The Coachella Fest Faithful

Coachella Fest 2013. Photo by Matt Emerson.

Interested in seeing DJ Falcon? How about Woodkid or the Afghan Whigs? Maybe Lorde or Neutral Milk Hotel? Perhaps some Beady Eye followed by Flosstradamus? 

No? You're aching more for Duck Sauce, or perhaps J. Roddy Walston & The Business?

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Whoever you are, I'd bet a beach cruiser and a Bob Marley t-shirt that you'll discover a band for you at this year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the lineups for which were announced Jan. 8. 

Coachella Fest (or simply "Coachella" as its known to locals and chronic concert-goers) makes landfall each spring in Indio, CA (just down the street from Palm Desert), on the grounds of the Empire Polo Club. In the last decade, Coachella Fest has become one of the most crowd-pleasing music venues in the world. Coachella used to take place over the course of one weekend, but its popularity enticed concert promoters in 2011 to expand it to two. The same bands and musicians now perform on two consecutive weekends. People travel to Coachella from around the globe, and many camp out the entire weekend on the venue's sprawling, dusty lawns, the hundreds of small tents giving it the look of a refugee camp. And that's an apt way to describe it. Many who crowd before Coachella's stages do seem to be in flight from something, whether civilization, convention, or the obligations of adult life. 

For those who love music, Coachella has become a place of pilgrimage. It's become a scene for something beyond, something better, something transcendent. 

When I first moved to Palm Desert, I had never heard of Coachella. But in the spring of 2010, my first in this area, something like Pentecost hit the school where I teach. In the days leading to the concert, excited conversations filled the halls. Students talked about who they were going to see, and various campus groups all seemed to unite in one great pro-Coachella faction. During the week of the festival, there is neither male nor female, neither actor nor athlete, neither freshman nor senior, but all are one in their imagining of great music.

Eventually, some of them asked, "Mr. Emerson, are you going to Coachella?" When I said I didn't know what Coachella was, they looked stunned, even appalled. Their looks greeted me with the same incomprehension as the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They looked at me as if to say, "Are you the only visitor . . . who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?"

Some might dismiss Coachella (as I once did) as just another venue for unfettered and harmful freedom. And they wouldn't be entirely wrong. But sensing how much our students anticipate the event, observing the thrill that Coachella delivers them, I've come to agree with a colleague of mine, who once said about Coachella, "It reveals a great hunger."

I attended Coachella for the first time last year, and my colleague is right. The object of that hunger may not be certain, but beyond the drugs and the promiscuity, the strange behaviors and weird art, Coachella attracts thousands of people searching not only for good music (of which there is plenty), but also for something meaningful, true, and transcendent. In the passion for lyrics and song, in the mass compliance with the commands of a performer, Coachella draws out something ancient and tribal, evoking a response with which we all can, at some level, relate. The Coachella Fest faithful want to connect with a force beyond the trivial, with a presence beyond themselves, with a numen that will transport them into a better, unburdened existence. For many, Coachella becomes a kind of liturgy, its icons and images part of a secular sacramentality. The Catholic in me is troubled by much of Coachella, but the Catholic in me, at the same time, gets it.

What I wish my students experienced at Mass, many experience at Coachella Fest. For many of them, it is not the words of Scripture, but the words of their favorite songs, that offer comfort and inspiration. This isn't to validate every aspect of Coachella, or to bestow the festival with a gravitas it does not possess. It's not midnight Mass at St. Peter's, after all. But the popularity of Coachella is worth reflecting upon for what it tells us about the modern world, about culture, and about the context in which we ask our students to embrace the Christian faith. What is it, we might ask, that Coachella Fest provides them that organized religion does not? 

Related posts:

Coachella Fest and Me: Part I

Coachella Fest and Me: Part II, Life on the Inside

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