My band and I have driven all night from the tiny town of Felton, California, where we played to an audience of 25 sleepy burrito-eaters in a Mexican restaurant, to the city of Indio, California, where we will play to an audience of 75,000 die-hard indie nerds. The absurdity of this equation is not lost on me, and the coming day appears every bit as surreal as the Coachella valley itself, a glowing circle of sunlight that is slowly rising towards me from out of the deep bowl of the mountains.
I have somehow chosen the seat in the van that offers the least likelihood of sleep — I mean the one that doesn’t quite extend all the way to the backseat door, so that there is nothing to lean up against, and there is not even the remotest possibility of stretching my legs out for a night of relaxation. In the past eight and a half hours of driving, I have not slept one bit, and now my legs seem to be demanding that I unbend them at the knee, and sullenly threatening that they will refuse to support me for the coming day of rocking if I don’t start paying attention to their demands.
At this point, the palm trees seem like soldiers guarding the entrance to some kind of dream world, and the festival itself is still as unreal to me as a mirage hovering in the desert. I can’t even think about anything besides the possibility of a power nap. If it were a choice between Coachella and a couch-ella, I would probably go with the later. Hallucinating, I seem to see the figure of Rihanna, her velvety voice taunting me like an oasis in the heat: “You can sleep on my couch-ella, ella, ella, ay, ay, ay….”
In the Coachella Valley, all the buildings are the color of sand, and there are huge pits of sand that seem to be excavated in the middle of the highway, and the grass is also the color of sand, and the heat is shining on all of it as if it were trying to turn the sand into glass.
But the site of the Coachella festival is something else entirely — the private estate of someone very rich who has translated every dollar into an acre of green. The grass is the color of AstroTurf at roadside mini-golf. (As a Jew, this is my only real point of reference for what must be the Platonic form of the country club golf course.) Technically, these are polo fields and not a golf course, although the WASP quotient inherent in the twin histories of golf and polo must engender a degree of spiritual equality.
As a man in a golf cart whizzes over to us, waving his hand and shouting, “I’ll give you a ride!” it crosses my mind that the Coachella festival costs something like $300 at face value, and that scalpers bought up so many tickets in the first few hours that many concert attendees will have paid even higher ticket prices on eBay. I wonder who will be attending this concert. The general demographic of Coachella the music festival must be significantly whiter than the Coachella Valley, which is predominantly Hispanic. A flatbed truck transporting Hispanic workers passes us as we putter down the dirt road that leads the inner fields. All the workers wear identical uniforms of khaki pants and navy polo shirts, and look very much like golfers. They are headed in the opposite direction around the perimeter of the festival grounds.
It is my first time in a golf cart. I am thrilled and slightly embarrassed. It’s so small! How does it work? It reminds me of an ill-fated bumper car ride I took at the Jersey Shore when I was six. That one ended badly for me. I cling onto the side of the golf cart as it makes a particularly fast right turn.
The golf cart deposits us 20 yards away at the entrance to the artist-only zone, which is bordered by a white picket fence and evenly spaced, manicured pink geraniums. I keep expecting someone to tell me I’m not allowed to be here. But I pass the checkpoint with flying colors, flashing my artist wristband with great aplomb at the black security guard wearing khaki pants and a navy blue polo shirt and a yellow baseball cap. She looks about my age and has long hair and a bag of Cheetos sitting on her chair.
All of a sudden, I feel like a titanic douchebag.
The artist enclave is a vision of 1950s suburbia recast as a Hollywood trailer park. Each artist has a suite in a pristine, white trailer. Trailers are grouped into neighborhoods, facing each other, with each trailer sitting on one of three sides of a square. The fourth side of every square is a white picket fence. At regular intervals, red and pink and purple plastic flowers are stuck into the spaces in between the fence posts. The area bordered by the picket fence somewhat eerily resembles an artificial front yard, and each front yard has three umbrella-shaded picnic tables and with a tin of candy lying on each one. It is surprising how easy it is to build suburbia.
Indeed, there is something Pleasantville-esque about the whole scene, identicial houses and pristine yards all empty of people in the early morning. The place is so perfect and unreal it has a decidedly uncanny feel, a village for Stepford wives. The name “STAR WAGONS,” in the same font as the title in the opening credits of “STAR WARS,” decorates the side of each trailer, and actually, it seems like this whole suburban trailerville in the middle of the fucking desert must have been created by aliens or something. Or maybe the aliens are just about to land here, and I am one of the first to arrive.
I have inspected our trailer — a couch, a small TV, a bath mat-sized rug, a vaguely ’70s-inspired tie-dye blanket, a bathroom like one in an airplane with a pedal that you push to flush, a closet, a box of snacks, a handpainted work of art that says “TITUS ANDRONICUS” in curly brown letters above a thick brown moustache and a beard, a piece of paper that says we are free to keep the original artwork but please keep the other decorations for the next band. I think this might mean that we shouldn’t steal anything like the rug or the blanket.
The sun is tearing a hole in the sky and D. has fallen asleep on the floor of our trailer while E. has fallen asleep on the couch. I diligently apply sunscreen, then kick off my sneakers, and settle in the shade of a picnic table on the lush grass.
Eager young women with lanyards around their necks are traveling from trailer to trailer, carrying tape and poster board. They are fixing each front door with a hand-painted sign bearing the artist’s name, all covered in glitter, just like the signs I made for the kids when I was a camp counselor.
