When a friend reached out looking for a festival partner in crime for this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, I ignored my natural “absolutely not” inclination and “before” attitude toward the festival and agreed without hesitation. I’d caught a glimpse of the lineup released that morning and recognized maybe a handful of the acts among the 150+ spread out over three days. So, I certainly wasn’t in it for the music. Leona planned to take her teenage daughters (Harry Styles fans), and I was willing to go along for the ride to spend time with my friend. I was genuinely curious to see what the first post-pandemic era iteration of the festival looked like and how I would feel 20 years after attending my first Coachella.
Like Leona’s 15-year-old daughter Morgan and her best friend Rachel no doubt will, I remember my first Coachella quite vividly. In 2002, I was a 24-year-old living in Santa Barbara, working full time at Visit Santa Barbara and side hustling as a waitress/bartender at Derf’s. My fellow waitress friends Amber and Corey joined me for that inaugural pilgrimage to Indio. The festival was so bare-bones back then — it was two days, four stages, the lodging-shuttle infrastructure was nonexistent, and the food pickings were very slim!
We hit the road early on a Saturday morning and checked into our weird makeshift campsite surrounding a reservoir near the polo grounds. We arrived at the festival just as the gates were opening. I remember seeing The Beta Band, G. Love & Special Sauce, and Jack Johnson that first day. The biggest highlight for me was Björk, who performed on the main Coachella stage under the moonlight. The temperatures had dropped, and it was very windy that night — we were freezing in tank tops without jackets, a mistake I would never make again!
After Björk, it took us a good hour to find my nondescript white Ford Taurus in the endless rows of cars. Being the novices we were, I didn’t think to pay attention to where we parked when it was just an empty field earlier that day. We returned to our campsite to find our tent wrapped around a nearby tree; the loose, gravelly sand was no match for those desert winds. Oh, youthful inexperience! We navigated the festival much more adeptly on day two, with The Strokes, Blonde Redhead, Belle and Sebastian, Zero Seven, Elbow, and Oasis among the artists giving us life. My indie-rock heart was over-the-moon contented, and I was officially hooked on Coachella.
The five consecutive fests I attended after that were memorable but blur into each other. The festival grew in sophistication year after year, as did how I approached it. The food options improved, the crowds swelled, and a fifth stage was added. Having learned the necessary luxury of a place to sleep and refresh outside of the elements, my cohorts and I stayed in condos and budget hotels.
Over the ensuing years, I was less concerned about being there at the beginning for the lesser-known acts to preserve my stamina for the headliners. Back then, the endurance test when staying offsite was waiting around for traffic to die down to get out of the jammed parking lot late at night. In that six-year run, I got to see Björk again, plus Radiohead, Sigur Rós, Beastie Boys, Blur, Kinky, The White Stripes, Thievery Corporation, Death Cab for Cutie, Beck, The Flaming Lips, Air, Spoon, Arcade Fire, Tegan and Sara, Scissor Sisters, Massive Attack, Phoenix and many, many others.
The last year that I went on my dime was the first year the festival extended to three days, in 2007. The music snob in me felt like the lineup quality was diluted with the addition of the extra day, and there was a lot less of the original indie spirit. While I appreciated better food, it had gotten much more crowded. I ultimately realized I’d come to prefer seeing the bands I loved in concert on their own, outside of the din of the festival environment. I was on the verge of 30 and realized I’d outgrown the experience that had long been one of the highlights of my year.
I thought I was done with Coachella. But back in 2012, when I was working for Visit California in Sacramento doing international public relations, I got the harebrained idea to bring a group of media to the festival. I knew how compelling the festival had become to international audiences, and the Safari Tent option was perfect for a self-contained group. The tents were on the polo grounds in a private compound that featured a pop-up pool, massage tent, and huge shaded lounge area. There were snacks, Wi-Fi, and air conditioning, and no real need to go offsite.
