Taking Coachella

In roughly 80 days, thousands of young people will make an exodus to the desert town of Indio, filling the dusty, flat landscape with tents and blankets. Their appearance will seem sudden, their visit brief, but many of them have planned for months (even years) to get to this spot. To the uninformed observer, this gathering on the weekend of Apr. 17, 2010 may seem perplexing; just as a similar one must have seemed on the weekend of Aug. 17, 1969 in the small farm-town of Bethel, New York.

The latter is Woodstock ’69, of course,the most infamous of all music festivals, providing the spirit and inspiration for the former event: Coachella ’10.

Although there have been subversive music festivals for decades, this special kind of event has seen a renewed fervor in recent years. With every new announcement of a line-up, conversations flare amongst young folk (and hip older folk): who’s the cream of the crop? Who should have been cut from the list? Who’s great live, and which acts are only “studio bands”? What about that stage presence, man? The past few years have seen a surprisingly steady interest in music festivals, from the big daddies like Coachella and SXSW to energetic new fests like FYF and the Pitchfork Music Festival.

Why has the “alternative” scene vacillated at all, though? One would think that there would always be a strong underground culture, the yin to mainstream music’s yang, but indie music festivals have not always been a huge draw. Every few years, the core audience falls apart, unsatisfied with the offerings of the biggest music festivals and most trumpeted indie releases. Sometimes the best line-ups that can be mustered simply cannot cut the mustard. (Ed. note — I apologize.)

Take, for instance, the gradual decline of Lollapalooza. Started in 1993 as a farewell concert for the lead singer of Jane’s Addiction, Lollapalooza turned into a bastion of Generation X’s alt-rock scene. The Simpsons captured the mood beautifully in “Homerpalooza”: bored 20-somethings shuffling back and forth in the mud, burdened with torn jeans and world-weary cynicism.

It was that same cynicism that dissembled the festival from the inside. The “alternative” genre became both sprawling and predictable; it branched out from bands like Nirvana into bland copy-cats like Bush and Soundgarden. Grunge kids grew up and grew out of Lollapalooza, which, with its crass commercialization, became just as much a parody of itself as the version presented by The Simpsons.

Lollapalooza was mercifully killed in 1998, and its revivals since 2003 have been only so-so. 2009 featured Ben Harper, Tool and Ke$ha – and although those are the most mediocre of a solid list, one can’t help but go, “…really?”

Coachella 2010’s line-up, only recently announced, has been met with the same degree of indifference. Deservedly so: the headliners (and a good deal of the supporting acts) make up an undistinguishable paste of average indie rock. This isn’t because the indie scene is floundering like the alt-rock scene was in the late ‘90s. If anything, music on the fringe of 2010 is more fresh and exciting than ever. Acoustic strumming melds with electronic beats; blues crooning peeks out from walls of distortion; mandolin plucking intertwines with afro-beat horns.

Thankfully, a lot of the smaller acts for this year’s Coachella reflect that mélange. There are plenty of bands that infuse the indie-rock model with weird outside influences, like Grizzly Bear, Passion Pit, and King Khan and The Shrines. There’s a small dose of one-man orchestral outfits, like Owen Pallet and Yann Tiersen. We get more than our fair share of ethereal indie dreamgirls, like Little Dragon, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Fever Ray.

Older (“vintage”) acts return to the stage as well, which is the main selling point for Coachella this time around. Indie legends like Pavement, Echo and the Bunnymen, Sunny Day Real Estate and Spoon will all be playing live for the first time in years. The flashback machine goes back even further than that: the line-up also boasts appearances of soul heroes Gil Scott-Heron and Sly and the Family Stone alongside ‘80s weirdoes Grace Jones and Gary Numan.

Even though Coachella has managed an impressive, if uneven, line-up this year, the renewed enthusiasm for music festivals in general may be contributing to the line-up’s lackluster response. After all, when you have a wide selection of festivals from which you could choose, why would you limit yourself to this $300 test of endurance? (Another reason for reticence: Coachella seems to have removed the option to purchase one-day tickets, meaning that you have to brave it the whole weekend or not at all.)

If the indie scene is wide and varying at the moment, the festival scene certainly offers plenty of its own variety. South by Southwest (SXSW), for example, throws independent film premieres and discussion panels into its mix of bands. Instead of being concentrated in one stretch of land, SXSW events spread across Austin, TX for one overflowing weekend in March.

Other festivals that follow that “everything happening everywhere!” spirit include the Noise Pop Music Festival in San Francisco, Pygmalion Music Festival in Illinois, and the UK’s All Tomorrow’s Parties. That last one is particularly notable because they ask different pop culture figures to “curate” each festival weekend; if you visit England this May, you could see programs put together by Pavement and Matt Groening (who is, surprisingly, still quite hip).

The general attitude of angst and distrust from 15 years ago has faded into a much more quirky and friendly atmosphere in this decade’s alternative scene. This is best evidenced by Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Festival, the center of which (“Centeroo”) provides the foundation for This Tent, That Tent, and The Other Tent. Also, What Stage and Which Stage. How delightful! The fun is extended with a comedy tent, workshops, arts and crafts, and other sorts of summer-camp-for-adults activities.

Even if the current theme of whimsy can get too precious, we can thank our lucky stars (maybe even cute cardboard and glitter stars made by Sufjan Stevens and Michel Gondry on a playdate!) that we’re not stuck in the alt-rock rut of the ‘90s. After all, the cynicism that gave birth to Sonic Youth and Nine Inch Nails became a sort of ouroboros, destroying the very acts it created.

No matter how dissatisfied we are with bland indie rock, at least we’re not still saddled with the crapulence that Woodstock ’94 and ’99 offered. Like a one-two punch, these disastrous revivals nearly killed the music festival.

Where Woodstock ’94 was just goofy – the dude from Blind Melon wore his girlfriend’s dress while tripping on acid; Aphex Twin was kicked off the stage mid-song for forging their own signatures – Woodstock ’99 was a violent mess. Starting with mud-flinging, the crowd got more and more restless, eventually lighting bonfires, ripping apart fences, and breaking into the ATM machines. The festival ended in riots and more than a few rapes, while the apathetic headliners Limp Bizkit and Red Hot Chili Peppers played on.

“It was dangerous to be around,” said Kurt Loder, an MTV VJ who was hosting the live feed of Woodstock ‘99. “The whole scene was scary. There were just waves of hatred bouncing around the place…there was a palpable mood of anger.” The bands raged against the machine, and the vendors sold the attendees the pieces of the machine: vastly overpriced water and fast food.

Although today’s music festivals are still overstuffed with vendors and product placement, we’re no longer caught in the awkward position of having to feign apathy, or even angst. Cynicism, as Conan O’Brien said in his last address to his audience of “The Tonight Show,” “doesn’t lead anywhere.”

So yes, Coachella  tickets are ridiculously overpriced. And yes, it’s ridiculous to camp out in the alternately very-hot-and-very-cold desert; and it’s extra ridiculous when you have to resort to onsite dining options. But what are you gonna do? Coachella is an expensive experience, but an undoubtedly unforgettable one, a sort of coming-of-age ritual for the wide-eyed indie kid.