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.

No Comments »

Comments are moderated and may take up to 24 hours to appear.

No comments yet.

RSS TrackBack URL

Leave a comment