I follow Sarah Hyland on Instagram. You may know her as Hailey on Modern Family or from this uber-famous picture (above) of her and her boyfriend Dominic Sherwood at Coachella, circa 2015. It’s been used in articles online a million times (like this one) because it’s perfect. From the interlocked, almost kissing stance of both actors to how it so absolutely captures the quintessence of millennial love. It’s only one of the many, many idyllic photographs that surface every April featuring flawless, faux retro flower-children that are the celebrities that grace the hearth of Coachella Valley. Until April 23, all you’re going to see anywhere is pictures from this beautiful festival. That’s fine by me; the pictures are, indeed, quite good. The “Coachella look” celebrities like Sophie Turner and Nicole Scherzinger are sporting are pretty spot on. Except that this exorbitant, bindi-decorated, fringe-infested affair is a far cry from the events that gave birth to the very idea of the festival.
It was 1993 and Pearl Jam was supposed to perform in Los Angeles. But an untimely dispute with Ticketmaster’s service charges on ticket purchases led them to eventually host an independent show at the Empire Polo Club. About 25,000 fans showed up and marked the land that would in the following years host the very first edition of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. Pearl Jam would also enter an extended feud with Ticketmaster for some time to come. “Our band, which is determined to keep ticket prices low, will always be in conflict with Ticketmaster,” Stone Gossard asserted over 20 years ago. When the first edition of Coachella debuted millennials were beyond ready for this counterculture gathering that would feature alternative acts that weren’t chart-toppers but had an ardent fanbase nonetheless. The likes of Beck and Rage Against the Machine would headline an initial edition of the festival. Coachella’s debut edition coincided with Woodstock’s final edition in ’99. Such a contrast it was to the veteran rock n roll celebration. Woodstock had been reduced to riots and rape and mud and a literal shitstorm while Coachella came with a promise of summer and grass and free water. My generation finally had something to rival the mighty festival of love and peace.
So did we do it, then? Did we build our empire of good music and good vibes on the dead carcass of Woodstock successfully? Did we attain the moksha that was handed out like cheap molly at Woodstock ’69? As you may already know, we didn’t. Yes, Coachella is massive and successful and nowhere close to being the trainwreck that Woodstock later became. But the very ethos of Woodstock ’69 lied in the freedom of expression and art, the ephemeral but powerful peace that was found in the music and for the sake of music. There was style, yes. But there was no premeditated artifice or selling of pneumas to afford attendance or prolific filigree. There was just music.
The days of Woodstock are gone, burned away in the fires at the festival in 1999. And I know that the accounts of the festival will be enhanced by nostalgia and memory. But the truth is, we have traded our band t-shirts for crop tops and cultural appropriation. Coachella isn’t Woodstock. It was never meant to be, I suppose. One crashed and burned down with its idea of love and peace, while the other grew and grew and grew into an elaborate red carpet littered with flower crowns and fanny packs, becoming the very thing it rebelled against. One was a pivotal moment in musical history, while the other is an overpriced concert that celebrates privilege. Coachella may not be today’s Woodstock, but it’s what we’re left with. If you’d rather wear comfortable shoes to a music festival, sit in the grass munching on fast food, and listen to music for the sake of music, then I’d suggest you save your money for smaller, albeit more fulfilling musical experiences.