Coachella 2016 review: Why the much-maligned desert festival is about far more than beautiful narcissists

Is holding a festival in an arid desert a terrible idea? Coachella's draining heat and dust didn't deter Kashmira Gander

Kashmira Gander
Tuesday 17 May 2016 09:24
Synth-pop juggernaut Ellie Goulding has cracked the US
Synth-pop juggernaut Ellie Goulding has cracked the US

Coachella is full of vapid, narcissistic people who are too worried about looking flawless and snapping selfies to actually enjoy a festival properly. At least that is the picture painted by much of the mainstream media coverage of the three-day event which sees almost 200,000 mainly twenty-somethings descend onto a polo field in the desert city of Indio, California.

Spread across two consecutive weekends in late April, Coachella beckons a flood of articles poking fun at women's pristine boho clothes, as it if weren’t a music festival at all. Insensitive outfits featuring Native American headdresses and bindis have rightly come under fire in the past, as well as more innocuous choices such as bum bags and metallic stick-on tattoos. So as a devoted cynic and lover of the mud, eclectic crowd and mind-boggling variety of Glastonbury, I entered Coachella’s grounds on the second weekend braced to wade through a sea of vacuous people in the hope of catching some decent music and topping up my vitamin D levels.

The three-day event takes place in a polo field in the desert city of Indio, California

But the ingredients of a great music festival were all there: an outstanding mixture of music genres, striking art installations - including four towering yellow bee-hives - and a positive, open-minded crowd. Meanwhile, the extreme weather conditions certainly kept me on my toes.

On Friday, we were confronted with intense sun and almost 40C heat, interspersed with strong desert winds that whipped up dust and dried grass off the ground and into people’s nostrils and eyes.

Perhaps that explains why by 11pm the crowd was largely unmoved by LCD Soundsystem’s headlining set. This was despite the fact that they were witnessing the second show of the band’s highly-anticipated comeback; the first being on the festival’s first weekend. The cult group was tight, their almost hypnotic songs encompassing genres from electro to disco sounded fresh, and lead singer James Murphy’s wry attitude added an extra spark. But neither ‘Daft Punk is Playing at My House’ nor Prince and Bowie tributes ‘Controversy’ and ‘Heroes’ set the crowd in motion for more than a few seconds - even at the very front.

Ellie Goulding, the polished synth-pop juggernaut who has cracked the US, suffered a similar fate earlier in the day. The throng gathered at the main stage to hear hits including ‘Love Me Like You Do’, ‘Burn’ and ‘Anything Could Happen’, but could barely muster a mumble when she held out her microphone for them to sing back to her.

Honest charm: Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry

Despite shouting their love for both LCD Soundsystem and Goulding, those in the audience had wilted in the draining heat. This struggle suggests the obvious: inviting hundreds of thousands of people into an arid desert, where they will dehydrate themselves with alcohol, is actually a terrible idea. People will struggle to function, let alone dance.

And yet, slightly cooler climes (for a desert at least) on Saturday ushered in a different mood. Despite their smaller US following, Chvrches attracted a similarly large crowd as Goulding. Catchy melodic electro-pop songs from albums Bones of What You Believe and Every Open Eye matched with the honest charm of lead singer Lauren Mayberry - who admitted that she accidentally spat in her hair and urged the audience not to support Donald Trump - proved that it is possible to get people dancing at Coachella.

But nothing quite shatters the idea that a party in the desert is impossible like the staggering popularity of the dance acts. If Johnny Borrell’s recent interview about the demise of indie music suggested the death knell of the relevance of guitar bands, the hoards losing themselves to the myriad forms of dance music at Coachella is a nail in the coffin.

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On Saturday, the main stage brimmed with people dancing hungrily to Disclosure’s RnB-inspired electronic beats. The duo confidently teased screams from the audience by asking them whether they wanted to hear ‘Latch’, which features the vocals of an absent Sam Smith. Audiences overflowed from the Sahara tent, which is fitted with enormous screens on the stage and in cubes dangling from the ceiling, to catch self-styled ‘ratchet music’ producer DJ Mustard on Friday, and the bass-heavy trap of RL Grime who headlined on Saturday night. Meanwhile at the Outdoor stage on Saturday night, people frantically ran to watch glitchy-EDM star DJ Zedd, even though the stale-sounding ‘Stay the Night’ featuring Paramore’s Hayley Williams was among his opening tracks.

Major Lazer at the main stage on Sunday afternoon offered a respite from European-inspired dance music by playing dub-tinged tracks including ‘Light It Up’, ‘Lean On’, ‘Get Free’ as well as dancehall classics including ‘Murder She Wrote’ by Chaka Demus & Pliers. Although more sparse, crowds were just as tantalised by dance behemoths Underworld as newer artists, with ‘Born Trippy’ given the best reception, shattering the myth that Coachella merely attracts posers searching for content to fill their Instagram profiles.

Excitement: Calvin Harris closed the festival on Sunday night

However, nothing matched the excitement caused by Calvin Harris, who long ago morphed from a scruffy electro artist to Armani underwear model and figurehead of pounding EDM. Closing the festival on Sunday night, he wove hit tracks including ‘How Deep is Your Love’, ‘Feel So Close’ and ‘Summer’ with predictable bass drops which nevertheless saw the crowd happily relent their final dregs of energy to jump and hug their friends, despite likely narrowly avoiding heat stroke earlier that day.

Admittedly, the parade of “beautiful people”, who arguably spend too long coiffing hairdos and applying makeup which will ultimately blow away or melt off in the harsh desert climate, can feel unrelenting for someone used to the scruffy raincoats and wellies of British festivals. But then again, since when were fashion and music mutually exclusive? The sad recent deaths of both Prince and David Bowie - both celebrated for their wonderfully flamboyant clothes as well as their music - being the clearest examples of this.

Coachella's second weekend officially started a day after Prince’s untimely death. The countless cars emblazoned with dry-marker tributes to the singer who started his career decades before most of them were born, and the enthusiasm with which they cheered for him as artists paid their tributes was touching. It showed Coachella is unashamedly about popular music, and people expressing themselves by escaping from reality with their best friends for a few days - and who can argue with that?

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