The new fascination with Woodstock ’99, following the release of a new Netflix documentary series, is so surreal to me. Discussing it with some friends the other day, some of whom are only a few years younger than me, I was amazed they’d never heard about it before watching the mini-series for themselves.
Limp Bizkit’s performance of “Break Stuff”, and all the horror stories that emerged from the crowd, are seared into my memory from that time. It was a pivotal cultural moment for me growing up, as a nu-metal kid, the energy from which was dissolved with a frightening speed.
The nu-metal moment was bizarre in its promiscuity. In the documentary, much of the blame for the rioting that closed out the festival, and the crimes reported throughout its duration, is placed on the shoulders of American frat boys, who bought into the fury of a subculture that I would hardly associated with preppy kids who managed to go to college.
A year later, the video for Papa Roach’s 2000 hit single “Last Resort” offered a more accurate view — to my mind, anyway — of who this music was most associated with. The video’s inspired focus on the crowd, moshing out in an oddly clinical and affectless space, reveals their fans to be a racially diverse mix of bedroom-dwelling suburban metal kids and social outcasts; kids who would no doubt be actively bullied by the Woodstock frat contingents.
But nu-metal was so huge that its energies were taken up by many different social groups. Mainstream success, of course, trumped tribal allegiances at that time. Though I was admittedly quite young in 1999, I have no memory of an “In Bloom” of the nu-metal era, pouring scorn on a frat boy rage slowly gentrifying the discontent of the social underdog. Nu-metal seemed to speak to everyone.
My own first encounter with that sound, for instance, was in the playground at primary school, as everyone gathered round one kid’s Walkman to take turns listening to the sounds emanating from their tinny headphones. The rage on display was like a sonic peepshow: transgressive, taboo and perverse, but still abundantly accessible to anyone with a bit of pocket money. Everyone liked it, everyone listened to it, no matter their background or usual tastes. (My babysitter — my best friend’s old sister — who I can barely imagine as a grungy nu-metal kid now, later played me Limp Bizkit on my parent’s hi-fi, and from that moment I was obsessed with them until at least 2004, when nu-metal was overtaken in the popular consciousness, in the UK at least, by a disparate mix of indie, grime, freak folk and dubstep.)
But around the turn of the millennium, prior to this subcultural fragmentation, it is undeniable that nu-metal captured the zeitgeist and imagination of multiple, interlaced generations and demographics. It was a truly postmodern music genre in that regard, with different styles (and even emotional responses) able to exist together, seemingly without tension, making it a genre that seemingly had something for everyone.
Nu-metal is still fascinating for this reason, even if some of it hasn’t aged too well, precisely because it had a peculiar and quintessentially American melting-pot vibe, crossing lines between pop punk, hip hop, metal, grunge, drum ‘n’ bass… Just about every new music genre of the last two decades was thrown into its particle accelerator, giving rise to a mutant amalgam of sounds as the heat was turned up on popular culture by the anxiety of an unknowable future beyond Y2K.
The Woodstock ’99 documentary is made up of interviews with organisers, attendees, press, and some musicians (but far fewer than you’d expect). How each group remembers the event is telling. But the silence from many of those directly involved is deafening. Jonathan Davis from Korn is perhaps the only nu-metal band member to offer their reflections; instead we hear from Jewel and the lead singer of Bush (who, I must admit, I don’t remember at all and who hardly seem representative of that cultural moment).
On the whole, the documentary spends a lot of time focussing on the naivety of the festival’s original organisers, who supposedly hoped to rekindle the “Peace, Love and Understanding” of Woodstock’s near-mythological 1969 event. In true hippie fashion, however, the festival was organised by people with very little understanding of the material and affective conditions of the new present. Bands were booked based on their popularity alone, seemingly without chief organiser Michael Lang listening to any of their music — you’d think he’d pick a whole different set of headliners if he really wanted to promote peace and love. He and others had little appreciation of the rage that would be unleashed from the main stage. All these old hippies cared about was profit.
But the suggestion from one then-young organiser was that someone should have taken a closer look at the lineup seems misplaced. Yes, the organisers didn’t seem to understand who it was they were booking, but is the suggestion here that they should have eschewed the rage commingling between both a malformed mainstream and its blurry counterculture? Surely, if the festival wanted to represent that fine line between pop- and counter-culture landscapes in 1999, they couldn’t have invited anyone else.
