When Trump was elected, a sentiment I heard was “man, political satirists are gonna have a field day!”

They did not have a field day. The overwhelming consensus (both among mortals on earth and devils in hell) is that Trump-based comedy sucked: it was more boring than a male pig digging a tunnel to South Africa and hackier than Angelina Jolie and Keanu Reeves typing on the same keyboard.

There were exceptions. Tim Heidecker portrays a thin-skinned, blustering Trump pastiche in On Cinema At the Cinema. He is sometimes funny.

But overall, Trump comedy falls into two camps: jokeless “can you believe he said/did that?!?!” reactions, or juvenile “Drumpf is an ugly orange peepee poopoo cheeto Hitler fartbaby” insults that seemed more designed to hurt Trump’s feelings than to elicit on a sapient lifeform’s face the ghost of a smile.

Steve Benson, The Republic

Trump-era comedy had a horrendous heat-to-light ratio. There is only so much mileage to be had in Alec Baldwin pursing his lips and saying “yuge”.

What went wrong?

Trump was already a comedy character

The greatest comedian of the Trump years was Trump himself.

The man is hilarious. He has a diabolic gift for finding the most inappropriate thing possible to say, and then saying it. Calling Apple’s CEO “Tim Apple”. Talking about an African country called “Nambia”. Saying “Belgium is a beautiful city.” His “eulogy” for Colin Powell reads like literal satire, particularly the halfhearted backpedal at the end. “He made plenty of mistakes, but anyway, may he rest in peace!”

This overt jokiness presented a problem for comedians, because it gave them little to work with. The favorite mode of satire is to take something serious, and twist it so that it’s ridiculous. It is difficult to parody a thing that’s already funny.

I’m not even saying “Trump’s too ridiculous to parody, folks!” I’m saying he conducted himself in a broad, facially absurd way that was possibly intentional. He became famous to younger generations as a media star, after all, and surely knows how to play that game.

The cleverest thing Trump ever did was brand himself as a clown. If you’re a clown, people tend to ignore factual errors, inattentiveness, etc. You are judged by a different standard than the rest of humanity. No scandal ever sticks to you. Your gaffes make people laugh. While your opponents get dragged down by seriousness, you can skate through. Eventually, people stop caring about the clownshow. It becomes “oh, he’s just doing that thing he’s always doing.” But the question is: will people elect a clown as President? Apparently (for a brief moment in 2016, at least) the answer was yes!

Once, I was convinced by Scott Adams “Clown Genius” hypothesis: that Trump was knowingly weaponizing absurdity to judo his enemies into submission. Now, I think he mainly got lucky. He was born the way he is, and about ten fortunate things coincided (a timely scandal for Clinton, and so forth) that allowed him to become the President. He was a beneficiary of circumstance who humped the White House door until his dick picked the lock.

Regardless, lots of other people are trying to become tactical clowns. I remember seeing this Dan Crenshaw campaign ad, which turns him into an action hero who jumps out of a plane, does a Marvel landing on the hood of an antifa car, and punches through the windshield. I never saw stuff this cartoony before in US politics, at least not from major candidates. Trump paved the way.

Nobody wanted to laugh at Trump. They wanted to cheer or boo.

One of the better political parodies I’ve seen is Key & Peele on Obama. The bit I linked basically suggests that Obama’s famed “relatability” was cynical, calculating act from a cynical, calculating politician. But here’s the important thing: this is not anti-Obama. It’s basically just exploring a side to his character.

You could never do a bit that subtle about Trump. Firstly, he is not a person who has those kinds of hidden depths. And even if he did, nobody wants to explore them.

In 2016, the US was heavily polarized. The kind of “let’s just laugh at politics” bipartisanship of Yes Minister was no longer possible. Today, you have to take a side. In the media, usually a liberal side. Yes We Can, Minister.

Sara Schaefer had this to say about Trump comedy.

I was talking about this to my friend, fellow comedian Nikki Glaser, and we both agreed that in many ways, we’re too angry and scared to find the funny in Donald Trump’s rule. For me, dark material has to incubate for a really long time before it can make its way to the stage. (To give you an idea, it took me a decade to be able to find a way to write jokes about my mom’s death.) Comedians are now struggling to get the distance needed to make something awful hilarious.

