Reviewing this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival for the New York Times, writer Ben Ratliff struggles to formulate why the experience was so boring. In the first sentences of his review, he concedes that the three-day festival is, and always has been, nothing but business; a little down the page, he acknowledges that “more than ever, the sets felt like jobs with a bit more self-promotional energy.” Despite its purely commercial motives, he claims that Coachella used to have an “aura” that is now gone. Searching for what has been lost, he settles on a journalistic commonplace: innocence.
The argument takes an interesting form. Ratliff isn’t saying that the festival’s organizers or performers have lost their innocence along the way, nor is he stupid enough to suggest that they ever had any innocence to lose. The festival, as he says, has always been about dollar bills. Ratliff’s beef is that, this year, the entire festival will be repeated in the exact same order next weekend. For him, this repetition robs the festival of the illusion of spontaneity that, once, made the audience “feel innocent.” When he complains that “innocence” is “projected onstage rather than felt by the audience, as part of the music’s artifice,” the ideal structure of the festival becomes clear. The mercenaries of showbiz are supposed to execute their orders in cold blood, thereby allowing us ordinary suckers to feel blameless and clean.
According to this way of thinking, innocence properly belongs to the crowd of spectators who have paid $285 each for a pass (or a little less for one-day tickets). In exchange for their purchase, they get to feel a toddler’s awe as performers bestow “acts of generosity” upon them in the form of spectacular gestures. Presumably, the suckers are not only innocent in the sense that they get to experience childlike wonder, but they are also rendered temporarily innocent of the knowledge that they are paying to look at a spectacle that is cynically orchestrated by entertainment conglomerates. Everyone knows it’s a shitty ripoff, but when they see “a balloon rising into the vast desert sky,” they can forget.
It’s a fitting analysis of a concert whose biggest star was a hologram of a dead man, but much is missing from this critique. Ratliff is not suggesting that the festival should have more actual spontaneity, nor that “second-tier reunions” of 90s bands are a waste of everyone’s time, nor that genres that took shape 20, 30, or 40 years ago have burned themselves out, nor that the musicians ought to provide anything more interesting than big surprises. He’s not even suggesting that there’s anything inherently boring about watching three days of scripted pop sets. He seems merely to be saying that, while we all know that every act is meticulously choreographed and leaves nothing to chance, the festival shouldn’t acknowledge that by repeating itself. Knowing that the event will be repeated, note for note, step for step, makes its mechanical cynicism too transparent. Of course, we all know very well that the digital puppet of Tupac is an unholy automaton who will bust the same moves in a vacant lot in Van Nuys or on a stage in Indio, but how can you, the spectator, pretend otherwise if you know he’ll be back at the same time next week?
Hologram Tupac, dead at Coachella
I will leave it to a critic whose gifts exceed my own to expound the connection between Ratliff’s analysis and Nate Dogg’s (RIP) chorus in Tupac’s “It’s All About U.” For now, maybe we can read the future in MTV correspondent James Montgomery's response to Hologram Tupac, a list of the top dead acts he would most like to see “live” in holographic form. It seems likely that, if this technology continues to be used, it will be used to solve one of the music business’s biggest problems, namely that its most profitable entertainers have died. What better way for the living-dead music industry to perpetuate itself than by resurrecting its biggest stars as zombies?
I would like to propose an alternative use for holographic technology. If Coachella needs spectators who feel innocent in order to function properly, why don’t the organizers replace the audience with holograms? That way, no one has to pretend to feel innocent while standing outside all day in the fucking desert sun, drinking $9 Heineken, while medics bear candyflipping teenagers on stretchers to the first aid tent. Revenue could come from pay-per-view consumers, industry professionals, vendors, and journalists who want to see someone else having an authentic experience of counterfeit bliss.
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