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Covid-Chella: Toxic Positivity and Trend Commercialism

by Anna Holshouser-Belden

Staff Writer

Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips in a plastic bubble at Coachella 2004 (photo by Robert Gauthier for the Los Angeles Times)

[originally published May 9, 2022]


Taking a casual Friday-afternoon scroll of the odd variety of headlines available on Apple News, I came across an article in the New York Times called “Searching for the ‘Vibe Shift’ at Coachella” by Eve Peyser. The article appeared in the Times’ style section, and reflected on shifting trends at the infamous music festival, which recently returned from its two-year Covid hiatus for two weekends in April. Through brief interviews with a few festival-goers, Peyser comes to the conclusion that 2022’s Coachella was home to a mood of “total joy,” with attendees displaying “unchecked optimism, for better or worse.” Though she never gives a specific opinion on the festival, her piece tends to lean towards a similar positive attitude to that of those she interviews, emphasizing a new sense of creative freedom and expressivity along with an overall hopeful attitude for the future post-pandemic. Coachella is painted as some sort of mecca for Gen-Z, a “coming out party for 20-somethings,” after being “tragically cooped up during their prime partying years.” Interviewees describe the festival as being a place to showcase their “full and authentic selves'' after two years of pandemic introspection, with one college student attributing seeing Harry Styles live to finally being comfortable in his bisexuality and being surrounded by fellow young people to gaining hope that Gen-Z will handle the world’s various crises better than previous generations. After a quick read-through, I found myself feeling pretty confused. From everything else I’ve seen online or heard from peers, Coachella seemed like a playground for rich, white influencers to score new brand deals while dressed like basic sorority girls or wearing culturally appropriated headdresses, not an environment for “regular” young people to reach new boundaries in terms of personal expression.

Now for a little more information about the festival itself, for those of us who usually attend Coverband Showcase that weekend instead. Coachella was started in 1999 by the entertainment company Goldenvoice, and has been hosted annually ever since, save for the last two years, with concert-goers forced to trade in flower crowns and glo-sticks for masks and hand sanitizer. Its first-ever lineup included a surprising variety of performers given the majority-pop lineups that have graced festival stages during the last seven or so years, including Beck, Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Cibo Matto, Kool Keith, Cornelius, Pavement, and Morissey. The festival ran for just two days rather than its usual six at Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, in the Colorado Desert not far from Los Angeles. The next few years saw the likes of a Jane’s Addiction reunion, Weezer, The Roots, Bjork, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Foo Fighters, The Strokes, Belle and Sebastian, Mos Def, the Beastie Boys, Ladytron, Tegan and Sara, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, M.I.A., Wilco, Depeche Mode, Bauhaus, Daft Punk, and Prince. This variety definitely wasn’t the Britney and JT I expected. Ticket prices, including parking and complimentary water bottles, ranged from $50-$80 without any extra fees. Historically, according to an article in Insider, Coachella was an affordable festival that offered space for a variety of niche audiences, which people looked to as the birthplace of organically-born trends in fashion and music each year. The Coachella of the early-2000s seemed more in line with the claims Peyser tried to make than this year’s festival, which leaves me wondering: Did Coachella used to be cool? How did it get to be the way it is now?

A little research led me to the discovery of a few key shifts in the make-up of Coachella that have led it to be the way it is today, the first taking place in 2008, when tickets did not sell out for the first time since 2003, causing Goldenvoice to lose profits through a combination of sales and high booking fees. At this point, though they’d already been gradually raising prices, the festival realized that they could begin to charge a lot more; the three years following the 2008 fiasco saw a ticket price increase from $90 to $269, and then from $269 to $349 in the years afterwards. What had once been an at least semi-affordable event was becoming more and more elite, beginning to attract the kind of wealth that it does today. Part of the drastic price increase came with a new policy in 2010 in which single-day tickets ceased to be sold, replaced by three-day passes as the festival expanded from two to three days, allowing a major increase in ticket revenue. The 2012 festival expanded Coachella into the six days it is now, split up into two three-day weekends with identical lineups, doubling what had already been an increase in revenue into a surplus. As prices rose, names became bigger and bigger until only those with vast amounts of listeners could play the festival; usually these were pop musicians. Simultaneously to the price explosion a technological explosion was happening, with the late 2000s and early 2010s seeing the transformation of flip phones into smart phones with cameras and countless available forms of social media. Being able to post images and videos so quickly completely changed the attendee experience. A photo from 2004 in Insider shows Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips being held by the crowd in a large plastic bubble, a crowd with little to no smart phones visible, drastically different from the vlogging culture present at concerts and festivals today.

Coachella 2022 has split ticket prices into three tiers, with the cheapest being $449 and the most expensive priced at $1119, of course without any extra fees, parking and housing costs, or food prices factored in. This could buy a round trip flight to Europe, the newest iPhone, or a month's rent, and is instead spent on a festival that is quickly going out of style, a comparison I think illuminates attendees' priorities. On top of this, the festival holds no mask mandate, no vaccination requirements, and no testing policy during the second surge in Omicron cases that has been taking place in the last couple of weeks. Basically, unless you’re extremely wealthy and can afford to get Covid right now, you can kiss Coachella tickets goodbye.

The performers this year include Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Swedish House Mafia, the Weeknd, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, Phoebe Bridgers, 21 Savage, and Flume; reaching a threshold that is pop-ier than ever before. There is nothing that could be argued as being even close to “underground,” no new trends that haven’t already cracked their way through into the mainstream. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong about the “mainstream,” of course, but when searching for an environment that provides young people with a vehicle of self-expression, Coachella would not be where it's found. In fact, a lot of festival-goers these days travel out to the Colorado desert venue to gain social media clout, or expand that which they already have. The festival is running amok with celebrities, and brands such as Revolve, a high-end women’s clothing brand, hire Instagram gurus to post pictures promoting their wares. A quick search under the hashtag #revolvefestival displays countless identical skinny white women posing in front of the brand’s mini festival-within-a-festival, a desperate stunt at setting trends for those scrolling through their feeds. So unless you’re a social media brand ambassador or a Euphoria star, steer clear of Indio, California this time of year.

To return to Peyser’s article, was this so-called infectious optimism she was seeing at the most recent festival actually what it appeared to be? I don’t think so. Two weekends of self-expression and post-Covid emotional release in the desert sounds nice, but I feel that this is an overly positive and unrealistic view of Coachella. To me, it seems more like the superficiality capital of the world, a genuinely intriguing music festival turned into a vessel for the fashion and music industries to hammer predictable trends into the public eye through two weekends worth of mass social media bombardment. Finally, the people who can afford to spend upwards of $500 on one weekend are not those who are starting genuine cultural trends, and those described by Peyser as “children twirling in the desert” during a global pandemic represent recklessness and fatigue, not positive social change.

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