And it’s not just raw outrage aimed at politicians – many of us are dealing with the emotional fallout of the 2016 election in our personal lives. We’re grappling with family members, co-workers and friends who voted for the other side. Everyone is very angry at each other. Nikki summed it up well when she said: “I hate doing Trump jokes because if a section of the audience doesn’t laugh, then I know they voted for him and then I have to spend the rest of the show hating part of my audience.” It’s a two-way street. Not even the comedians can avoid succumbing to The Great American Butthole Tightening.

For these people, comedy had become tangled up in morality and politics possibly to an unhealthy degree.

This jibes with societal shifts I noticed in the late Cracked era. Nobody, nobody gave a rat’s bum about jokes. I remember the imprecations, which usually started with preachy assertions of what comedy is or isn’t. Comedy doesn’t punch down. Comedy comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. Comedy has always been political!

It’s all well and good to try and use comedy for socially productive purposes. But…well…have you ever seen one of those Evangelicals who help the poor and needy, but underneath it is their real goal, saving souls for Christ? Yeah, it always comes out in the end. Most comedians, circa 2016, were like that. Yes, they told jokes and made audiences laugh (or at least clap)…but that was incidental. Their real purpose was to change the world.

There was a strain of thought among the left that it was almost morally wrong to joke in the age of Trump. “We should be fighting and raging and mourning, not laughing!” Others took the view that joking about Trump could be done, but it was like joking about rape: something to be done very carefully and respectfully.

Steve Almond, writing for WBUR, castigated Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, not for being unfunny, but for being calm. He wanted to see rage and fury. He asserted that the ability to make jokes at all about the incoming administration was a luxury not all Americans could afford.

“The political fate of this country isn’t a joke — especially for our most vulnerable citizens” (…) “the difference between a Biden and Trump presidency is a direct threat to your life, not a punchline” (…) “[believing otherwise is] what the voice of privilege sounds like”.

If you find Trump funny, you are a privileged white person.

Olivia Cathcart states this case even more strongly in Trump Isn’t Funny.

If tragedy plus time equals comedy, then it’s going to be a long time before any Trump jokes can pack a punch again. Trump is a tragedy but one we haven’t had any space from yet. The storm still rages and a new wound opens every day. Desperately trying to wring comedy from such an evil man is like trying to tell knock knock jokes while the Titanic’s going down. I have no interest or patience for your “zany” sketch while mid-drowning in frozen waters, and I cringe just thinking about the first way-too-soon Vice-esque movie we’ll get about this.

Nothing about Trump is funny. Nothing about him can be funny. Stop trying to force it.

Earlier, she says:

I’m so tired. I’m so exhausted. Each bombshell feels more like a fallen acorn. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because it doesn’t seem to work as a weapon against him, neither as fact nor fodder for jokes.

She reveals that she thinks of jokes as weapons. Their point is not to make anyone laugh, but to inflict damage on Trump, a person she hates. And if they are not doing that, she has little use for them.

On the other side of the aisle, conservatives who took even the mildest jabs at the President became inundated by angry Trump supporters calling them a cuck and a traitor and a RINO.

I have not discussed “conservative comedy”, but here’s a flawed but interesting video on where they were at as of 2016. They had fallen prey to many of the same ailments of the left. They were too angry to be funny. Or too something to be funny.

There was simply no room for equivocation where Trump was concerned. You were with him or against him.

Trump is confusing and complicated

As Sam Kriss once noted, Trump makes little sense. He is like a fictional character created by a bad writer.

He’s a man’s man who refuses to drink beer and eats pizza with a knife and fork. He’s the voice of Rust Belt America while being a New York liberal with a gold toilet. He’s fanatically obsessed with his appearance, yet thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to look like…that. He’s a classless boor who’s also a germaphobe. He thinks handshakes are “barbaric” and gets angry when someone dips the same nacho into guacamole twice. He’s the first President to like soccer instead of football.

His qualities are strong, but you cannot assign a one-note character to them, like you can for Nixon (“crook”), Clinton (“sex pervert”), or Bush (“dumb redneck”). It’s hard to “nail” Trump with a comedic portrayal, much as it’s hard to nail an octopus to a wall. He doesn’t appear to have an inner life that can be pulled apart. He exists as a series of flamboyant poses and gestures, many of them contradictory.

Political views? Bad news, he doesn’t have any! He’s essentially a man who likes being on TV, likes being popular, and who likes having people chant his name and applaud when he speaks. He wants to save America, not out of principle, but so that he’ll be the one to save it.