The real error seems to be that the main organisers didn’t realise that they were the generation that Generation X was still largely mad at. It was clear on the ground that the organisers had no principles left to stand by. Though they blame the crowd for abandoning the original spirit of ’69, Woodstock ’99 was a poor and inverted rekindling of that moment from the get-go. Indeed, for all their allusions to peace, love and understanding, most of the crowd seemed frustrated with the pressure cooker they were funneled into, which was not an escape from the world outside the festival grounds but which only exacerbated America’s contemporaneous contradictions: rage expressed within and against a corporate-infiltrated, overpriced no-man’s-land grounded on a back of the nation’s military-industrial complex.
I almost wish this observation was a little harder to extract, as if it actually required an engagement with one’s critical faculties to be unearthed. In fact, as far as analogies go, it is bewilderingly on-the-nose: the festival featured overpriced and privatised necessities, sponsored by big corporate entities, sold on an old military airstrip. The festival did little to hide its immersion in everything that its attendees despised.
But even more intriguingly, this setting also foreshadows where much of this energy would be redirected into a few years later.
When thinking about why Woodstock ’99 is so engrained in my memory, despite only being nine years old myself at the time, I thought about how, for a nu-metal kid, that event was almost like our 9/11. (It sits directly in between the death of Princess Diana and 9/11 as two of the most memorable cultural events from my late childhood.) A tongue-in-cheek and no doubt egregious analogy to make, the event’s proximity to 9/11 proper is nonetheless an interesting thing to consider.
Reflecting on the festival even now, promoter John Scher describes those who participated in the riot at the end of the festival was “the lunatic fringe… that segment of the population was both entitled and fearful of growing up, of having to have a real job and a family and stuff like that.” But then, what happened to that frat boy rage that engulfed Woodstock ’99? It was serendipitously captured by that same military-industrial complex once again. The generation that tore up the grounds, leaving tales of destruction, sexual assault and hedonism in their wake, is the same generation that came to be a new and uncomfortable cohort of reluctant American heroes.
A few years later, this was made abundantly clear when Green Day released “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, the fourth single from their 2004 album American Idiot — an album that was seen as a critique of the Bush administration and its manufacturing of consent for a new war. As Alan DiPerna argued in an article for Guitar World at the time, the album “draws a casual connection between contemporary American social dysfunction … and the Bush ascendancy.” But in truth, the dysfunction was already there; nu-metal’s peculiar position in the pop-cultural landscape was already an indicator of how this dysfunction was spreading into every mode of contemporary expression; of how a generational discontent was oscillating wildly without a specific cause, instead touching everything in its immediate vicinity, a cross-pollination made possible and encouraged by the late-capitalist system it so often railed against.
Though “American Idiot”, as a single, may be a clear and pointed critique of the new political establishment, “…When September Ends” paints a more complicated picture, with its video of two quintessential skater kids in love, finding themselves torn apart by the war.
How surreal is this narrative in hindsight? What a strange time that was, when your average Green Day fan could be seen as a believable protagonist in a tragic love story spoiled by war.
It is notable to me that the girl in the music video looks very much like Avril Lavigne. When her breakout single “Sk8er Boi” dominated the airwaves two years earlier in 2002, it was unimaginable that the dregs of a Nineties slacker culture could be co-opted into the military-industrial complex. But this is precisely what we see in the video for “…When September Ends.”
It is a narrative that has not survived that moment. Most films that have dealt with the Iraq War since give us protagonists we are more familiar with — frat boys or rugged and precariously employed working-class men, no doubt directionless but far from culturally “alternative”. They are remembered now as individualists out of time, caught up in a conflict they barely understand, sucked into the appeal of an older form of patriotism.
I think about Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, who could easily be swapped out for a Chris Pratt or any other new white American everyman action hero. But at that time, the lines were blurred between new American subjectivities. Although disenfranchised “alternative” kids, their clothing newly associated with mass school shootings, were set across from frat boys fighting for their country, in reality both groups were listening to the same kinds of music, filled with the same indeterminate rage. The entirety of that disenfranchised generation seemed to be caught up in a post-9/11 call to arms.