Famous artists’ names glint in the sunlight everywhere you look: “Robyn, Interpol, Ariel Pink,” and the shut doors seem to tantalize you with specters of whom you might potentially see. I am getting antsy with so many celebrities, or ideas of celebrities as neighbors. I decide to take a shower to clear my head.
The trailer marked “SHOWER” is deceptive. As I enter the women’s side (the men’s side is opposite,) I find three stalls, pick one, and get naked. Then I try to figure out how to start the shower, which turns out to be a lot like trying to start the shower when you are visiting a foreign country, in that the laws of logic, reason, or physics, no longer apply. There is no handle or button to be seen, just the shower head peering at me mockingly, as if to say, “It’s been 20 minutes and you still haven’t figured this out?!”
Eventually, I try pulling a little rope on the side of the shower stall, and suddenly the shower starts. Hot water will not come, no matter how long I wait for it, but I am too sweaty and eager to bother with the temperature. I leap into the cold water, then leap out, then leap in again, and eventually find myself getting used to the damn thing. The trouble with the shower is that you have to constantly pull the rope down. Otherwise, the water does not flow. I leap out naked into the shower stall next door, hoping that my rope is merely malfunctioning. Unfortunately, this is not the case. A test of the third shower reveals the same general principle. You must tug at the rope with one hand as you scrub and wash and brush your teeth with the other. When you mess up and let up on the rope, the water stops and you suddenly are hit with an incredible draft of air conditioning and you give a little scream: “Ahh!”
The art of showering one handed is not one I have mastered. So it is a mystery to me why I decide it would be a good idea to shave my legs. I bend over, as much as I can without letting up on the rope, lather up some moisturizing soap, make a passable swipe downwards with my razor, and immediately slice an enormous chunk of skin off my ankle. Blood runs into the shower drain with a higher pressure than the shower water. I begin to feel a little queasy.
Meanwhile, the feminist voice in my head scolds me: “I told you it was better to go au naturel.” “Shut up, for a second, feminist consciousness!” I mutter as I try to use one hand to put pressure on the wound while using the other to pump the shower rope for all it’s worth. This one side up, one side down posture proves physically impossible, and I give up on the rope for now, hopping on one foot out of the shower, reaching with my free arm toward the roll of brown paper towels beside the sink. I rip off the towels and press them to my open wound, which is bleeding quite angrily onto the floor, leaving bloody streaks everywhere.
I have an epiphany and grab my white towel, provided so generously by Artist Relations, and wrap it around my ankle like a cast. The blood begins to soak through, painting the towel red. This will not work, especially since I have to return the damn thing to Artist Relations. I hobble back to the paper towel roll and use one hand to staunch my blood flow while I use the paper towels to mop the blood off the floor. All that happens is that the paper towels become stuck to the wet floor as I scrub it, and bloody, brown chunks of paper begin to crop up everywhere.
With one hand on my ankle, I somehow tug on my shorts and T-shirt, and dance my way down the stairs back to the trailer labeled “Artist Relations.” “Help!” I cry at the woman who is seated behind the desk, answering a phone call. “What’s the matter?” she asks. “Uh, I’m so sorry to bother you, but would you happen to have a Band-Aid?” I ask, trying not to sound like it’s too urgent. “I think so,” she replies, then rummages in the drawer of her desk, before producing a box of them.
I race back to the shower room and apply the Band-Aid to my bloody ankle, which is basically like setting a single crouton atop a bowl of soup. “To hell with it,” I say, as I use my white towel to clean the clumps of blood and paper towels off the floor. Satisfied that I have made some progress and that the bathroom no longer looks like the shower scene of Psycho, I deposit my towel in the heap of used ones outside the shower, burying it a bit behind the ones that are still white. I deposit my razor neatly in the trash, vowing that I will never shave any part of my body again. “Ha!” laughs my feminist voice, victorious. It occurs to me to check on my Band-Aid again, just to see if it’s still clinging to me for dear life, and I realize that it says, in cute pink letters, “Karma’s a bitch.”
When I get back from the shower trailer, a band from Belgium has arrived next door to the Germans, complete with blonde girlfriends and a beautiful, shoeless child who has stolen my abandoned shoes to play with, and a group of fashionably dressed Chinese indie rockers are setting up camp in the trailer next to them, and one of the guys is inexplicably wearing the head of a robot and doing kung fu poses for his bandmates, who are filming him with a Flip cam, and I consider that we are turning into something like a postmodern United Nations.
Pausing to introduce myself to the Belgians and the Chinese, and to tell them, somewhat idiotically, “I was in Belgium once” and “I was in China once,” I head out to the festival grounds for the first time, feeling very much like a journalist with my pen and notebook in hand. I dodge several golf carts that whiz to and fro at odd angles like balls on a pool table. Then I approach the towering Goliath of the main stage, all black and woven with metal latticework and covered in the ant-like figures of sound men who are raised onto it and lowered from it by enormous cranes.
Past the main stage, the polo fields are oddly symmetrical. The great, flat expanse of the land is bordered by gargantuan, haze-shrouded mountains, but also by shining palm trees, each one exactly the same height, and shape, and spaced evenly, like giant, green stop signs. In front of each palm tree, a food stand waits patiently from beneath a painted marquis. Everything is compartmentalized and ordered to a science of individual taste. “GUAC AND CHIPS” “ASIAN BBQ,” “BBQ PORK,” “THAI NOODLES,” “CHOCOLATE COVERED STRAWBERRIES” — these are all separate stands. The place seems to have been designed with the utmost efficiency in mind, to prevent any customer from having to make any choice after reaching the front of a line. Choice takes time, and makes lines longer.