He does have strong viewpoints, but they never come from a coherent ideology. As far as I can tell, he sees a social issue on TV, gets an idea on how to solve it stuck in his head, and gets so excited he won’t metaphorically change the channel for years or sometimes decades.

“He might read something in the paper and immediately you’d get an impromptu meeting on trade,” said a person familiar with the president’s scheduling. “It’s just more impromptu than like a month in advance you have a policy time set that you’re going to work up to.”

Yes, he got sucked into the Republican Party applause-circle, and has learned to mimic their speech patterns. But he’s fundamentally not one of them, as displayed by the fact that he often forgets the script and says what he really thinks.

“I like taking the guns early. Like in this crazy man’s case that just took place in Florida, he had a lot of firearms – they saw everything – to go to court would have taken a long time, so you could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.” — Donald Trump

He is curiously stuck in the past. I don’t mean he’s conservative. In many ways, he’s not. His biggest interests were:

  • the war on drugs
  • inner-city crime
  • reviving US industry, particularly coal and steel
  • winning trade wars against China

These were all talking points from the 80s and 90s.

I’m not saying Trump’s concerns aren’t important. But he campaigned on them to the detriment of more timely issues. He had to be prodded hard before he reacted appropriately to, say, COVID, or the opioid crisis. Imagine a left-aligned politician who’s obsessed with overpopulation, holes in the ozone layer, and saving pandas. Yet he dived into social media addiction with mind-numbing force.

None of it really adds up to a character.

It’s hard to insult Trump without “punching down”

Given that Trump’s character is a maze of contradictions, what’s left? His physical aspect. But what can you say about that?

That he’s fat? That’s sizeist. That he’s old? That’s gerontophobic. That he has small feminine hands? Homophobic. That Melania is a trophy wife? Misogynistic and xenophobic.

Additionally, Trump’s tastes…

  • Pro wrestling
  • Junk food
  • Action movies
  • Daytime TV
  • Conspicuous spending

…Are decidedly low-class. They sound like they belong to either trailer trash or a rich black rapper. The only “high-class” activity he conspicuously engages in is golf. And making fun of golf is the only thing hackier than making fun of Trump.

Trump Fatigue

I was tired of hearing about Trump. You were tired of hearing about Trump. We were all tired of hearing about Trump. The way he seemingly seemed to insert himself into every conversation is something I remember with a shudder.

There was nothing to say about him. Nobody understood him. It was just “Trump, huh?” for four long years.

Overfamiliarity is the enemy of every comic.

Because of the extended phenotype

This is a little awkward to explain, but makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Basically, our bodies are larger—much, much larger—than we give them credit for. Richard Dawkins writes about “extended phenotypes”—the idea is that although our genes solely encode proteins via DNA bases, they do more: by modulating our behavior, they allow us alter environments in ways that benefit our (meaning their; meaning the genes) survival. From a genetic perspective, there is little difference between a beaver’s fur (a dead covering over the beaver that has undergone a form of cell death called cornification), and a beaver’s dam (a pile of gnawed sticks and logs). Both have (or neither) could be considered part of the beaver’s body. In essence, there is no real place where the beaver’s body begins or ends. Where does the life begin under our skin? We are surrounded by a tight-knit halo of death: a nebula of flaking skin and hairs dying according to a keratinocyte differentiation programme. We are humans who have modified the world to suit us. So according to the extended phenotype theory, the entire world—and shortly the universe beyond it—is also part of our bodies. My lawn needed a shave. So did my beard. I found the two concepts becoming entwined in my mind. As I started mowing the lawn, I felt bitter eruptions of pain all across my skin, like fireballs stinging me. I looked down and saw hair falling from my body as I pushed the lawnmower. Next, I started pulling up weeds. Blood began gushing from the earth, then I realized it wasn’t coming from the earth, but from my own body.

This is the reason why Donald John Trump (born June 14, 1946) was bad for comedy.

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Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

— Kahlil Gibran

Ringing Bell (released in Japan asチリンの鈴, or Chirin no Suzu) is an anime film from 1978. As we would expect from the studio that created Hello Kitty, it’s like falling down a pit with walls made of severed fingers and writhing snakes. It’s dark. I knew its reputation and it still surprised me with its offhand brutality: certain scenes hit like a loaded body bag dropped from twenty feet. It’s unusually thought-provoking. Usually, “adult anime” means Genocyber or MD Geist: tits and gore plus a childish concept (hey, I watch that stuff). Ringing Bell is different: it uses the vocabulary of childhood nostalgia to tell a mature and sophisticated story about existentialism, injustice, transformation and other topics usually left for incel 19th century philosophers.

