New Yorker critic Ellen Willis wrote in her 1969 coverage, it was spun by publicists as an utopian achievement of the youth counterculture to conceal the reality of its logistical breakdowns and lack of proper plumbing. Just like at Coachella, where reporters describe the crowd's ADHD attitude toward performers as if it's the decay of civilization, Willis noted that at Woodstock the music "was not the focal point of the festival but, rather, a pleasant background to the mass presence of the hip community."
As commentator, Willis was unique in her ability to navigate the space between skeptic and participant: "[T]he most exhilarating intoxicants were the warmth and fellow-feeling that allowed us to abandon our chronic defenses against other people," she wrote. That abandonment of distance and separation from physical fun that's now a prerequisite of belonging to today's prudish media subculture did not de-legitimize Willis's report; it enhanced it.
Connecting with the masses rather than reinforcing an individualistic status comes close to the concept of #normcore as originally defined by trend-forecasting group K-HOLE. "You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup," they wrote in their report Youth Mode [PDF]. "Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness."
Unsurprisingly, this idea was an affront to the way most basic bitches in the media position themselves as outsiders to the mainstream, and publications turned the concept viral with a predictable mix of what-are-these-crazy-art-kids-up-to-now scoffing, reducing #normcore to an associated fashion trend, and dismissing it as next-wave hipsterism.
While I'll be serving #normcore looks (board shorts and sandals) in the desert this weekend, luckily for you, you'll be spared my first-person account of the Coachella experience. Like I said, I don't have tickets. (But if anyone wants to hook me up, I'd love to see Lana's 4/20 show.) Instead, I'll probably be stoned poolside somewhere, still sweating off layers of New England pretensions four years after moving to Southern California. Maybe next year I'll finally be ready to embrace the crowd.
The High Road is a bi-weekly exploration of America's rapidly changing relationship with weed.
Zak Stone is a Playboy contributing editor based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared on Next City, Fast Company and NY Mag's The Cut. Follow him on Twitter @_zs.
Photo by Alamy