Near a stand that sells only “FROZEN LEMONADE,” a tattooed hipster in his mid-20s is schooling a group of a dozen or so teenagers wearing white polo shirts and red aprons. The lecture is on churros. “Okay kids,” he begins. “If you see those high kids coming around, then pop in a bunch of churros. But if you see the rave kids coming, don’t bother. Ravers never wanna eat. You just gotta know your target audience. Remember: Drunk people love churros.” The kids giggle.
Close to team churro, two scantily clad women with power tools are fixing an enormous crimson sail to the top of an enormous rave tent modeled after a pirate ship. Inside the tent, a man dressed as a skeleton off-handedly strums an electric guitar, while two scantily clad arial dancers dangle from the ceiling on trapezes. A man with a thick, fake, vaguely Eastern European accent reads melodramatic dialogue from a script into the mic. “I gotta rehearse this one more time,” he says in his non-vampire voice. “Turn up the reverb a little bit.”
Viewed all at once, the whole plain of the festival seems to be populated by giant insects. On one side of the festival grounds, a cluster of tents hovers above the ground like white-winged moths. Inexplicable sculptures of spiders, ants, and grasshoppers, apparently here, according to the Festival guidebook, to “discover the secret of imagination” stand on spindly legs, two stories tall. A Ferris wheel glitters all chrome and garnet and gold like a jewel-toned stag beetle. On such a wide, empty field, amid these gargantuan metamorphoses of animal into machine, the few humans here appear insignificant in size.
As I head back to the artist trailers, even the house-high palm trees seem Plasticine and unreal, dwarfed by the enormity of the mountain ranges behind them. They look like part of a desert Playmobil set I had as a kid. Set up palm trees, set up people in sun hats and cacti and a camel all made out of plastic. Set them up and play with them and forget about them or throw them away. As I walk through the gap in the chain link fence that leads backstage, I pass a group of sound men assembled for instructions from their boss. They are dressed in khaki pants and white polo shirts and yellow baseball caps, and look suspiciously like the people in the Playmobil set.
I am lying in the shade of a sort of wooden cabana covered in pillows. Artists and photographers are seeping into the trailer park, all fashionably dressed and thin and impossibly cool. I recognize a woman with long, straight black hair and fluorescent green nail polish and gorgeous animal-print leggings, but she looks even hotter than the last time we talked, and impossibly poised, as she heads towards her trailer with long, graceful strides like a dancer. Like a nerd watching the popular crowd from across the cafeteria, I observe these qualities that I do not personify with a mixture of jealousy and attraction, disgust and awe. I feel that it is good to be at a distance in order to observe fame most accurately, and no one bothers me from my perch on the pillow-strewn cabana floor.
All at once, an older man with Ray Bans, a lanyard and a PRESS wristband sits down in the cabana with me. “Not to bother you, of course,” he offers. “Just keep on doing what you are doing as if I weren’t there.” “Oh, you’re not bothering me,” I respond, out of politeness. “I’m just people watching.” “I’m a photographer,” he tells me. “I work for Golden–” I can’t hear the rest of what he says. “Been doing this since the beginning. I photograph the stars for the website. Are you in a band?” “Yes.” “Oh good,” he smiles. “Now just keep on doing what you were doing, relaxing like you were just relaxing normally. I think this would make a great shot. Now look at me. No, don’t look down, look right at the lens. Great. That’s gonna be a good one. Go on the website and check yourself out.” I am feeling very confused, like one of those insects I was just describing earlier, caught in a butterfly net.
“You’re doing exactly the right thing, you know,” the photographer tells me. “Keep on sitting right here and sooner or later everyone will take your picture.” I am trying to think of an excuse to leave. “Hey, would you take a look at this?” he asks me. “It’s a magazine about marijuana. Check that out. That’s Snoop Dogg in there.” Sure enough, Snoop Dogg stands holding a sign endorsing California’s recent success in pot legalization. The magazine is actually pretty interesting. There’s a whole page about different kinds of food you can buy containing pot. Pot chocolate truffles, pot sushi, pot pretzels, pot-covered almonds. There is an article about the use of weed to help chemo patients with their nausea, and a picture of a kind-looking Asian female doctor. Before I know it, the photographer is snapping pictures of me again. “Would you hold that up a little higher? Oh God my boss is gonna love this.” I begin to feel that I am being taken advantage of in some strange way that does not involve my consent. It turns out my suspicions are correct. “You know I work for this magazine?” he says, gesturing to the pot quarterly. “Here, take it. Keep it with you. Oh man, thank you so much.” “Look, I gotta go get ready to play,” I mutter, and leave him and the shade of the cabana behind, joining the crowds of beautiful artists and the camera crews that follow them into the trailers and disappear.
I am taking the stage outdoors, following !!!, who have put on a tight, danceable show despite the heat. It seems wildly impossible that I am playing after a band whose music once dominated my iPod. Up close, the guys seem nice and friendly somehow, unpretentious and messy-haired and skinny, maybe even as nerdy as I am.