Chirin is a lamb. He frolicks in a field of butterflies and small animals. His mother warns him to stay away from a nearby mountain, where a wolf lives.

Disney cliches are piling up fast, and we assume the rest of the movie will be “Chirin disobeys his mother, visits the wolf, suboptimal events occur, and Chirin learns a lesson about the importance of obeying your parents (et cetera)”. But the movie doesn’t go down that road. Chirin is well-behaved lamb, who (aside from one early mistake) obeys his mother. It is emphasized that Chirin does everything right and it doesn’t help in the end.

The wolf invades the farm, because that’s a thing it can do. It slaughters the sheep, because that’s a thing it can do. They die without resisting, because that’s a thing they can’t do. Chirin survives the massacre, but only because his mother leaps upon his body and dies in his stead. In one of the movie’s greatest shots, the wolf lunges, and the (hypothetical) camera zooms in on a scar on its eye. The scar seems to elongate through the black fur, like tear ripped in paper, revealing a slash of orange, which soon darkens to red, and then the red fragments into isolated twists of smoke, as though it wasn’t gore but fire. This is great filmmaking. Director Masami Hata found a way to imply flesh tearing and blood spurting, while displaying no on-screen violence whatsoever.

When Chirin recovers, he sees his mother dead, and the wolf gone. He does not understand. Why does he deserve this? He stands at the cusp of the movie’s central insight: it was not unjust. He is a sheep, and this is what being a sheep means. Millions of lambs have stood in his place. He is not special.

When a movie is about animals, it’s usually for a reason. One of three reasons, actually. The first is that the filmmakers had no choice. Maybe they’re adapting a children’s book written by a laudanum-addicted Victorian pederast called Archibald Featherwyckbottom III and that book has animals. Or they have some suit breathing down their neck, saying “We need to sell eleventy billion plushie dolls this quarter, so make the characters cute animals. We need the furries on our side here, so make them fuckable.”

The second is that it distances the setting from the human world, allowing access to the grand and mythic. It is difficult to tell a yearning, primal story about a character that has to pay rent and file TPS reports. Civilization is an anchor slung around your neck: it keeps you stable, but does no favors if you want to fly. A book like Life of Pi or Lord of the Flies has to forcibly extract its character(s) from the human world before the story can begin. An animal tale like Watership Down can simply get on and tell the story.

The third and most important reason is that animals have characterization built-in. Owls are wise. Lions are regal. Sharks are predatory. Dogs are loyal. Cats are devious, solitary, and sour. Foxes are devious, solitary, and cheerful. Eagles are libertarians. Hamsters are alt-right shitpoasters. Goldfish are effete limousine-liberal crypto-Kautskyites whose commitment to The Struggle is frankly more show than substance. We all know these tropes, and when there’s an animal in a movie, we understand its character before it even says or does anything.

With that in mind, what is the identity of a sheep?

Passivity. As a sheep, you are an object. You get herded around by slow but smart apes and fast but less-smart canines. You graze stupidly and endlessly, mulching grass through four successive stomachs before excreting it into pellets so uselessly precise they look like they came from an injection mold. Even your shit looks domesticated. Such is your life, a hollow tube that grass flows through, until the day the shepherd separates you from the flock, a high-velocity slug engraves death into your skull and the world spins on without you. Nobody asks your permission. Things are done to you, and done to you, and then finally you are done.

(I actually own sheep, and they’re not as domesticated as their rep suggests. They can be very stubborn and aggressive, particularly in breeding season. Males will headbutt you hard enough to leave bruises through thick jackets. I’m sure a nonzero number of people get killed by sheep each year.)

Being a sheep places Chirin in a role of servitude. If he was a man, he would be a helot in 500BC Sparta, a black person in 19th century Louisiana, or a contemporary person who doesn’t find Jacqueline Novak’s stand-up very funny. He is an oppressed minority, living in a cruel and gray world that hates him, and his life is a living hell. He makes an audacious decision: I will not be a sheep any longer. But does that even make sense? A sheep is defined by not having a choice. You can’t choose not to be a sheep, any more than a tongueless man can talk or a legless man walk. (Conspiracists deride normies as “sheeple”…but if we’re truly sheep, we have no choice but to be fooled by the conspiracy. It’s pointless to even complain about. )

So if you could decide to not be a sheep…wouldn’t that mean you never were a sheep to begin with? And thus your mother’s death was a cosmic injustice, and thus his desire to become a wolf is also unjustified? It seems paradoxical. There is comfort in believing the world is neutral of morality, and a different sort of comfort in believing in right or wrong, but you have to pick a lane. However paradoxical the desire, Chirin decides to stop being a sheep.

