What Is Coachella? A Look At the History of the “Influencer Olympics”

When you think of the Coachella Festival, which takes place annually in Indio, California, a very specific image comes to mind: influencers adorned with festival outfits that barely meet plausible deniability for cultural appropriation, massive, reckless mobs ruling a corner of the arid California Desert, and music superstars delivering performances so meticulously planned and well-funded that they could qualify as a Broadway production. An event designed for maximum Instagrammability. For two weekends each year in April, this all comes true. But how did an event with anti-capitalist roots evolve into the bastion of consumerism we know it to be today? 

The first Coachella Festival took place in April of 1999 at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California. The music festival has its origins in a concert the Seattle-based band Pearl Jam hosted in 1993. In an effort to lower ticket prices and cut ties with the vendor Ticketmaster, who continues to hold a relative monopoly on the ticket industry to this day, Pearl Jam actively searched for venues that weren’t affiliated with Ticketmaster. They eventually landed on the Empire Polo Club. For many years after, the Coachella Festival played almost exclusively rock and alternative acts. Contrary to the modern day crowd, which is known for being unexcited or unruly at worst, racking up hefty fines by the city of Indio for breaking curfew, the crowd at the first Coachella Festivals were cited as being polite by Indio locals. In a 1999 review of the festival, Rolling Stone wrote “Polite behavior is not something associated with large-scale rock festivals, but it was very much in effect at Coachella. People would say ‘excuse me’ after they bumped into you.” As the event’s popularity rose, the genre of musical acts became more mainstream, with the 2024 headliners being Lana del Rey, Tyler, The Creator, Doja Cat, and No Doubt. The event’s annual attendance has also risen dramatically since the first show, gradually increasing from 25,000 fans at its first 1999 event to nearly 200,000 fans at the most recent 2024 event. 

Despite the prolific headliners that make the event a must-see for music lovers, Coachella’s entrance into the mainstream has solidified its moniker (first invented on Twitter in 2019) of the “influencer olympics.” This is likely due to the culture of fashion and shareable moments that the festival boasts, encouraging social media creators to wear their best festival attire. The boho chic style which has come to characterize Coachella fashion has been called out for allegedly partaking in cultural appropriation, especially Bindis, headdresses and styles that have roots in traditional Romani clothing. The culture of fashion overconsumption surrounding Coachella has also been criticized: “Festival wear” categories have been popping up on fast fashion websites like Shein, inspiring festival goers to build a festival wardrobe of items they will likely never wear again. 

The modern landscape of Coachella is evolving to one where the musical performances act as more of a backdrop than a main attractor. Regardless of what the future holds for the famed festival, it will remain an intriguing look into the state of American pop culture. 

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