Then I’ve got my stuff up onto the stage and I’m setting everything out into the sun, all my pedals and instruments and cables, double-checking everything to make sure there will be no technical problems. The sun is so bright that it overpowers the lights on my pedals, and I can’t see whether or not they are engaged or not, meaning I will have to rely on memory and trust myself to know when to press them on and off. I have to move my amplifier closer to the foot of the stage by several feet because my cables are not long enough to reach across so much space. The stage seems wide, but not too wide. I have been in front of audiences this large before, and when I look out, there is so much glare from the sun that it is hard to see past the first hundred people or so, and when there are so many people, you don’t really know who is watching. It’s a lot harder to play for one person than a thousand.
Just as we strike the first chord of the set, I see two good friends from college waving at me from the front row and shouting, “AMY!” I had no idea they were coming to Coachella and haven’t seen either of them in a year. It’s just the burst of energy I need to get going, and I dive into the set, wanting to show them how much I’ve changed since college, how much better at much I’ve become since they last saw me play. I feel, despite the thousands of people who are undoubtedly watching, that I am performing for my best friends, and this is really one of the best feelings in the world, I think. I am proud as hell, and headbang with extra fervor, and throw a little extra volume into my amp to make sure they can hear my solo. I wave at them whenever I get a chance and they wave back.
My show is finished, all the equipment is loaded back into the van, I have signed records at a special tent, and now I have that impossible commodity known among touring musicians as “free time.” I am exhausted, the adrenaline rush of the morning fading by the minute, but I haul ass over to the main stage to witness the comeback of the queen of New Jersey, Ms. Lauryn Hill. Now that there are so few women in rap, Nicki Minaj’s album having missed its opportunity to transcend pop and pink and stereotypes about what sells, and Missy Elliott gone missing for years, and Lil Kim without an album or even a single (except that recent, Nicki-bashing stuff), it’s up to Lauryn to bring back the power of hip hop feminism. It’s a difficult task for any performer, let alone one who’s shied away for the spotlight and has been known as bat-shit crazy by everyone, even her biggest fans, for the past decade.
I, however, have the sneaking suspicion that what we call crazy in a woman is usually what we’d call genius in a man. When men rampage wildly against the conventions of our society, or rant at length about the errors of our culture, industry, and religion, we call them interesting or arresting cultural characters, or in, Charlie Sheen’s case, we give them a national comedy tour. When a woman does the same thing, we call her a diva, or sometimes just weird and annoying. See: the backlash against M.I.A.
Actually, the line between crazy and genius for women has always been quite fine, as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has taught us so well. Lauryn Hill seems to prove my suspicions about crazy ladies, because the second she takes the stage, you feel you are in the presence of an absolute genius. Her stage presence simply overwhelms the audience of assembled thousands to the point of shock, so that the crowd is suddenly quiet, and staring at her with the curiosity babies get when they see something new.
It’s hard to appreciate the extent to which Lauryn Hill seems possessed by some force we don’t quite understand when she is performing. So much of what she does is improvised and off the cuff that she seems to have access to some world of pure rhythm that is invisible to rest of us, but plain to her. Even with her voice a little hoarse and shying away from the high notes, there is no question that Ms. Hill has achieved a mastery over music that few ever will. You feel, listening to her, impossibly drawn to the stage, as if her voice were a magnet capable of holding your mind captive and erasing all your other thoughts, except, “Hands up in the air” and “Move your body to the beat.” All around me, women and men have their eyes closed and are swaying as if possessed. A euphoric grin comes over my face, and I can’t help pump my fist in the air as she shouts, ‘This one’s for the ladies. Where my ladies at?” A cheer flows through the crowd.
Ms. Hill performs classics from the Fugees, hitting the rap bits hard and wailing on the choruses. When she claims that she is “defecating on the microphone” there is nothing contrived about the expression. She could drop any kind of shit and we’d eat it up. She’s just that dominant, and just that good. When she announces, during the final song, “We gonna do this again!” several times, the crowd cheers.
I think a Lauryn Hill comeback is just what we’ve been waiting for, without even realizing it, for the past ten years. The signature way she yelps at the end of each long note reminds me of the inexplicable style of some kind of visual artist — Picasso maybe. There’s something very visual, and very concrete, about her effect on people, and also something very abstract, something that sinks deep into you like the way you know you could never guess what the artist was thinking just by looking at the painting in front of you. Impenetrable, crazy Ms. Lauryn Hill, who wears the “Ms.” on her name like an epithet meaning something like “knight” or “lord.” It’s a phrase that means something about having discovered herself, or maybe it means something she’s earned for herself in the process of spending ten years in the dark place we might call Crazyland. “I’m a woman and I’ve survived something you don’t even understand.”
It’s dark and the lights come on in the festival grounds, and suddenly the world is transformed into an even more surreal dream world, an amusement park of lights and laser beams playing over the sky. Lightning shoots between two enormous antennae. A neon-lit tape deck the size of a truck spins its wheels in a tribute to a long-lost analog age. A plane flies overhead bearing advertisements on a LED screen the size of its wings, so that in the darkness, only the lit message is visible, sailing overhead like a ghost. Enormous pillars of light gradually form a tepee like structure that surrounds the entire festival within itself and shoots up straight to a central point above the moon. Strings of balloon-shaped lanterns form colorful parabolas that sway above the Ferris wheel, all fluorescent light spinning like a pinwheel in the wind. Already, a woman on mind-altering drugs has tried to leap from the top of the Ferris wheel, and has been held by the ankles by a superhuman good Samaritan, as the Ferris Wheel operator slowly lowered her to safety.