He tracks the wolf down, and demands that the wolf fight him. The wolf ignores him: denying him even the respect of an enemy. But then Chirin starts demanding that the wolf teach him wolfish ways. The wolf responds with mockery, yet curiously, he does not kill Chirin. It might be that he’s already begun testing Chirin (if you’re truly a wolf, you’ll not be deterred by “you can’t do it”)

Chirin stays by the wolf’s side, and learns the way of the fang and claw. They go on adventures together. The movie drags a bit here, falling into master-and-apprentice martial arts cliches. There’s a cheesy reprise of the theme song, with goofy rock guitar licks dubbed over the top. Ringing Bell can be a somewhat “broad” movie at times. Particularly the music, which lyrically emphasises things we can already see on screen in a very heavyhanded and obvious way.

But then we arrive at the final act, where a movie that has been fairly fascinating becomes utterly engrossing. Chirin is given a choice by the wolf. It’s a brutal all-or-nothing decision, not just for his life, but for his soul. His reaction and what happens next is psychologically complex and fascinating.

Otherwise, it’s just a fairly well-made short film from 1978. The production studio, Sanrio, modeled itself after Disney. Except where Disney was an animation studio that branched out into merchandizing, Sanrio was a merchandizing company that branched out into animation. “Sanrio” is apparently meant to be a portmanteau of “San” (as in “San Francisco”) and “Rio” (as in “Rio Grande”), thus making the company’s name “Saint River”. Truly, they are the Sleve McDichael of the corporate world. Their artistic ouevre could be described as “diet Madhouse”, telling surprisingly deep and complicated (and weird) stories within the conventions of 70s anime. I assumed director Masami Hata later worked at Madhouse, but that seems to not be the case. He did later work on Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. But every animator in history worked on that movie.

In many ways, Ringing Bell is a product of its time. The art style is very “70s anime”. Characters are designed with circles, where modern anime prefers triangles. There is a tragic dearth of sparkling magical schoolgirls and panty shots and oppai moments. A modern viewer would regard this as a relic of another age.

It is heavily influenced by Disney films—and both subverts those influences and plays them straight. Bambi is an obvious influence—it almost watches like a parody of that movie. The changing of the seasons, the death of a parent, the design of the adult Chirin. The marketing on the poster tries to play up this angle still further, prominently featuring furry critters and an owl who I don’t think gets one line of dialog in the actual movie.

But there’s also a Japanese character to the film which is deeply felt. The arrival of the wolf is an apocalypse, like a bomb falling on the sheep. We see it tearing them apart via silhouettes on the wall, which made me think of the permanent shadows of Hiroshima. It’s based on an anti-war manga. I was reminded of writer Kenzaburo Oe’s realization that the Showa emperor was in fact a mortal man. What better metaphor for a mother dying than that?

The truth is a gift, even when it hurts to hold. Chirin is granted a glimpse of the true reality of the world, one that most folks never get until they’re too old to change. He wishes he could return to the safety of his old life, but there never was any safety. He just had his eyes closed, and now they’re wide open. He lives in a world without justice and fairness. It has sheep and it has wolves. And it has Chirin, who is a sheep and a wolf.

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A vacuum fills itself with whatever’s available in the atmosphere. Under the ocean, it’s water. On dry land, it’s air. So what does it mean when a vacuum fills with hate?

On the weekend of July 22, 1999, concert organizers Michael Lang and John Scher flung open the gates to Griffith AFB in Rome, New York. Three days later, Woodstock ’99 had become a roasting, filth-smeared concentration camp boiling with rioting, violence, and rape. What went wrong? This documentary seeks to answer this question, and unfortunately, it succeeds.

A documentary can commit two mortal sins. The first is to answer nothing. The average Bigfoot, Jack the Ripper, or DB Cooper documentary is a thirty minute recapping of facts, and two hours of randos in armchairs speculating, and then an open-ended question. “Decide for yourself: do these clues mean anything at all? Or does the mystery remain unsolved?” I watched this so you would tell me, sir. That is why I am here.

