It’s a behemoth. Two weekends, 90,000 people each, four security check points, 175 bands: all happening in the middle-of-nothing desert. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was born in the age of the compact discs. Its debut in 1999 brought headliners Beck, Morrissey, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, and Pavement. 25,000 people showed up in the desert in October to hear them play. In the space between then and now, Coachella evolved from one two day weekend that failed to make a profit, to an international mega-fest which seems too big to fail.
Having heard the lore of Coachella muttered under the breath of ultra-exclusive music worshipers for years, I decided it was time to make the trip to Indio, California myself. I brought my camera, no shame, and one goal in mind: to judge it corporate or indie after all.
In the festival grounds, the experience is much attuned to being thrown into a culture vacuum filled with Mountain Dew ads. And the only thing waiting to greet you is a line. And another line. And a line after that. Eight dollars to ride the famous Ferris wheel, with corresponding line. Merchandise booths, lockers, and food tents, each with their own line. Care to venture to one of the two places on the festival grounds where there’s free water? Why don’t you wait in a line there instead. Every attendee is caught in the moment right before rapture, waiting to have the time of their life. Just as Lollapalooza represents the city that surrounds it, Coachella embodies the nothingness around it.
It was as if culture had crash landed at an oasis in the desert. And when spectators came to gawk at this strange spectacle, it became clear that both desert and culture weren’t just foreign to each other, but strangers to themselves. Driving away from the grounds, nothing stuck—even gas stations and strip malls were closed for the night, looking desolate—I left the pageant in the desert behind.
Michael Cygan is a photographer, writer, and people person, who enjoys stomping around Chicago exploring its intricacies, fragility, and awe-inspiring nature. Michael is a student at DePaul University where he is studying Marketing Communications.