Television

A new documentary and a docuseries explore the catastrophe that was Woodstock ’99. By Sarah Krasnostein.

Pointing the cameras at Woodstock ’99

Festival goers in a scene from Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99.
Festival goers in a scene from Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99.
Credit: Netflix

In the taxonomy of anger there is, ultimately, only constructive anger, which destroys to create, and destructive anger, which destroys to destroy. This is also an ethics of anger, a framework for parsing and weighing the amygdala-accelerated energies animating much collective life. Anger is the molten centre of two documentary explorations of the avertable catastrophe that was Woodstock ’99.

Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99, a new Netflix series, and Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, an HBO documentary on Binge, were made for the festival’s 20th anniversary. That festival, in July 1999 in upstate New York, existed less to commemorate and more to capitalise on the 30th anniversary of the original, for which few of the Gen X punters had any affinity. 

Its organisers were Michael Lang, the hippie Adonis zipping around Yasgur’s farm in the iconic 1970 documentary – who scraped together Woodstock ’69 with a cool reserve many took for wisdom – and promoter John Scher, who co-produced Woodstock ’94. 

The third Woodstock, however, was another planet. Explanations for its spectacular failure come down to this: the cultural distance between the late and early ’90s is so vast it can only be measured in astronomical units. 

Which raises the question, to paraphrase the sour fathers in the 1968 musical Hair: “What’ve you got, early ’90s, that makes you so damn superior and gives me such a headache?”

Woodstock ’94 had Salt-N-Pepa, Nine Inch Nails, Bob Dylan, Cypress Hill, Mavis Staples and Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon tripping balls during an ecstatic version of “Soup”. If this line-up seems Dada-esque in its juxtapositions, consider the popularity of a genre called Alternative, which was sufficiently spacious to include everything from L7 to Massive Attack and whose motley coherence was a proud signifier of everything it wasn’t.

Sounds long simmering went on a rolling boil in the early ’90s. Arrested Development’s conscious rap and Ice Cube’s gangsta rap lyrically filleted the unclothed emperors of white American hegemony. Inherently political too was grunge’s raging vulnerability, its take on hardcore punk’s rejection of sparkling Boomer hypocrisies. Ani DiFranco and Tracy Chapman made folk grittier, smarter. The pendulum had swung away from the ’80s with its glamorised greed and commodifications of art, fear and the female body.

For the first time in Western history, the idea that there was nothing inevitable or just in a social order bent around propitiating straight, cisgendered, white men was not a niche concept but something encountered in daily life. We got music news from MTV where we saw Kurt Cobain in a dress quietly going about his loud business, and Freddie Mercury mourned as “the first major rock star to succumb to the plague of AIDS”. Rodney King’s assault and Anita Hill’s testimony ushered “police brutality” and “sexual harassment” into mainstream vernacular. 

Rebecca Walker, who coined “third wave feminism”, wrote in Ms.: “Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.”  

There was optimism. And then, because bravery drives hope but fear drives up profit, the pendulum swung back.

Like Saturn devouring his offspring, from 1995 MTV aired less music, more reality shows. Alternative was replaced by pop and nu metal, programming whose coherence also signified everything it wasn’t. We were pre-moderns, adapted to the analogue world’s direct communication and undisturbed interior life but marvelling at email, blogs and chatrooms when technology was darkened by Y2K’s looming apocalypse. O. J. Simpson denied murdering his wife, Bill Clinton denied sexual relations with “that woman”. Columbine was the first American example of many young male mass murderers who’d expressed animosity towards women. A fortnight later, Woodstock ’99 opened. 

In Trainwreck, the docuseries, and Woodstock 99, the documentary, witnesses still grapple with events through the remove of comparison: it was like “Bosnia”, “a horror movie”, “Lord of the Flies”. Trainwreck is good at building dread but Woodstock 99 uses that time to cultivate context. This is one reason why, when the monsters appear, the latter captures the damage they wreak more compellingly. 

Both work with nuclear levels of irony. Selected for its fencing to banish the non-paying, the venue – a decommissioned military base with miles of concrete trapping the summer heat and insufficient toilets, security and water for 200,000 young people over four days – was as offensive as the efforts to justify it 20 years later. Interviewed in both programs, the organisers appeared unburdened by remorse (which is different to regret), as shadowless as Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl with his bottomless purse. 