The other sin is to answer everything. Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage weaves a familiar and too-confident narrative about generational malaise. Basically, the kids were the problem. 50% of them, to be precise.

“To blame the artists, I think it’s too easy. We never ask the deeper existential question why are so many young men in America…Why are they so angry?”

Maureen Callahan

“It’s very convenient to say that this aggressive rock band, it’s their fault, but I think that if you look at what was going on in the culture and the rot that was setting in in a lot of places, it’s bigger than nu metal, and it’s certainly bigger than Limp Bizkit.”

Steven Hyden

“I’m still so baffled, like how [music] went from the sort of progressive enlightened values of Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe to misogyny and homophobia and the rape-frat boy culture that was at Woodstock 99.”

Moby (one month before bragging about fucking a barely-legal Natalie Portman)

In short (according to the movie), Woodstock ’99 was an explosion of white male anger. It was the Stanford Prison Experiment feat. Jamiroquai. Resentful teenage boys, used to being at the top of culture, were being displaced on MTV and TRL by boy bands marketed to their kid sister. Existential rage and resentment went nuclear in the heat, stoked further by violent “bro” nu metal like Limp Bizkit. Woodstock ’99 was more than just a badly run event. It was a Fight Club with 200,000 Tyler Durdens.

The film contains fascinating (and gut-wrenching) footage, as well as vivid little touches like the missed-connections board with hundreds of handwritten “where are you? look for me here” notes on it, because, oh right, nobody has a mobile phone. Woodstock ’99 was the kind of event where you could pick out any random person and get fifty fascinating stories. Like Rolling Stone journalist Rob Sheffield, who mentions that smart people (during the insane final night) slept on piles of pizza boxes. Why pizza boxes? Because they were white. And why was that important? So you could tell when someone had urinated on them.

Sadly the documentary contains many questionable claims. And “everybody wanted to see Kid Rock” is just the start of them.

It really wants to make hay out of the toxic masculinity issue. Early on, a concertgoer (recalling her memories) ominously identifies the movie’s villain. “There were a lot of white boys! Wearing backwards baseball caps!” Then we cut to B-roll footage of members of said demographic. The filmmakers heroically resist the urge to roll John Williams’ Jaws theme.

White teenage boys make easy villains. Nobody has any sympathy for fratties hooting “SHOW US YOUR TITS!” This also lets the filmmakers connect Woodstock ’99 with modern liberal anxieties that are white teenage boy affiliated (these loutish testosterone-fueled rapemonkeys are all grown up and are probably voting for Trump!!!)

But this argument is specious and unconvincing. Korn’s Family Values tours had lots of white boys and weren’t pulsating rape orgies. Neither was Ozzfest (though I did find one reported incident of sexual assault, in 2006). The Rodney King riots did more damage to people and property than a hundred Woodstock ’99s. “Woodstock ’99 was a disaster because of evil white male pissbabies” is the type of thinking Cosma Shalizi calls “explaining a variable with a constant.” You still haven’t explained why this festival went so badly off the rails, when so many others didn’t.

Various 90s shit like Columbine and Napster and Y2K are name-dropped, as if they had anything to do with what the movie’s about. Once we used to laugh at Joe Lieberman and Jack Thompson for saying mass media causes violence. But now it appears to be perfectly respectable mainstream thought.

Blaming the audience does have one nice side effect, it allows the film to exculpate Woodstock 99’s management. I wonder if this was intentional. Perhaps promoter John Scher only agreed to be interviewed on the conditions that he be asked softball questions, and treated sympathetically. They could have been far harsher to him than they were.

Charging concertgoers for water is an asshole move in winter. In a hundred-degree summer, it should be illegal. No water = dead people. Or angry, frustrated people; which also often leads to dead people. The irony of staging Woodstock—connected inextricably with ’60s the antiwar movement—at a military base is palpable. The concrete walls and barbed wire would have only increased the anger and frustration. Who wants to be treated like a criminal? What emerges from the footage we see is a chaotic, slapdash operation with no purpose beyond extracting as much money as possible from concertgoers’ wallets, under the fig leaf of it being a “cultural moment”. Nobody respected Woodstock ’99, or the people running it.

