Why Is Coachella Repeating Itself?
Reviewing this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival for the New York Times, writer Ben Ratliff struggles to formulate why the experience was so boring. In the first sentences of his review, he concedes that the three-day festival is, and always has been, nothing but business; a little down the page, he acknowledges that “more than ever, the sets felt like jobs with a bit more self-promotional energy.” Despite its purely commercial motives, he claims that Coachella used to have an “aura” that is now gone. Searching for what has been lost, he settles on a journalistic commonplace: innocence.
The argument takes an interesting form. Ratliff isn’t saying that the festival’s organizers or performers have lost their innocence along the way, nor is he stupid enough to suggest that they ever had any innocence to lose. The festival, as he says, has always been about dollar bills. Ratliff’s beef is that, this year, the entire festival will be repeated in the exact same order next weekend. For him, this repetition robs the festival of the illusion of spontaneity that, once, made the audience “feel innocent.” When he complains that “innocence” is “projected onstage rather than felt by the audience, as part of the music’s artifice,” the ideal structure of the festival becomes clear. The mercenaries of showbiz are supposed to execute their orders in cold blood, thereby allowing us ordinary suckers to feel blameless and clean.
According to this way of thinking, innocence properly belongs to the crowd of spectators who have paid $285 each for a pass (or a little less for one-day tickets). In exchange for their purchase, they get to feel a toddler’s awe as performers bestow “acts of generosity” upon them in the form of spectacular gestures. Presumably, the suckers are not only innocent in the sense that they get to experience childlike wonder, but they are also rendered temporarily innocent of the knowledge that they are paying to look at a spectacle that is cynically orchestrated by entertainment conglomerates. Everyone knows it’s a shitty ripoff, but when they see “a balloon rising into the vast desert sky,” they can forget.