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The Nu-Normal #09: We Need To Talk About Woodstock 99
And the shortcomings of documentary filmmaking, music journalism and cultural critique.
Firstly, my apologies for being a day late with this piece. I had to let the takes contained within sit in the oven of my mind palace just a little longer, so as to marinate in the juices of my bubbling frustration and misdirected apathy.
Okay, for real though, I got carried away and didn’t get around to this in time for my usual Thursday upload. However, do not despair, fair reader. For said takes are here now, well seasoned, piping hot, and ready for human consumption.
So, let’s talk about HBO’s latest documentary and flagrant Twitter firestarter: Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage.
For those unfamiliar with the film, here’s the synopsis:
“Explores Woodstock 99, a three-day music festival promoted to echo unity and counterculture idealism of the original 1969 concert but instead devolved into riots, looting and sexual assaults.”
And the trailer:
And, in the interests of full-blown transparency and expediency, here’s my TL;DW review for Letterboxd:
Don’t worry, we’ll get to John Scher and Moby shortly. But for now, here are the takes: This thing sucks. Like, really, really bad. Like, spending-two-hours-of-your-evening-pausing-and-ranting-and-furiously-screaming-at-your-television-because-of-the-sheer-cultural-myopia-of-a-music-documentary bad.
I loathed this documentary. The musical analysis—should one be forced to sink low enough to call it such a thing—was paper-thin and woefully misrepresented. Its facile engagement with ideas of counterculture, history, and macro socio-political factors was often logically inconsistent and downright regressive.
So, in the interests of conciseness, I’ve picked five main points of contention that I have with arguments and analysis levelled by the talking heads, producers and creators of Woodstock 99. Also, and it really goes without saying here, but if you want to know for yourself, then watch the documentary and make up your own mind. (Or, you know, pirate it like I did because fuck Bill Simmons and fuck this entire project.)
Capitalism and the Romanticisation of ‘60s Counterculture
The most frequent gripe I have with this film and its form of shallow cultural analysis stems from the mythologisation and romanticisation of the original Woodstock ‘69.
At first, the film deliberately undercuts this myth—one of perpetual peace and free love, dreams of marijuana, overwhelming “good vibes”—by revealing details surrounding often over-looked issues with Woodstock ‘69, including two recorded deaths (one from insulin usage and another from a vehicle accident), two births (one in a car caught in traffic and another in a hospital after an airlift by helicopter), four miscarriages, hundreds of drug overdoses, not to mention horrible weather and ground conditions, described by The New York Times in an editorial at the time as “a nightmare of mud and stagnation.”
However, at multiple moments during Woodstock 99, points of failure and disappointment are mentioned with direct comparison to the original ‘69 festival. The film wants to be both critical of Woodstock’s legacy and hold it up against the ‘99 festival as a reified marker of cultural significance and relevance.
But, perhaps even more damningly, the film chooses to avoid discussing the very apparent failures of ‘60s counterculture and how these failures set the stage for the socio-political conditions which eventually lead to a massively corporatised event like Woodstock ‘99—that is, the rise of austerity politics, neoliberal economics, late-stage capitalism and hyper-individualism.
Make no mistake, folks: Woodstock ‘99 was a complete and utter clusterfuck. The film shows in gripping detail the gross negligence, logistical failings and lack of direction which eventually lead to water shortages, fatal heat-stroke and dehydration, appalling sanitary conditions, price gauging of basic necessities, riots, anarchy, bonfires, and general disarray and mismanagement.
And yet, at fault for all of these issues is—once again, say it with me—capitalism. As fellow Substacker Danielle Chelosky writes in her recent piece for Thot’s Thoughts:
“Capitalism brainwashes us into internalizing this binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people so that we can’t recognize the real problem is capitalism itself. People are not the problem but power is. Creating art should not lead to power structures, and art should not be ruined by power being abused — that is another fault of capitalism, the belief that the artist has ownership over the art they put out into the world. Art is not property; art is not a commodity.”
The throughline above is obvious and right there for all to see. But instead, the film decides to frame and shame certain acts on the bill as ethically questionable, cultural scapegoats for the inherent problems of the Y2K era.
DMX and the N-word
Now, as a white millennial male who grew up in regional Australia, I am literally the last person to be waxing philosophical about the historical tensions and tenuous reality of race relations in the U.S. circa ‘99 and through to our current decade.
That said, what they do to DMX—a recently departed hip hop legend—in this film is egregious and beyond criminal. Here’s a clip of the performance in question:
The critique levelled in the documentary is two-fold: 1) DMX was somehow unaware and/or misled into playing the track in question, which in turn, led to hundreds of thousands of white people singing along with call-and-response lyrics that contain the N-word; and 2) white people themselves were apparently in on this nefarious scheme, desperately “hoping” that DMX would play the track in order to be given a ‘pass’ on saying the N-word.
While this is, of course, complete bullshit on its face, it also ignores and diminishes the talent of DMX, not to mention the idea of performing as a black artist in the U.S., on one of the most high-profile stages in the country, in front of not quite half a million people. I mean, can you see that crowd? Can you imagine the level of energy and control it must take to dominate that stage as a one-man hype outfit? Insane.
I also think it’s pertinent to mention that if DMX had any issues at all with tracks containing the N-word and then performing said tracks in front of crowds containing non-black people… well, then DMX would likely not have been DMX. His career is full of lyrical content that cuts right to the heart of hood politics, systemic inequality and the lived experience of being a black American. And to insinuate otherwise, as this documentary does, is frankly insulting to his memory.