(And I’m not sure that passing the blame onto Fred Durst helps Scher’s case. Did Limp Bizkit just rock up at Woodstock ’99 and play unannounced? Or were they there, perhaps, because somebody put them on the bill? A mystery for the ages.)

Yes, all these things are mentioned, but only in passing. The film is far more interested in allowing talking heads to spin out a huge Decline of Western Society narrative, with Woodstock ’99 being the sack of Rome. I wasn’t joking about them blaming Trump on Woodstock ’99 attendees, BTW. Actual quotes from the movie:

“[…] there is a definite umbilical cord between the dark, sexual, cultural, political underbelly in the country at that time to where we are now.”

“A lot of that energy that was permeating that crowd that day, it just wound up in chat rooms and Reddit boards and it’s just fascinating to think about because I don’t know if it’s possible to get that collection of people together in 2021 without it being a cause for concern.”

I bet Woodstock 99 also caused coronavirus, Brexit, Hitler, and Genghis Khan. Sure, why not. We’ve already got the crack pipe out anyway. Sometimes the connections made are beyond tenuous and enter “Can only be detected by professional ghost hunters using EVP” territory. Are you surprised to learn that Kurt Cobain’s death helped inspire the Woodstock ’99 riots? Me too.

The film has many a pearl to clutch over misogyny, and women being treated like sex objects. It emphasizes this by showing footage of every naked woman it could find. I kept a careful count: the film contains exactly 6,351,967,356 sets of bare breasts. You might accuse me of exaggerating a bit here, as there were less than six billion people alive in the world at the time (half of which were men) and only 200,000 tickets to Woodstock were sold, but I was careful to count those breasts. I counted ’em all out and counted ’em all back in.

So I found it very frustrating to watch, overall. It’s one of those “everything explains everything” type of deals, where fact #1 is confidently attributed to fact #2. You can do this with anything. “Remember Beanie Babies? Sure you do! Well, those seemingly innocent toys had profoundly corrosive effects on society. Think about the winner-takes-all mindset they fostered: greed, entitlement, a desire to “own” and “possess”. The collector’s mindset is one of naked, unshackled lust for mammon. You are a player in a zero sum game: your ownership of a toy means someone else is denied one. These former Beanie Baby collectors naturally went on to take on subprime mortgages, because land-ownership scratched the same itch. I have this thing. You don’t. Inevitably, society as a whole was sucked into this hypercapitalist death-vortex. And that’s how Beanie Babies caused the 2007–2008 financial crisis.” I made that up. It took ten seconds, nine of which were spent thinking about how Katy Perry’s shirt would look when wet. Yet it sounds plausible and can’t be easily disproven—for all I know, Beanie Babies actually did cause 2007–2008 financial crisis!—so you might believe it, particularly if it jibes with your preconceptions about society. Trees always fall in the direction they’re already leaning, after all.

The film achieves one thing, though: it reminds me of how things were. Under the baking sledgehammer sun, we see the dregs of American monoculture evaporate.

Once, there was a sort of cultural unity in the US. Millions of little kids sat down at the set and watched Sesame Street at four and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at five and the Electric Company at five-thirty. Whatever their differences in social class, for an hour and a half each day children lived in the same world.

Their older peers watched the same cartoons. Grownups watched the same evening news. Then the internet and smartphones and social media washed over everything in a tidal wave, stranding us on little media islands that only putatively connect to each other. There’s no longer “the” news. There’s “your” news. The old sense of unity is gone: gaze out at the world through a screen, and it rearranges itself to suit your will (or that of Mark Zuckerberg).

This shift happened across all media: we have so much choice now that a thing like Woodstock (a singular music festival, uniting the country in peace and love) feels anachronistic. Media consumption is now defined by its isolation from any larger context.

Beavis and Butthead, the arch-90s cartoon for me, has aged really strangely. Its defining image—two teens sitting in front of a TV, scoffing at music videos—doesn’t work anymore. This is a thing that doesn’t happen. Kids never have to deal with media that baffles or confuses or alienates them. They never have to endure something that isn’t made for them. Algorithms filter it away like a bad small.

Zoomer Beavis and Butthead wouldn’t denigrate Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys. They would barely even know those artists are alive. Forget letting an MTV veejay determine what you listen to: now you can fire up a Spotify playlist, aim it like a cat’s laser pointer at whatever micro-genre your peers socially approve of, and hear nothing except that genre until forever.