It’d be easy to dismiss them as epitomes of David St Hubbins’s fine line between stupid and clever. But Lang’s air of frustrated beatitude is as insulting as Scher’s circus of blame-shifting, victim-blaming and gaslighting. Woodstock 99 reveals that hindsight added little they hadn’t already known.

On entry, food and water were confiscated, drugs weren’t. Vendors charged $4 for water, painful even now. Hours in, people were rightfully angry. But the thing about anger is that it’s chemically unstable, and contagious. And the thing about Woodstock ’99 is that it was predominated by men who weren’t there for love or peace but for nu metal icons Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock and Korn. Nu metal had recently taken all of hardcore and hip-hop’s rage – but none of their conscience – and converted it into gold when CDs were gobbled up by the target audience, who were frat boys then and are Proud Boys now. 

The psychoanalyst Joseph Lee offers a definition of patriarchy as “a strategic intelligence designed to obscure male vulnerability”. When we consider where pain, confusion and fear go when exiled, songs like Durst’s “Break Stuff” (“You don’t really know why / But you want to justify / Ripping someone’s head off”) and Korn’s “Daddy” (about singer Jonathan Davis being disbelieved after disclosing his childhood sexual assault) take on unexpected pathos. Their fans, however, hadn’t come for vulnerability. The organiser’s permissive environment provided the combustible conditions for Durst’s lyrical directive to “break something tonight” to be implemented. Chanting groups of young white men took over, toppling structures and setting fire to 12 refrigerated trucks. 

Riots terrify not because they’re lawless but because they follow their own laws, which eschew fine distinctions. Those looting stalls, gutting ATMs and vandalising a Mercedes-Benz as political statements were indistinguishable from those sexually assaulting women in public and in private. Both Trainwreck and Woodstock 99 relay the fact of sexual violence at the festival, but the latter more accurately conveys its monstrous prevalence. 

The organisers’ exploitative mismanagement was the last note in a long song. Since birth, the personal morality of all those men had been influenced by environments that sanctified white male entitlement, even as the wheels were falling off that story. The result was a generation raised on whiplash narratives of both patriarchy and feminism, legalised discrimination and equal protection. The consequences of those crazy-making double-binds continue to be brutal.

The festival’s obvious metaphor is the “shit-mud” – where broken water pipes met overflowing sewage – into which frolicked the latter-day children of God, painting their bodies of stardust and billion-year-old carbon. The truer metaphor is quieter. There is one sublime moment when Korn’s Davis – who owned Ted Bundy’s Volkswagen – is performing, electric, his audience rippling to where the eye can no longer follow. A reminder that crowds are exponentially greater than their parts and, initially, pure potential. 

“Whereas the intellectual capacity of a group is always far below that of an individual,” Freud wrote about group psychology, “its ethical conduct may rise as high above his as it may sink deep below it.”

Attentiveness to the interplay between the particular and the general makes Woodstock 99 the better narrative – more confronting, more meaningful. While Trainwreck ends vapidly contorting toward redemption, Woodstock 99 notes Coachella’s rise in the intervening decades alongside social media’s hoax of commerce-as-friendship, which enabled the old powers to do more with less, and so gently that one wonders if it happened at all.

The perfection of Woodstock ’69 is false memory – for the truer triumph, see Summer of Soul. Nevertheless, the story that was aggressively sold prevails, because inattentive ears can’t identify true sentences. Nor can they distinguish between things as different as planets. The rage of Rage Against the Machine (creative) isn’t Limp Bizkit’s (destructive). Ice Cube’s verses (creative) aren’t Insane Clown Posse’s (destructive). 

But sometimes those cosmic distances live only in the lyrics. Pema Chödrön says that to heal we must drop our story and let our heart break. That’s the goal. In the meantime, given that our seething, anguished energies can go anywhere, it’s the narrative we insist upon that matters.

Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 is streaming on Netflix, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, is streaming on Binge.

ARTS DIARY

BALLET Manon

Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, September 28–October 8

LITERATURE National Young Writers Festival

Venues throughout Newcastle, September 29–October 2

FESTIVAL The York Festival 2022

York, Western Australia, until October 9

EXHIBITION Belonging

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until February 12

DANCE Instruments of Dance

State Theatre, Melbourne, until October 1

LAST CHANCE

VISUAL ART Vivienne Binns: On and Through the Surface

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until September 25

VISUAL ART Above the Canopy

Town Hall Gallery, Melbourne, until September 24

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Rage of Aquarius".

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