What’s far more likely, is that at the time of Woodstock ‘99 (July 22–25), DMX was right in the middle of the album cycle for his second LP, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, released December 22, 1998, of which, the ‘problematic’ track in question is literally the intro and album opener. So, yeah… the reality here is that DMX played a festival set and used the intro from his most recent album in said set. Wow, crazy stuff.
Limp Bizkit, Nu-metal and White Male Rage
If Woodstock 99 had a villain, it would be Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst. Much is made about the band’s infamous performance of their hit song, “Break Stuff,” wherein Durst encourages the gleeful crowd to ah… *check notes* “break stuff.”
Now, here is the confessional part of this piece: As an older millennial, I was a big fan of Limp Bizkit as a young teenager in the early 2000s. I knew every word to Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water, and likely still do, to some deep-seated, lizard brain degree.
However, like most nu-metal, I do think the genre is largely a cringe-fest and very much a product of its unique moment in Western culture—for better and for worse. I’m also a firm believer in letting people like what they like. But, additionally, I won’t try to persuade you that Limp Bizkit were some generation-defining, misunderstood talent that changed the face of music forever. As music writer Miranda Reinert notes in her most recent piece on the band:
“We’re so far removed from the cultural monolith of 1999 that liking a band as successful as Limp Bizkit is the contrarian opinion. It’s not cool and it’s going against some perceived gatekeeping of what you should like to like them. It’s not cool to do things ironically, but it is part of the joke to like stupid shit seriously. I don't know if I think this post-ironic conversation is ‘bad’ per se, but I do think that critical reevaluation of everything is useless and goes into my very least favorite thing about music writing and criticism in the realm of rock music right now.”
The film tries very hard to paint Durst & Co as the face of nu-metal’s “white male rage”: some nascent, nefarious and ill-defined force yet untapped until Durst let it out and ruined the festival’s benign intentions. The truth, like most things, is vastly more complicated. Yet, there’s no analysis done to ask: Why were the people at this festival so angry in the first place and so quick to commit violent, destructive acts? What was going in society and the U.S. at large where this end was not just possible and highly avoidable but, also, in many ways, inevitable? As Marc Hogan writes in his review for Pitchfork:
“The biggest letdown about Woodstock 99 involves its attempt at drawing wider conclusions about why the whole debacle still matters. Monica Lewinsky, Britney Spears, Kurt Cobain, Fight Club, The Matrix, American Pie, Columbine, Girls Gone Wild, Napster, Maxim magazine, and the Y2K scare all earn screen time, but they feel like dropped names (or I Love the ’90s signposts) rather than truly connected dots.”
Should Durst have calmed down the crowd and quelled the beginning of violence? Maybe. After all, he’s an entertainer and it’s not his job to police the behaviour of 400,000 people—if such a thing is actively possible in real-time. The most damaging omission here is the voice of Durst himself, with a lack of interview time denying the audience any attempt at internal justification or perspective. Here’s Hogan again:
“Too many of the musician interviews try and fail to land such high-level analysis, though, instead of offering specific eyewitness recollections. And no matter how many times Durst has said he has no regrets about the festival, the absence of a new on-camera interview with the Limp Bizkit leader feels glaring.”
Were their bigger and more important factors at play? Most definitely. As Hogan notes, the most incisive commentary comes from two of the festival’s female performers:
“The music is a sideshow, but there is enough sprinkled throughout to get a whiff of stale beer and ripe body odor…. The folkie Jewel, among just three women on the bill, emerges as one of the more astute commentators, pointing out how Woodstock ’99 was, essentially, a festival without a cause. In old MTV footage, Sheryl Crow, who more recently called the festival her ‘single worst gig,’ sums up the crowd’s moral emptiness thusly: ‘I’ve been given everything and still I’m mad but I’m not really sure why I’m mad.’”
These critiques get to the heart of the problem with the festival: the empty, profit-driven machinery of corporate capitalism. And yet, I think perhaps the best summation of Woodstock ‘99’s failings, both as a festival and as a documentary film, come from Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who responded to the controversy in Neil Strauss’ column for The New York Times in 1999:
“Hey man, leave the kids alone. I’ve had enough of the frenzied demonization of young people surrounding Woodstock ‘99. Yes, Woodstock was filled with predators: the degenerate idiots who assaulted those women, the greedy promoters who wrung every cent out of thirsty concertgoers, and last but not least, the predator media that turned a blind eye to real violence and scapegoated the quarter of a million music fans at Woodstock ‘99, the vast majority of whom had the time of their lives.”
Sexual Assault, John Scher and the Mistreatment of Women
Woodstock 99 is very confused when it comes to how to portray sexual assault and the mistreatment of women.
For one, it openly lambasts men from sexualising and objectifying women who chose to be half-clothed, topless or fully naked during Woodstock ‘99—which, for many women, was typically a stance of solidarity with the spirit of feminism and free love fostered by the original Woodstock. (And even if it wasn’t, so what?) The film then goes on to show clip after clip and photo after photo of said nudity, sans all the posturing and moralising. It’s a little jarring.
Next, some connections are made between these displays of nudity and the gross examples of flagrant verbal and physical assault against women during the festival, i.e. groping without consent, frequent calls to “show their tits,” intimidation, and several reported (and many unreported) cases of rape. Oh, and by connections, I mean they show a clip of living fossil John Scher, one of the festival promoters, saying, in the Year of Our Lord 2021, that these women were “at least partially to blame for that” because they “were running around naked.”
Disgusting. Kick the bucket already, you fucking dinosaur.
Lastly: fuck off Moby, you whiny little pedant. Go get some more terrible vegan tattoos and lie about dating an underage Natalie Portman again, you middle-aged groomer creep.
Seriously, why the fuck is Moby an authority on anything? Once more, in the immortal words of problematic 90s/00s mouthpiece Eminem: