Last week, social media began to fill up with something familiar yet totally warped, like looking down at a fish swimming underwater on a sunny day. It was the annual Coachella wave, which would normally be flooded with people packing up their cars, stopping at In-N-Out or in Cabazon for a date shake, boomerangs of windmills, and blurry images of Billie Eilish or Marshmello billboards shot at 80 mph. Every April, music fans turn their attention to one spot on the globe regardless of whether they can attend or not, a moment some people love to revel in as much as others adore to scoff at.
But this year, thanks to an unprecedented global pandemic, Twitter and Instagram instead swelled with memories of Coachella past, with longing disappointment of the friends that won’t be seen and the memories that won’t be created, and, probably the biggest, with collective mourning about the music that will not be witnessed. Sure, Coachella was one of the first major music festivals to completely reschedule their event in light of COVID-19, but its absence was still felt deeply over the last week, as people shared stories and photos from Coachella’s last 20 years. Coachella will surely return and life’s current pause is obviously temporary. But still, the polo field-sized hole that its postponement has left in the music world is difficult to fill.
But, Coachella tried to do just that with the release of its documentary on Friday, Coachella: 20 Years In The Desert. Offered up at the exact time that the gates would open for the festival, viewers were given a never-before-seen view at how the festival originated, evolved, and became the cultural behemoth it is today. As Goldenvoice has been filming their event for 20 years (as well as other GV events from the decades that preceded it), the footage is expectedly incredible, featuring moments like the Pixies reunion, Beychella, Jay-Z breaking through as the first hip-hop headliner, and Kanye West’s numerous unforgettable appearances, all with unparalleled access and context. It’s a great story, of how a punk promotor became the ultimate music curator, and it gives insight into why Coachella remains on the cutting edge in the music world (spoiler: it’s because the festival is always looking towards the future while maintaining reverence to its identity and past, while never getting caught trying to recreate or relive previous successes). But the lasting impression remains strongly rooted in the music.
This has been an oft-repeated criticism of Coachella in recent years, though I’ve been hearing the same knock for almost a decade, that Coachella is no longer “about the music,” but has become just a place to be seen, snap selfies, and generally disregard the music that should be the lifeblood of the event. And that’s not to say that there isn’t an element of truth behind such a critique, but that speaks more toward a general cultural shift that includes new technology and evolving societal norms. The idea that “Coachella has changed” isn’t inherently wrong, but the idea this is implicitly a bad thing might be. As the documentary explains, Coachella’s early festivals and musical focuses reflected the times and always looked forward to what was next, be it the rave and underground culture of the ’90s and aughts and into the worlds of hip-hop, pop, and international music of recent years. If Coachella was simply booking the same music for the same people for the last couple of decades, not only would it have not survived, but it would have wound up pleasing few along the way.
And where the criticism of Coachella’s changing musical focus falters is in the idea that by booking Ariana Grande or Calvin Harris to close out their event, they have somehow made their event not “about the music.” It’s a weird sort of rockist mentality, that the music that a prior generation of Coachella attendee is somehow purer or more authentic than the current one. Or, that the fans of Radiohead are somehow more invested in the music they adore than the fans of Beyonce. It’s an unfortunate side effect of aging that people tend to look at music and fans that way, that what’s next is always somehow worse than that which came before. But the beautiful thing is in how little the younger generations care about that. Coachella was never meant to be everything to everyone, but, as Beck puts in during an interview in the doc, more a sort of state of the union of what is happening in the music world. Coachella is meant to appeal to the music fans of right now, and those fans are always changing.
Coachella: 20 Years In The Desert presents the festival’s history as a through-line, where the logic of creating a festival to highlight The Rapture and Bjork is the same that in recent years has seen standout moments from Blackpink and Pharrell Williams. Once dominant genres like techno and punk haven’t been eradicated from the festival, but have been given their own standalone tents, where they can still highlight the best of worlds that have less appeal to the youthful Coachella attendees. Travis Scott is presented as the natural offspring of punk ideals, a Bigbang reunion as the 2020 version of getting Bauhaus or Jane’s Addiction to reform. The characters may change over time, but the ideals remain the same.
Make no mistake, Coachella is an experience that extends beyond music. Its food scene is unrivaled. It is stunning to look at with art installations extending to every horizon. And, yes, there is a culture of beauty and celebrity that is intrinsic to its Southern California home. And all of these are pretty much glossed over in the doc, save for a shot of Danny DeVito hugging Amy Winehouse to display how Coachella eventually grew into attracting stars to both their stages and their audience. It’s not that Coachella doesn’t recognize these pieces as crucial to the overall ethos of their event. It’s that they know that they all exist in service to the music and that the music is the tie that binds everything together.
One of my favorite moments of the film is a section that tracks Tyler The Creator from youthful Coachella attendee to main stage performer. His ascent is symbolic in a way, how the people that come out to the desert for a weekend can somehow rise not only to take the stage at the event but to create their own impact on the festival’s story. Whether it is Steve Aoki recalling how influential a Daft Punk Coachella performance was on his life or seeing the next generation of promoters in Rene Contreras taking a similar step from the punk scene of Pomona to the Coachella grounds that founder Paul Tollett did, the festival remains not just a reflection of the contemporary music scene, but a breathing entity that can push music scenes into new directions. It’s a true symbiotic relationship that few, if any, other festivals can match. As much as Coachella has grown into something its founders could never have dreamed of, there is no doubt that music remains the star around which all other things orbit. It’s enough to make October, or whenever Coachella returns, feel like it will be worth the wait. It might even better because of it.