The food stands are lit up like strip malls beside the highway and the palm trees, each fitted out with its own colorful light show, flash in unison, purple then green then white then red. The air has cooled down to a perfect breeze like one you feel off the ocean at night, and the huge screens of the Jumbotrons flash with faces and instruments and great seas of waving hands. I meet up with another friend from college and we walk on our tired, aching feet, to see Crystal Castles, a band I’ve always liked but have never seen.
It’s a fabulous dream of a show, lit entirely by strobe lights, so that each moment seems disconnected from the one before, and utterly out of synch with conventional time. The frontwoman of this band is an absolute monster, and she pounds her combat boots into the monitors as if she were grinding them to dust. By the end of the first chorus, she is already crowd surfing, and from the strobe-lit TV screen, we see her dark eyes pierce ours, then fade out into blank white space. She screeches and roars, then sings softly in a robotic, computer-treated voice, against a backdrop of pulsing electronic noise. The crowd would dance more if it weren’t so drugged out by her and the flashing lights and the intensity of the beats. She seems to be some kind of mad scientist, finely attuned to the art of S&M. One minute, she is lying on the floor writhing in pain, the next minute, she is pumping the microphone up and down as if swallowing it, then vomiting it back up. The music is pristinely synched and ominously clean at times, then it is terribly harsh like some slow mode of electrocution.
In the final three minutes, the band goes nuts and plays straight noise at a ridiculous volume that drowns out every feeling, every sight, and, indeed, every mode of human perception, except the sense of hearing. The crowd is completely overwhelmed and an unearthly cheer goes up along with the noise, both of them headed towards the mountains. It is nothing but the sublime human desire to be taken over by something outside ourselves, to be in awe of nature and of the nature of beauty. And it is communal, this experience of art, in a way that no other is. Say what you want about music festivals, but dancing in a crowd of ten thousand humans who have their eyes and ears tuned to the same frequency is the closest we have ever come as a species to getting along.
For over half an hour, I have been trying to wind my way through the maze of chest-high, metal barriers that has been erected in front of the main stage for the Kings of Leon’s headlining set. Everywhere I go, I keep running into another wall. The walls pop up everywhere, like they’re following me just to spite me, and suddenly, I feel like a rat, stuck in an experiment with thousands upon thousands of other rats.
I brandish my artist wristband, but to no avail. “Kings only!” shouts a yellow-capped guard at the hole in the chainlink fence. I am 35 minutes late to meet my bandmates at the trailer and my phone is dead. I begin to panic, feeling trapped and lost and disoriented by the darkness and the thousands of people pushing and shoving and clapping and cheering. I realize I have no idea where I am going, or how to get out of here. In the midst of my claustrophobia, a man in the crowd recognizes me and yells, “Titus Andronicus! It’s you! What a great set! You were amazing!” I am too confused to chat and shout back, “Help! How do I get out of here?” The man looks at me with pity. “You gotta get to the other side of the stage, get behind the sound booth. Go back in the opposite direction ‘til you can get to the sound booth.” I make a break for it and run, pushing my way past people who stare angrily at me like I’m some kind of criminal for invading their personal space.
All of a sudden, mercifully, the show ends and the crowd starts to disperse. The air begins to clear and I can see the sound booth and how to get around it. Ten minutes later I’m running free, back to the trailer and through the front door, where my band mates are waiting, slightly pissed off that I’m so late. I take one look at them, sit down on the couch, and watch as the whole day swims before my eyes, the sun and the autographs and the and the noise and the lights and the feeling of power I felt from the stage, and the fear of fame and that I am losing hold of myself just by being here, and the awkwardness and disgust I felt around the photographer, and the gratitude I feel towards my friends, and the realization that I have actually just played at motherfucking Coachella, and the woman who jumped from the Ferris wheel, and the mysterious force of Ms. Lauryn Hill, and the people in the crowd as tiny as insects, and the blood dripping down my ankles, and the exhaustion at the end of a long, beautiful high, and I start crying hysterically, streams of snot running down my nose and falling onto the bathmat-sized rug.
Later there will be an after party at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, but I will miss it entirely. I will be in the parking lot, curled up in the back of the car, fast asleep.
I am at an interview in the courtyard of an expensive hotel in Palm Springs where the staff of a well-known music magazine is staying for the weekend. There is an azure-watered swimming pool and an actual orange tree, and a little tent for us to sit in.
Beside the pool, thin, blonde women in bikinis pose as a photographer snaps their photo. Under an umbrella, a dark-haired man in sunglasses is having his straight tresses crafted into an enormous pompadour by a hairdresser using all products by the same brand.
We are asked several questions about our band and our music and our recent tours. Then we are invited to enjoy complimentary Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from a booth beside the pool. Always a sucker for food, especially food that is free, I lovingly chose a cup of cookies and cream and a tiny wooden spatula with which to tuck into it. Then I realize that a photographer is stealthily taking my photo as I stand beside the Ben and Jerry’s sign.
I don’t know what to do. The whole environment of the pool party has begun to seem a little sinister, even the orange tree a backdrop for the potential marketing of summer trends. But who am I to pretend I don’t eat Ben and Jerry’s, I who have consumed entire pints of the stuff straight from the tub my bad nights, and actually, on my good nights as well? I decide that if I have to endorse anything, it might as well be my favorite thing to eat, my source of comfort and often a key point in the development of sisterly companionship. But I resolve to be more careful in the future.
