“Social media is a highlight reel” is perhaps the most used cliché to describe the facade of our social feeds. Yet if you want to see this theory in action, you needn’t look much further than Coachella. As hundreds of thousands influencers and festival-goers flocked to Indio, California for the festival over the past two weeks, an abundance of content surrounding everything except the music flooded the internet. The veil of manufacturing fun and doing things solely for the internet has lifted, begging the question: has Coachella transformed from music festival to content festival with music in the background? And what does that mean for festival style?
Over the last decade, brands have leeched onto Coachella’s A‑list celebrity and influencer pull to set up halo-effect activations during the music festival on grounds close by. The largest and most grandiose activation is Revolve Fest, a mini Coachella stacked with performers, picturesque backdrops and trendy gifting suites, all in an effort to churn out as much “organic” content as possible, commodifying fun using thousands of celebrities, influencers and plus ones, otherwise known as content farming.
Adrienne Reau, a 26-year-old full-time content creator (@ageorama on TikTok, where she has 495k followers) who attended Coachella and Revolve Fest, was responsible for three Instagram in-feed posts, seven TikTok videos and 40 Instagram stories across her various brand deals and work obligations over one weekend. Revolve alone required 30 stories in exchange for an invite to RevolveFest. Kiersay Murray, a Calgary-based content creator (@kiersay on Instagram, with 41k followers) confirmed the same contracted deliverables from Revolve: one in-feed Instagram post, one TikTok and 30 Instagram stories. When you tally this up with the thousands of influencers who attended Revolve Fest, that means millions of pieces of content for the brand were posted online over a single weekend.
Both Reau and Murray were compensated with $2000 of store credit and were encouraged to choose from pieces hand-selected by the Revolve team; they were not paid for their content or attendance. “They gave us a spreadsheet of maybe 100 styles that we could choose from. And they’re not great,” says Reau. “I mean, Revolve has some really cute clothes on their website, you know, from all different types of designers, small and large, but they only allowed influencers to choose from the brands that they get the highest commission rate on. So walking into Revolve Fest, it was like walking into a real-life Zara. 40 people had on the same fishnet outfit and everyone was doing the same photos, the same poses, the same this, the same that.”
As more and more brands commodify fun through revolving door wardrobes, the portrayal of music festivals on social media has shifted from centring around music to centring around fashion. It becomes a costume party in adherence to festival style – and the most likes go to whoever can put together the best costume.
Festivalwear is a case study on a single-use disposable wardrobe, in and of itself. Outfit repeating on Instagram is still a taboo, especially for big events. When asked about purchasing a brand new wardrobe for the weekend, both Murray and Reau agreed this was an expectation. “I bought all new stuff, I didn’t wear one old thing. I recycle my clothes on my TikTok all the time. On my Instagram I never repeat an outfit,” says Reau. “But I will repeat pieces and everything I bought I’m, like, so overly obsessed with or got custom made.”
Dressing up for special events is expected. And it can be a joyous experiment to step out of your comfort zone by allowing a theme to guide you. However, it’s starting to feel like single-wear wardrobes have become an overarching trend and display of status at festivals. In fact, looking back on Coachella’s history, there are stand-out parallels between the festival’s increasingly extravagant fashion trends and popularity of social media.
From its 1999 inception through most of the early 2000s, the popular styles favoured practicality and function to combat the harsh desert climate and conditions. Moving into the 2010s, boho chic, flower crowns and even cultural appropriation (headdresses, bindis and dashikis) began to shape the identity of festival fashion. Today, the overall theme and dress code displayed across Instagram and TikTok is a mashup of disco bohemian in the desert, with a glitzy western flair. With each passing year, the trends have become more ostentatious, sparklier, shinier, louder to stand out on social media and, in some cases, any semblance of personal style is thrown out the window. Revolve understands this and has provided an ideal aesthetic backdrop for its Revolve Fest attendees to show off their costumes. And because Coachella was cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, its 2022 return put consumerism and the culture of excess in the foreground.
Performing for the internet is nothing new. Chances are, if you engage with social media at all, you’re participating in this highly curated performance as well – myself included. And like most things on social media, what we see isn’t necessarily reality. The truth is, the majority of Coachella attendees are there for the music, community and to have fun with friends.
But there’s power in visibility, so a couple thousand influencers showing us their manufactured reality creates a new association and perception of what Coachella is “really like”. Content strategists are constantly rooting for authenticity, rawness and realness to connect users with their audience, which ironically manifests into a curated performance of relatability. Influencers are constantly toeing the line between wondering whether fans want to hear about the layer of desert dust that adheres to your skin after a long day out in the beating sun, the huge queues, or the logistical nightmares getting from hotel to festival grounds. Or they could stick to what they know works: only highlighting the good, the glam and the fabulous.
Selling the perception of fun is, in fact, not fun. Work trip or not, the real fun happens when we put our phones on do not disturb and forget about performing for anyone. Reau can attest to this. “I didn’t want it to feel like a work trip because that just takes away from the whole purpose, but it was. I had a few moments where I was really, really unhappy and stressed out,” she says. “I would be at the festival and I’m like, ‘fuck, I have this TikTok due’ and then I’d go sit in the corner, remove myself from the fun and edit. I promised myself next year, if I’m going to go, I won’t go as an influencer.”