Former One Direction heartthrob and all-around hunk Harry Styles closed out the first day of Coachella with a performance befitting a rockstar. Shrugging off a fur coat and sprinting down an angelic white staircase, the superstar launched into his 80–minute set. And people had feelings. Many people online were proud and in awe of Styles (not to mention pretty turned on) and tweeted that they were a little jealous that they couldn’t experience it IRL. But standing in the main stage crowd, enveloped by the opening sound of the tight snare drum off of Styles’ newest synth-pop single, “As It Was," and completely mesmerised by his sparkly Gucci jumpsuit, we only felt one thing: pure joy.
It wasn’t an entirely surprising feeling to be having while watching Styles perform live, because joy is pretty much the star’s schtick, but what is surprising is the fact that we could apply it to the festival as a whole because we had doubts. Over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic and with much bigger issues at the forefront of people’s mind, watching musicians sing about heartbreak or looking out for Vanessa Hudgens’ latest festival fit felt a little frivolous. But it turns out that distance is exactly what we needed. Because this year’s Coachella was important for the very fact that it reclaimed something the pandemic had taken from us. There was, at least personally, a greater appreciation for the actual music and artists we were seeing on stage — because we were able to see them in person, and more importantly, enjoy this art together.
If you’ve turned on Spotify or scanned your Instagram feed in April of any year, chances are you know what Coachella is. The famous music and arts festival, running in Indio, California, since 1999, has been one of the places for music lovers to see some of their favourite musicians perform their all-time hits (and bring out incredible and always surprising guest performers) and scout up-and-coming artists.
Despite the fact that it’s so iconic (CC: Beyoncé’s “Beychella” HBCU homage in 2018, Prince’s unexpected cover of Radiohead's "Creep" in 2008, the elusive and now disbanded Daft Punk in 2006, and, of course, the Tupac hologram in Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre’s star-studded 2012 headliner performance), the fest has always had a bit of an interesting, and complicated, rep — especially in the last decade, as it seemingly transitioned from a Pearl Jam-inspired celebration of artists and their music into a dusty fashion show and cultural appropriation haven (yes, we’re talking about the war bonnets). Attending the three-day festival is a coveted experience that comes with a hefty — and potentially prohibitive — price tag as well, making it feel a bit inaccessible and elitist.
On top of all the typical and logistical issues that may come with an event like Coachella, this year’s event — the first since 2020 and 2021 were canceled due to the pandemic — brought with it another layer of issues and questions to internally grapple with. First, around the necessity of it at all. For many people, the pandemic put a lot into perspective. Many people are still facing incredible hardships from over the past two years, including getting sick and losing their jobs and loved ones, making something like Coachella feel a little silly in comparison. And more specifically, this year’s festival elicited complicated feelings around being back at an event like this — one with big crowds, no masking requirements, and no vaccination or testing needed to attend — after staying indoors and being told to do essentially the opposite in order to keep everyone around us safe and healthy. Yes we’re fully vaccinated, but with COVID still very much present, is it actually even OKAY to be at an event like this?
It’s a feeling many people have had to grapple with throughout the pandemic as they made decisions around whether or not to see family and friends and balancing their mental health with public safety. It’s a reality that more and more people will have to contend with as higher vaccination rates allow restrictions to be lifted and the world starts to open up this summer (all while new variants of COVID continue to pop up).
With all this running through our minds heading into the weekend, our first day of the fest was honestly still much tougher than expected. We started the afternoon by entering the Empire Polo Club’s grounds and immediately sprinting to our first artist interview, but were shocked to find there was little to no signage pointing us in the right direction. One employee showed us what he thought was the information desk and after trekking over there, we quickly learned it was, in fact, a popsicle stand.
Thirty minutes late to our interview, we finally made it to the media tent only to find out our artist had never shown, which seemed to be a theme, as all three of our scheduled artist interviews were canceled before the end of the day. The reality is that the first day was chaotic and frustrating for most people, from the staff, media, and artists and their management teams, as we tried to navigate a situation with little to no information, while also adjusting to the overwhelming buzz of being back at an event of this size.
We honestly were most frustrated by the fact that we were in physical pain (thanks to one of our two-inch platform Doc Martens) and essentially begging for anyone to be able to point us in the right direction of where we needed to be. And yet it felt like nobody could help us, or even wanted to. This resulted in us racking up over 32,000 steps, which is about 16 miles. Two hours before Styles was scheduled to perform, we were ready to call it quits, Coachella having brought out the worst in us.
But it didn’t last for long. Because it turns out the most shocking part of the weekend wasn’t the moment Styles brought out Shania Twain to sensually croon “You’re Still The One,” or when CL brought out her former 2NE1 group members — Park Bom, Sandara, and Minzy — to take over 88rising’s Head in the Clouds Forever and perform their global hit “I Am The Best.” It was how easily our tunes changed about the festival altogether. Despite any COVID hesitancy or reservations about being at the festival, and in spite of the absolute chaos that was every moment outside of it, that all washed away as soon as an artist, whether it was Harry on the main stage, or Italian rock band and Eurovision winners Måneskin on Mojave, strummed that first chord or belted that first note. (It's important to acknowledge that both of us are not immunocompromised, something that impacted our decision to attend the festival as well as our feelings of safety while there. This is not the case for everyone).
Part of the overwhelming chaos of the festival had to do with the fact we were all finally experiencing what we had been deprived of for so long — the simple but powerful pleasure of being together and hearing artists you love with people who appreciate them as much as you. The loss of collective experiences was another thing the pandemic had ripped from us. There was a greater appreciation for the actual music and artists we were seeing on stage and IRL — because we were able to see them at all, and more importantly, enjoy this art together. In many ways, as we stood alongside other fans swaying to Styles’ new single “Boyfriends,” it felt like a reset back to basics and the OG ethos of the festival altogether: to just enjoy and celebrate the music. (And this year’s fashion taking a backseat really shows that it was actually all about the music!).
And it’s clear artists themselves felt this way, too. “Playing live music again is amazing. I’ve really missed it,” singer Charli XCX told Refinery29 at the festival on Sunday. “My shows are crazy, not to be braggy, but they really go off so it’s really cool to be back in that space with my fans just feeding off of each other's wildness and energy. I really missed it.”
Our feet were torn to shreds, we failed to make any of the media content we planned to on the first day, and we were moments away from screaming at anyone who crossed our paths. But all of our personal and professional problems, even the ones unrelated to Coachella, fell away for the 80 minutes we got to finally see Styles light up the stage, and that gratitude guided us through the next two days.
If there was a doubt whether experiences like this are important anymore, Coachella Weekend One proved to us that watching your favourite people perform will always be worth it. Listening to Styles belt out, “Just stop your crying, it'll be alright, they told me that the end is near,” after several years of uncertainty, gave us hope that maybe we’ll all be okay.