I am chatting with the interviewer and a gray-haired man who identifies himself as the publisher of the whole damn magazine when a woman about my age approaches me. “Come on out of the heat,” she coos. “Come inside and see what we’ve got for you.”
Inside is even more heavily branded than outside. The walls of a small room are adorned with the word “EXPRESS” and with life-sized photographs of tall, sandy-haired, anorexic models dressed in loose, flowing, and vaguely bohemian summer fashions. A table of straw sun hats, silver bracelets, and colorful shirts stands waiting in the clear light from the window like a bright promise. “Can we interest you in a sun hat?” asks a woman about my age carrying an Express shopping bag, ominously empty. Seizing the opportunity, a hitherto unseen photographer takes a quick photo of me in front of the sun hats and the shopping bag.
Wordlessly, I hightail it to the other end of the room as a photographer snaps another image of me in front of the couch, which, in turning around, I realize is covered in a half dozen pillows, each bearing the word, “EXPRESS.” It is not that I despise free stuff so much as that I despise the idea of being bought — by anyone, and even for free.
In a moment of sheer genius, I realize that there’s a table of food across the room, almost untouched, and I race towards it as if it were the finish line of a very important race. I find some appetizing tortilla chips and guacamole and start cramming them down as fast as I can. The photographer looks perturbed and peers at me through her lens, before looking away and wandering back to the table of clothes.
If you are ever in a situation like this, remember that no one wants to take photos of a woman who is stuffing her face with food. The guacamole is delicious, and I eat nearly all of it. Although there is really no moral difference between me taking free guacamole and free sun hats, I somehow can’t help feeling like I have won this game.
I exit through the hotel garden, pausing to pour myself a glass of water on the way out. There are jacaranda flowers between the hedges on this street and they match the color of the dress I am wearing exactly. There is a quiet sort of happiness inherent in the fact, and also in the fact that my friend from college gave me this dress, and also in the fact that I did not decide to try on anyone else’s idea of who I should be.
The festival grounds are increasingly an expression of freedom from social norms — fashion only one of them. There are people dressed in bunny suits, people with sparkly purple horns and tails (unicorns), people wearing Indian headdresses (offensive?), people wearing pasties, and people wearing nothing at all. Nudity is everywhere, and all the American Apparel-style bathing suits are just another form of nudity, obscured in certain places. Men go shirtless and drunk, calling to each other in loud voices as they run in packs. Couples are covered in tribal body paint, and some people wield weird objects, giant bananas or inflatable palm trees. Everyone is sweaty and exhilarated and drunk. I wonder if this is why people go to Burning Man. The ideal of Woodstock also floats into consciousness. Was this all the 1960s was? A giant music festival? The optimism of the whole decade was nearly as evanescent.
Something about this community of freaks is utopian in spirit, and appeals to me, since I am a freak who seeks community. Who are these people in their real lives, I wonder. Why do we go to music festivals to act this way? Why don’t we act like this all the time? I am sort of wishing that we did.
Utopian dreams are fulfilled by the H&M CONSCIOUSNESS ESCAPE TENT, which is a cool oasis of air conditioning that resembles the inside of a tropical exhibit in the zoo. There are fake plastic vines and a real life-sized tree with tangled plastic roots, and at a long table, beautiful women clad in pure white linen pour cool water to each of us, one at a time, from sparkling plastic pitchers. Two teenagers chat as they sit on a bench in front of a fake waterfall. Blown up photographs of H&M models wearing white clothes look impossibly cool (fulfilling both meanings of the word) as they stare down at us. “Ha, ha,” they seem to say. “You have to go back outside and exist.”
I have learned how to find my way my way around the series of tents that house the concerts, and that way is to wander, as aimlessly as possible. This is really the only way to escape festival-induced anxiety, a syndrome that has slowly stricken every one of my friends here. “But if I see the Strokes then I’ll miss PJ Harvey, but if I see PJ Havey, then I’ll miss Kanye West.” The only way to confront an over-abundance of choices is to adopt a Zen-like attitude of utter placidity, and to appreciate whatever comes your way.
I’m therefore content to have left a set by Erykah Badu, whose female empowerment anthem “Video” was possibly my only venture into the realm of R&B when I was a high-school punk rocker, for a set by Glasser, a more soothing proto-Björk wrapped inexplicably, despite the heat, in a plastic rain poncho. I do not feel that I have missed out significantly in having failed to make the choice between them. In a similar peripatetic style, I have roamed from the Francophone dance party of the charismatic pop star Yelle to the main stage, where Bright Eyes’s mournful dirges are displayed on the Jumbotron for the eyes of thousands and thousands of depressed teenage voyeurs, many of the female persuasion.
Of all the acts, it is Yelle who has won the day, provoking the crowd into a spectacular frenzy of dance as she shouts basic French vocabulary lessons from behind the curtain of a floor-length veil (perhaps a political statement, given that France has recently outlawed wearing them). Two quarterback-sized bros behind me, each in a backwards baseball cap, basketball shorts, XL tee-shirt, and, oddly enough, a pair of Converse high tops, stretch their arms out tentatively, then wiggle them, ballerina-like above their heads, and begin to bob up and down arhythmically in what may really be a new style of dance, hitherto unexplored not just by them, but by anyone, ever. The night before, I saw Cut Copy engage the crowd in their spectacle of impeccably timed beats and shimmering synthesizers, transforming the tent into something like a rave. But it’s particularly nice to see a woman whipping everyone’s arms up into the air, where they spill into each other like waves in a stormy ocean.