I’m still shocked at how the world works now. A few years ago, I heard about someone called “Jake Paul”. I guessed he was some flavor-of-the-month celebrity famous for shaving his balls on America’s Got Pubic Lice or something. I was shocked to learn that he’d been famous for many years, with millions of followers. How come I hadn’t heard of him? It was like being the target of a Kafkaesque conspiracy. Once, 73 million viewers watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and it was a cultural moment. Today, a Youtube video can have multiple billions of views, and it’ll be some kpop performer you’ve never heard of unless you’re “inside” that algorithmic bucket.

Whatever. I don’t feel deprived by not knowing about Jake Paul and kpop. And even though the Woodstockers’ contempt for boy bands is cited as evidence of their misogyny (the Offspring’s Dexter Holland sets up manniquins of the Backstreet Boys on stage, and the audience pelts them with water bottles. That’s gotta be the Woodstock ’99 equivalent of toilet-papering your neighbor’s house at the start of COVID), do you really need to listen to a corporate slop boy band (managed by a Ponzi schemer and alleged pedophile) to respect women? Mass culture is vapid and hollow. Maybe it’s better for it to die, and for all of us to find our own path. But we’re not finding it—for most of us, our path is chosen for us by some social media algorithm. It’s not our isolation that troubles me, but the fact that we’re being isolated against our will. When farmer splits a cow from the herd, he might be doing it for the animal’s wellbeing, but it’s more likely, there’s a bolt gun nearby.

Woodstock ’99 leaves you feeling a bit heavy, because it depicts something unthinkable: an American monoculture. It also shows kids being kids, instead of whatever the fuck they are now.

Here’s a quote from a review I saved. I wish I could find and credit the author:

A concert like Woodstock 99 was a moment in these people’s lives, that they could leave behind. The panopticon we live in has changed our lives away from this more than pop culture growing out of Nu-metal. You tore stuff up, you set shit on fire, you flashed, you saw Kid Rock, and you went home taking only memories and stories. Now everything we do lives on forever. Don’t you wish you could have a moment where you could have fun, see music, get drunk, do drugs, do whatever without the threat of it haunting you forever? Without it coming up when an employer googles your name? Cell phones would quickly start becoming common place after this, then camera phones, then smart phones. This was one of the last bastions of any sort of reckless freedom that anybody had.

Yeah, I noticed that too. The lack of fear.

We see people slumped over and shirtless and covered in dirt, looking their worst and not caring. We see women with bare faces, waving and smiling. Nobody’s running a “brand” and making stupid faces behind a selfie stick. Cameras exist in the world of 1999 (obviously, or I’d be looking at a blank screen), but it’s different somehow. There’s no Eye of Sauron upon these people. No omnipresent dread of having your soul captured and converted into content because you look or act weird. They’re just kids, surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire, paying $4 for a bottle of water, free in a way that we are not.

People today are addicted to filming themselves. It doesn’t matter if nobody’s watching. It doesn’t matter if they’re amassing evidence that sends them to prison (the 6/1 riots are mentioned, of course). Everyone impulsively creates content, like they’re scratching an itching scab. When I go to a concert these days, I’m never in the moment, I’m far outside it, trying to frame it inside a lambent rectangle. I worry that photos I’ll never look at will turn out like shit. When something cool happens, I frantically try to capture it, as though it’s not real unless I do. I, along with everyone else, am the show’s unpaid camera crew. The compulsion to record is overriding. People are now walking, talking cameras, with a vestigial human body attached.

There are signs of things to come. One guy says that he’s gonna get in the moshpit at Metallica’s show. Maybe they’ll film it, and he’ll see himself on MTV! We hear the first rumbles of an the earthquake in his words. People were starting to grasp the idea that, with affordable cameras rolling out from the bamboo curtain in the hundreds of thousands, they could fuse their anima with that of the show. That they were its curators, editors, and sometimes it’s performers. These days, we’re all that guy. The glass media calf has toppled and shattered into a million fractured mirrors, each of them reflecting one of our faces.

It’s somewhat sad watching all this bleary, scanlined footage of the past. Like seeing the final days of a remote jungle tribe, who don’t know their land has been cleared for logging. Five years ’till Myspace, ten years ’till Facebook, twenty years ’till Tiktok. Enjoy it while you can, guys. Baking on the tarmac, getting ripped off for water, immersed in predatory, exploitative anarchy, listening to fuck-awful band after fuck-awful band…they thought they were in hell. Now most of them would give anything to go back.

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