Coachella--It's Still Problematic

If you know just about anything about pop-culture, you’ve heard the buzz in these past few weeks about Coachella. On top of the fact that basically anybody who's anybody in the celebrity world is there, the festival is made for Instagram-worthy pictures––this festival is made to be seen. If you’ve somehow gone this long without hearing about the festival, it is essentially a highly publicized (highly priced) music festival crawling with social media influencers, complete with exclusive parties and the increasingly iconic Ferris Wheel.


Underneath the loud pop music and colorful lights, the festival (which outwardly promotes a sort of pseudo-hippie, free spirit vibe despite the insane price) is a hub of controversy, to say the least. With a major focus on fashion, it seems like many festival-goers make cultural appropriation their style inspiration. Full of corporate-sponsored parties and private events, Coachella is largely an indicator of wealth and privilege rather than true creative freedom.


As celebrities spent their 2019 Coachella lounging at the McDonald's after party, the yearly Coachella controversy took hold of social media and those of us on the outside looking in. We’ve quietly known about Coachella’s co-owner Philip Anschutz’s donations to anti-LGBT organizations since 2016, but it’s never really taken center-stage. With everyone’s favorite artists performing and an air of “if you’re not here, you’re missing out,” something about Coachella has kept this debate pretty tame. But this year, following headliner Ariana Grande’s performance, that conversation made its way to the general public.


Set to headline Manchester Pride this summer, Ariana Grande considers herself an avid supporter of the LGBT community. While this announcement alone (a straight woman headlining a queer festival AND gentrifying ticket prices) caused a rift between supporters, her performance at Coachella left many fans with a bad taste in their mouth––even if the gesture itself seemed supportive enough. Grande (in place of boycotting the festival altogether) chose to show her solidarity with queer fans by projecting the LGBT flag during the final song of her performance.


While many of her die-hard fans called this gesture a “fuck you” to the homophobic owner, I’m sure the millions of dollars in revenue she put in his pocket softens this blow just a little bit. Though I’m sure a comforting shift to see a popstar openly supporting a historically marginalized community, at the end of the day, her performance (and all others at the festival) upholds a culture of homophobia as long as the money supports problematic organizations. For a festival that––at its core––seems more about profit than optics, Grande’s gesture was little more than a PR move. And, in a country where the most universal language is dollar signs, what does that mean for the general, non-celebrity rest of us?


Maybe it’s easier for mega super-star Ariana Grande to use her voice for good, but what we (as fans, as attendants) do with our money still carries weight. A few gay influencers claim that “visibility” at the festival should be the top priority. This statement, to me, seems little more than a hollow excuse from economically privileged people claiming activism to avoid confrontation. While, yes, all LGBT people will feel the effects of homophobia, it’s those lacking financial stability who will suffer the most at the hands of these organizations. An overwhelming percentage Coachella attendees have the luxury of disposable income and stable housing––and can afford to ignore organizations that potentially target more vulnerable groups.


Maybe some part of me can empathize with the idea of visibility. Although often used to veil complacency, this sentiment is also used as a protection from the harsh reality we face. The celebrities we most admire won’t sacrifice their paychecks even for the core identities of their fans. Maybe if we can convince ourselves that the festival will eventually morph into the inclusive, diverse event we see in our heads, then we can swallow the lump in our throats and go live it up with Vanessa Hudgens (or whatever regular people do there). But here’s the thing––I can’t.


In a space that structurally oppresses marginalized people, I don’t think there’s a way we can truly transform it into a safe space for everybody. Coachella need not be dubbed a permanent fixture of our broken society; in a truly just world--and in our capitalist society--consumers have the ability to strip this festival of its power. Of course, in reality, as long as celebrities with huge followings continue to promote the event and ignore its sinister financial history, we’ve reached a moot point. I certainly don’t think it’s reasonable to stop supporting every artist who attends this huge festival, but I do think it’s essential that we remember that our money has the power to change things. We can ask our favorite artists to do better and choose to support organizations that uplift people rather than harm them. At the end of the day, I don’t know how exactly to solve this problem, but I do know we should all stop going to Coachella until we figure it out.