Once again, I realize the extent to which we go to music festivals in order to seek some kind of communal identity and experience, only vaguely masked by the prospect of popular bands. It is the kind of mass consciousness that companies seek to brand and sell back to us. But there really is no substitute for real psychological impact of the feeling that one is not one, but rather one of many.
Mob mentality accounts for some suspicious changes in human behavior — the diffusion of responsibility, for one, in which no one helps the person crying “Help” on a crowded street. But there’s also a positive side to having one’s sense of personal responsibility go missing for a short time, particularly for those of us who are highly neurotic — New Yorkers, anyone?
Maybe that is why we are drawn to the city, to its overcrowded subway cars and jam-packed streets, and to music festivals like this one. The sense of anomie we experience in this terribly unreal age of internet-dominated consciousness can be externalized only in the form of the crowd. Since we live in an age that is apolitical, the ’60s youth movement and the ’70s punk movement and even the ’90s riot grrrl movement fading farther and farther into the past with each day, we find we can commune with our own alienation in the form of immense, ephemeral, and vaguely socially conscious music festivals filled with people just as confused as we are.
And in a certain way, the feelings we have as part of these crowds of equals are really a form of rebellion against the society that funnels us into atomized lives anyway. Outside of the great, mall-like churches of the South, where people fall into each other’s arms speaking in tongues, this is the only place left where we may be as free to feel as many things as we want, without criticism and without embarrassment. This is the only place where we are encouraged to feel things together, and not in any kind of moralizing or politicizing or alienating way. Gay, straight, black, white, man, woman, transgender, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, one cannot disagree with the idea of music.
There are so few ideas like this left in America. Perhaps that is why we flock to music festivals in the end. It is a form of apolitical nationalism — imperfect and privileged, and exclusionary to be sure, and consumer-driven and heavily branded, and somewhat fake, and belonging to some and not to others, and based on certain arbitrary and ultimately insignificant ideas of taste, but we all know that this is just how our country has always been, since its inception, and probably will continue to be forever, until it dies a sorry death in some war or other.
I have less luck in remaining true to my ideals when it comes to the plethora of food choices available at this festival. I can’t seem to decide whether I want ASIAN BBQ in all its greasy glory or ONE LOVE PIZZA, its booth graced by a poster of Bob Marley smiling benevolently down at me like an angel with the munchies. I get in line for BBQ, then switch to pizza. Then, just as I’m reaching the pizza counter, I lose heart and switch back to the BBQ line. Of course, it turns out that I’ve made the wrong choice. It’s way too hot for greasy BBQ, and it’s all twice as expensive as it should be. But would the pizza really have been any better? Bob Marley remains silent from his post above the pies.
Wandering back to the artist trailers, I come across a secret swath of fence that I have never seen before. I flash my artist pass and waltz in to what I now realize is the VIP area. I had no idea that such a thing existed. But now it spreads out before me in all its glory, tent upon tent filled with beer kegs, a coffee bar, a sort of mobile powder room called “For the Ladies,” an expensive-looking restaurant, and couches where beautiful rich people lounge and luxuriate and bicker and fight and kiss and make up. I immediately run into the one celebrity I know, the singer of Vampire Weekend, eating an elaborate-looking ice cream sundae in a plastic cup.
We converse briefly before my attention is attracted by something I have not seen before — a motherfucking Korean taco truck. This, to me, is a dream come true. I tasted my first Korean taco over a year ago at a truck parked in Austin, Texas, and as I walked down the street with delicious sauce dripping down my fingers, those same fingers began to ache and ache with the desire to hold one more taco. I have remembered this experience with a mixture of passion and regret, like a lover who got away.
Now I am waiting in line for what I will call my second dinner, and soon it is in my hands, the glorious short ribs spackled with soy and ginger sauce, the spicy kimchi, the crisp lettuce, the toasted sesame seeds, the pure white radish, all tucked neatly into a flour tortilla and doused in lime juice. I sit on a couch and devour my prey while watching the rich people. There seem to be so many VIPs here. Can they all really be that important, or are some just imposters? I imagine a man donning a fake moustache and glasses, and maybe a gold watch as an accessory. On some level, I feel as if I must have faked my way into the VIP section, but I don’t think too hard about this, because I want to focus on my taco.
Nearby, a mother and a daughter are engaged in a serious argument. They are dressed as though they have switched bodies — the teenager in a skintight red dress that barely covers her butt and the mother in a tee-shirt, a jean skirt, and white-and-silver platform sneakers. Their faces are red and tears are running down the teenager’s face. She throws her arms at her mother, and her mother throws her arms back, and for a second I think they are going to punch each other, and then suddenly, they are hugging each other for dear life. Then, a second later, they are shouting as if they never stopped and the girl is crying again. The mother attempts another hug, and the girl writhes to break free. I wonder what the fight could be about. Animal Collective is playing now, and I can’t hear a thing except psychedelia. Maybe the girl wandered off and got a hold of a drink or two? It does not seem as if it could be that serious, especially since they are in the VIP section of a popoular music festival. Oh well, I remember being a teenager and being a royal pain in the ass.