Perhaps, in this sense, Woodstock ’99 wasn’t so different from Woodstock ’69. The organisers may have mindlessly inverted their own values in favour of corporatized profiteering, but the chronology of American pop-culture was also inverted more generally in that moment.
Consider how the original festival was held towards the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam. It was a reaction against mindless military involvement in conflicts overseas. Woodstock ’99, on the contrary, presaged a new era of American military intervention. It encapsulated a fury that we might look back on now with horror, but many of the worst of the people present that weekend were shepherded into a new normality, breaking stuff overseas as well as at home.
Just as Woodstock ’69 appears now to be the end of something, so was Woodstock ’99: a riotous and Sadean last hurrah of a generational discontent that had been percolating for decades and found itself without anything truly tangible to direct its fury towards, as all counter-cultural principles had been siphoned off into a late-capitalist dead-end.
Sixties hippiedom was a zombified and corporatized shadow of its former self. It was never a moment that could be re-actualised. Instead, Woodstock ’99 presented an opportunity for a fin-de-siècle blow-out at the end of the millennium, an explosive and anarchistic fury that tried to breakdown the walls of a lost future, finally rupturing a structure of feeling that was both ever-present, undirected and uncontainable. Maybe it could have built up into something actionable, which really challenged the status quo? But really, all Woodstock ’99 represented was the fact that such an opportunity had long since passed.
And so, this “lunatic fringe”, which actually defined the average music fan’s frustration with a late-Nineties frenzied stasis, was absorbed into a cause that was not its. This is not to defend the horrors that have come to define the festival in its aftermath, but it is certainly telling where that fury was directed next. Indeed, to frame it as an aberration feels ahistorical. It was a fury that soon became useful to the establishment that has nonetheless spent so much energy denouncing it, proving to be fertile ground for a new age of American patriotism, as a generation’s discontent was given a cause by an attack on American soil, redirecting their self-harm into militarised reaction. There has arguably been no cultural development so disastrous, other than perhaps modernism’s infection with pockets of fascism following the lead-up to the Second World War.
Could we argue that Woodstock ’99 was similarly the primal scene of the alt-right in this regard? A generational discontent captured by the military-industry complex? It is hard to say. It certainly feels like we are only just recovering from the dissipation of this structure of feeling, which has borne both reactionary fruit and come to inspire a new generation of counter-cultural musicians. (Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete resurrected the nu-metal palette in a new era; I similarly remember that, when I was at university, friends on music production degrees — including AYA, who I first met as a student in Newport, South Wales — were studying nu-metal production with a new and surprisingly seriousness.)
But this is the generation that came after Woodstock ’99, that saw this sound dissolve into (a)political recklessness. Indeed, the nu-metal generation that was at Woodstock ’99, rather than those slightly too young to go but old enough to watch it unfold at home, has now dissolved into the kind of social structure that Scher argued was initially rejected: they all have jobs and families now. Even Fred Durst has acquiesced to his “dad vibes” on the band’s ineffectual 2021 comeback single.
The song’s first verse ends: “Walk the line so fine with a blindfold”. Perhaps there’s no better summation of how everyone acted in that moment. But no longer.
It is what came next that warrants further attention. Rather than framing Woodstock ’99 as a cultural blip, it should be understood as a pivotal event that inadvertently shaped so much of the confusion of the 2000s. It was the end of something, yes, but it lay the groundwork for a rageful pop-cultural formlessness we have only just begun to untangle and deal with. Far from something to renounce and look back on with horror, our time would be better spent understanding just how the energy that fueled the rioting was co-opted by the powers that be. These rebels without a cause are not romantic figures to mythologise; on the contrary, it is worth exploring how that absence of a cause could be filled with just about anything, even something that ran wholly counter to the original cause of a generation’s disenfranchisement.
It seems unlikely that such an event could be repeated, with today’s younger generations having more than enough causes to be getting on with. But this was no doubt true of those who came before Generation X as well. Already we have seen how a specifically masculine disenfranchisement has been captured by an increasingly popular misogyny and conservatism. Frat boys and social outcasts continue to have much in common. Misdirected fury without political consciousness continues to cast a long shadow over the present.
Update: This article by Greg Saunier of the band Deerhoof adds a wealth of further context (and broader political critique) that the Woodstock ’99 documentary doesn’t get near. Well worth a read.