It all started in 1969.
Thousands upon thousands, and then a few thousand more, journeyed to the town of Bethel, N.Y., sitting through hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic, all for the love of music.
Billed simply as “Three Days of Peace & Music,” the Woodstock Art and Music Festival defined the 1960s counterculture, allowing for both freedom of expression and freedom from authority.
Woodstock was the godfather of the music festival, with attendees projecting their idea of how a Vietnam-focused world should be — not filled with lies and war, but flooded in peace and devoid of violence. A micro-nation where the minds were open, the people were countless, the drugs were constant and the love was free.
In fact, Woodstock’s three-day-long music, substance and sex binge paved the way for modern events which include everything from Lollapalooza to Bonnaroo, Bummershoot, and most recently, Coachella.
Three months after the disastrous Woodstock ’99 — an attempt to recreate the original event on its 30th anniversary — ended in violence, fires and riots due to unhealthy environmental conditions, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival kicked off on Oct. 9 and 10.
This weekend marked the 10th annual Coachella festival, with acts that included Paul McCartney, the Cure, Atmosphere and M.I.A. — lightyears away from Woodstock’s Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
And while the essence of the Woodstock formula was still present at Coachella, many things have changed since that historic weekend in 1969. The peace that ran rampant throughout the Woodstock lifeline was traded here for conveniently-placed ATM machines. Attendees that once sought solace from a Vietnam-drenched reality were instead replaced with twentysomethings desperately searching for a way to charge their phones. And if the $6 pizza slices were any indication, it’s doubtful that even the love was free.
It’s the simplicity that’s gone missing. These festivals represent more than just a three-day pass to a seemingly endless stream of live performances. What was once a celebration of music and minimalism is now simply a fashion show reminiscent of Halloween and a David Bowie house party gone terribly wrong.
Hipsters and wannabe hippies whipped out their feathered headbands and glittered fanny packs, stopping at nothing to stand out in a crowd of thousands. The only problem was that in the process of trying to look original, everyone looked exactly the same: confused, clichéd, and hoping to get even a taste of the simplicity that ran rampant nearly 40 years ago.
While tickets for Woodstock once cost $24 at the door, a single day at Coachella cost $99 alone, resulting in a whopping $300 for all three days. Counterculture chic, this is not.
With ticket prices like that, how could Coachella be anything but a pretentious indiefest? Woodstock’s essence was being comfortable in what it was — whatever that was. It was beautiful without being commercial, important without knowing, and original without trying.
It seems as if the music festival provides an accurate depiction of our current generation: While the love of music still prevails, this love has turned slightly sour and materialistic.
There were, however, kernels of something so much wiser within certain moments of musical nirvana. Each night’s headliners brought with them an entirely different generational feel. Paul McCartney’s generous helping of Beatles classics helped make the heat-drenched night feel like the 1960s. The Killers’ pop-operatic stage show was reminiscent of the Bowie-influenced glam rock of the 1970s. And the final night was 1980 incarnate, when the Cure reminded us that they’re still the Cure.
But there was no meaning to any of the weekend’s seemingly epic events. Every once in a while, an artist would make the obligatory “praise Obama” plug, lamenting the end of any possible Bush-bashing lyricism, followed often by a single female asserting her independence in a male-dominated media world. Note to all future faux-feminist performers: threatening to “punch a man’s balls off” is neither comical nor anatomically correct. But those moments were few and far between.
Coachella is an experience, and in essence can’t be anything more than what it is. Perhaps trying to emulate Woodstock is itself a fool’s errand; the beauty of events as seemingly important as those lies in their inability to predict their own vitality. And maybe we’re just not in the place anymore to need an escape that also serves as a message. With no draft and a president many adore, maybe the days of message-heavy festivals are long gone.
Coachella may be more superficial than its politically-fueled counterpart, but those three days represent something else now: they represent the excess of experience, just not the willingness to matter.