Behind the girl and her mother, the man whom I assume is the girl’s father stumbles drunkenly from side to side, heading first to one side of the argument and then to the other. He waves his hands uselessly up and down, like the wings of a flightless bird. He mumbles incoherently to himself, and then wanders over to me and faces me and throws up his hand, as if in confusion, or to say “I abstain from this whole thing.” I realize, in looking at his face, that his eyes are rheumy and red, and almost dead looking. He is so drunk it is unpleasant to watch. His white linen suit makes him the spitting image of the tortured tycoon no longer enjoying his vacation, the Great Gatsby if he had lived 25 extra years. Perhaps this is the real cause of the family’s dissolution. I begin to feel impossibly sad here in the VIP section. The problems of rich people are sometimes hard to swallow. Gobbling down the rest of my taco, I head back to the artist trailers.
By this point in the festival, the artist trailers, of course, are a VIP section in their own right. I sit on the ground and stay still and in five minutes, I have seen Erykah Badu struggle to affix an uncannily realistic stuffed dove to a wire on her shoulder, the impossibly hip JD Samson canoodling with a mysterious companion in a cabana, and Danny DeVito, who is unmistakably tiny and excitable and good-natured as he pauses for photos with every interested party, and there are a lot of interested parties here. Later, several people will claim to me that they did acid with him, which I only halfway believe. Later, I will see Kate Bosworth with some tall, handsome Hollywood-looking dude who might be famous, Kelly Osbourne, a vision in goth makeup and all black clothes, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, his face partially hidden behind his signature chin-length bangs, and finally, Kirsten Dunst, whose appearance demands all of my effort not to shout out “YOU WERE IN SPIDERMAN” as loud as I can. After a while, the aura of celebrity hangs so heavily in the air that I begin to assume everyone around me is famous, and it becomes sort of difficult to breathe.
Luckily, I am not too infatuated with the idea of celebrity. I find it kind of hard to take famous people seriously, and maybe this is my own prejudice, blindness, and tendency towards judgment at work. But I’d much rather hang out with my friends than a bunch of people I don’t know, but who would make me seem cooler if I did.
The good news is that, this morning, I’ve been spotted myself, by a young lady I’ll hitherto refer to as Ramona Flowers. She’s one of the people I follow on Twitter, and she follows me back. We have used the @ symbol at each other several times. But today, while I was backstage, she recognized me from my profile picture and introduced herself. Now we are hanging out with our shoes off in the artist trailer area and talking about life on the road as if we were old friends already. I find that I am more content to sit here and talk with someone whose life closely resembles mine as celebrities appear and then recede onto the horizon. In the growing night, they are like strange planets, traveling within the orbits of fame.
Ramona has introduced me to a friend of hers who is also in a band, and the three of us girls have pushed and shoved our way into the crowd to watch the Arcade Fire. I’ve never seen the Arcade Fire before and I expect to be thoroughly dazzled, having heard tales of a legendary live show and also having heard that they’ve recently won a Grammy. I am not disappointed. The band is so genuinely passionate and excited to be on stage that you can tell they don’t take one bit of success for granted. They throw themselves into the music with the intensity of children playing with noise-making machines for the first time. Although the performance is highly polished, there is something unpolished and experimental about their songs that renders them endearing and sincere. Ramona and her friend and I chant the choruses out loud and pump our fists in the air and grin. It feels good to be out in the desert air, which is cool at night, and wraps itself around you like a cloak. You feel happy to be alive and surrounded by the immense desert and the music appears very mysterious, like a spell that you don’t ever want to break.
Midway through the set, there is a pause in the music, and suddenly, from the towering height of the top of the stage, hundreds upon hundreds of glowing snowflakes descend like white birds into the arms of the thousands of us. But as they come closer, we realize that they’re enormous, white plastic spheres, like beach balls for giants, and we bounce them to each other as the Jumbotron shows us ourselves, suddenly a sea of vibrant, vibrating white. We can’t stop screaming as the spheres float down towards us like shooting stars, and we volley them back up into the air with great force, and with gleeful shouts. We feel as though we are as part of the music, setting something free among ourselves, passing it from one person to another. A couple to my left is using an errant beach ball as a table to lean on as they make out. Most other people are trying frantically to take pictures and video, documenting the insanity of the experience while still engaging in it. Ramona and our new friend and I are freaking out. “Oh my God, I can’t believe this!” we tell each other, and start laughing.
And then it gets better. All of the white spheres begin to blink in unison, hundreds and hundreds of them, flashing purple, then blue, then white, then purple, then blue, then orange, then white — all in time to the music. The spheres must contain LED lights synched to the spectrum of sound. These flashing spheres hover above the audience like UFOs, or physical manifestations of joy. From the Jumbotron, we can see ourselves as a giant, flashing solar system comprised of pulsating stars. As if we were ourselves the story of the universe, we are lit one second, and then vanished into the darkness the next. Then we are lit up again, according to the beat, and the three of us are jumping up and down and screaming, and sometimes we touch hands when we all reach at the same time towards the falling spheres.
The spheres dance at odd angles and bounce back as randomly as elemental particles. But from up above, I can see a certain order to their movement. They travel from one person to the next, and then they travel back the way they came. They travel between us. They do not stay in anyone’s hands for long. Like music, they belong to all of us, and to none of us.
All photos by Amy Klein.