Our group included a dozen journalists from the U.K., Australia, and Canada, many of whom remain friends today based on that bonding experience. Our passes allowed us into the VIP and artist areas. Golf carts whisked us to the stages, where we could be the entitled jerks who didn’t have to fight for a good vantage point to watch exciting acts like Radiohead, Bon Iver, Feist, Florence + the Machine, and Cat Power. That meant we could fit more artists into our viewing rotation, minus the stress of running from stage to stage … because golf carts! It was a dream scenario — great people, idyllic atmosphere, insanely good music.
2012 was the year of Gotye’s big hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.” One of the many pinch-me highlights of that fest was casually meeting him while waiting for a golf cart behind the stages. I also felt major butterflies rocking out alongside actor Alexander Skarsgård on more than one occasion; those VIP viewing areas offer much more entertainment beyond who is on stage! The press trip was such a success that we did it again in 2013 with another media group. I enjoyed every second because it was sheer fun and as comfortable and pampered as could be. Not having to contend with the stresses of the festival as a civilian — lines, navigating big crowds, gross porta-potties — changes everything.
Fast forward to 2022, and I knew full well what I was signing up for purchasing regular general admission. Thanks to a travel industry friend, we could secure an excellent rate at Margaritaville Resort in Palm Springs, which was on the shuttle line. The shuttle ran smoothly and was very convenient. Depending on the traffic, it took anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour to get to and from Indio. I was equally impressed by how seamlessly things ran getting through security, too. So much faster than it used to be, thanks to technology and the sheer volume of workers.
Beyond noting the improved logistics, I felt like a cultural anthropologist observing the 2022 festival-goers. Their joy and giddy happiness were palpable. I also saw a lot of bare skin. Apparently, I’ve become quite prudish at the ripe old age of 44, and I am completely out of touch with what’s in fashion among younger generations! Think transparent dresses with visible thongs and micro-mini skirts with bums hanging out. Cringe-worthy fashion trends aside, people were excited about being back and attending their first festival.
Highlights for my middle-aged self were “Camp Kim,” the Kim Crawford wine-sponsored lounge that had VIP vibes and offered an attractive shaded space to have a glass of wine while hearing whoever was on the Outside Stage. The sets I most enjoyed music-wise included Phoebe Bridgers, Orville Peck, and French DJ Madeon, who had very cool visuals. We followed the teens’ lead to acts like City Girls, Girl in Red, and Alec Benjamin. While I did stick around for a handful of Harry Styles songs, I left before the other day’s headliners, Billie Eilish and the Weeknd, and I have no regrets about the extra hour or so of sleep those early exits yielded!
I quickly realized that not having enthusiasm for the music was the big missing piece for me. All the effort and discomfort are worth it if you love the music — the tens of thousands of steps, long hours under the desert sun, maneuvering through throngs of people, breathing in dust, eating weird food, finding water, and waiting in long lines for the bathroom. While my music tastes have certainly evolved over the years, I remain a huge music fan. However, the lineup is way more poppy than in my Coachella heydays. That said, it was clear that the artists had huge fanbases, and people were having a ball. I’m just no longer the demographic.
I did relish in feeling the desert sun and breeze on my skin and seeing the glow of the lights illuminating the hundreds of palm trees at night and the massive art installations. Like everyone else, we posed for photos in front of the iconic Ferris wheel and took a ride one night. It offered a temporary pocket of peace while taking in the bird’s-eye view of the massive grounds, watching the steady flow of human bodies in constant motion below.
In conclusion, while I reaffirmed Coachella isn’t for me nowadays, I have zero regrets about going. I wouldn’t say it’s lost its soul, as some critics proclaim. It’s just transformed to remain a cultural touchstone for teens and 20-somethings — and people with music tastes that differ from my own. The most interesting outcome for me is it made me feel ready to give Stagecoach a shot, which is just as much a reflection of how my music tastes have changed. I listened to zero country music back in 2002 and was just beginning to dabble in Americana and twangier tunes in 2012. I gather Stagecoach is a mellower vibe, I’ll know more of the music, and I can soak up that same desert festival magic that will always hold a special place in my heart.