We’re Still Getting Woodstock ’99 Wrong

Woodstock 99 attempts to trace the tributaries drizzling fuel on the festival’s inferno, but it’s more notable for being the rare music documentary that doesn’t really seem to care for much of the music it’s covering. Photo: Catherine Lash/HBO

I’ve been watching The Sopranos almost every night this summer. In that maelstrom of cunning mobsters, careless crooks, and effete, affluent New Jersey socialites, my anchor is A.J. Soprano, the surly son of the show’s titular boss. A.J.’s parents don’t get him; none of the shit he’s into existed when they grew up. Their approach is all wrong, too lax one week and too harsh the next. The kid acts up in school and lounges in metal merch at home. The band tees give the show a poignant sense of time and place, but they also hint at what’s going on behind A.J.’s wan, sullen eyes. He loves Slipknot, whose singer-songwriter Corey Taylor works through the fallout of abuse and addiction in his younger years. Soprano is also a fan of Pantera, whose singer Phil Anselmo tussled publicly with his demons, and Marilyn Manson, whose entire project in the early ’90s was teasing out the hypocrisy and dysfunction our veneer of public decency conceals (and whose own dysfunction has come into harrowing focus in recent years). The Sopranos uses wardrobe to say what A.J. won’t: He feels alienated, misunderstood. He’s finding acceptance and expression in the art of troubled kindred spirits. That’s what it was made for. It’s the reason angst-soaked rock and metal music resonated strongly with millennials coming of age at the turn of the century. They — we — briefly felt seen.

Watching HBO’s Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage — the first installment in a six-part series called Music Box, which The Ringer’s Bill Simmons touts as a sister to his sports series 30 for 30 — I looked for an A.J., someone who could explain the draw of the aggressive music that soundtracked the ill-fated 1999 music festival, long understood to be the nadir of ’90s rock (just as it is said that Altamont killed the ’60s). In its account of how Woodstock ’99, a sequel to the three-day 1969 gig that stands as a testament to the unifying power of the hippie generation, went up quite literally in flames, Peace, Love, and Rage is pointed in attributing blame for the carnival of horrors the weekend would entail, but light on why the dehydrated revelers wanted to go in the first place. You learn how one asphalt-covered literal Superfund site, a lax and barely trained security detail, a lack of access to drinkable water, a candlelight vigil gone awry, a rash of jarring July heat, and a few hundred thousand angry Gen-Xers and millennials can add up to destruction, fire, abuse, and death. Woodstock ’69 co-creator Michael Lang and his Woodstock ’94 partner, John Scher, are criticized for the peculiar venue choice of Griffiss Air Force Base, whose fortifications cut costs but subjected attendees to increasingly uncomfortable conditions, and the lineup, which forced awkward scheduling choices like back-to-back Alanis Morissette and Limp Bizkit sets on the same stage. Woodstock 99 attempts to trace the tributaries drizzling fuel on the festival’s inferno, but it’s more notable for being the rare music documentary that doesn’t really seem to care for much of the music it’s covering.

Now, the archival footage is damning. It’s nasty, from little details like the lascivious way Dave Matthews says “titties” to bigger ones like the moment Rosie Perez is heckled about showing her breasts when she arrives to introduce DMX’s set. Shitty, fratty, angry rich kids paraded around that Air Force base thinking it was a place where they could do whatever they wanted, without consequence, perhaps adopting a dark, mutant strain of the free-love ideology of the ’60s, or perhaps just acting on the unrepentant chauvinism infecting pop culture at the time. The doc makes ample time to explain the latter phenomenon, listing examples of the pervasiveness of rape culture and the objectification of women in the ’90s media aimed at young men. But it offers this couched between shot after shot of attendees’ bare breasts, and eventually, John Scher says the women who were groped and violated at his gig must hold some of the blame for dressing provocatively, and lowballs the number of reported assaults. It’s a villainous line that the doc rebuts sharply by recounting the story of a group that set up a website so women who never went to the police could speak about their experience anonymously. That doesn’t make Woodstock 99 any less heavy-handed. You don’t need to show a montage of the grimacing faces of women being grabbed in mosh pits to explain that it was catastrophically unsafe for them everywhere on those festival grounds.

Woodstock 99 peppers a play-by-play of its fateful weekend with stories from attendees and commentary from culture writers and a handful of artists who played at the festival. The consensus is that the festival lineup was haphazard and ill-advised, a mix of the wrong kinds of crowds aggravated by nu metal, a dead-end bastardization of rap and rock. Moby, who played the rave tent Saturday night, thinks the bands took the wrong lessons from their influences: “They’ve ignored the subtlety of hip-hop, and they’ve embraced the misogyny and homophobia.” New York Times writer Wesley Morris likens the sound to a “swamp.” “It seemed like the kinda thing that would break down barriers,” former MTV VJ Dave Holmes says, “but it didn’t.” John Scher blames Saturday night’s Limp Bizkit set, where Fred Durst openly invited the audience to express its rage, for the mood of the weekend turning sour. The aggression of this music is explained as a manifestation of something dark in the heart of the ’90s, but no one can describe this in detail. It’s particularly frustrating when one of the ’99 alums interviewed is Jonathan Davis, lead singer of Korn, who made a mint unpacking childhood trauma on record and who could’ve provided valuable insights into the decade of movements that teed up the musical paradigm shift of 1999, if only someone asked him to.

The rage of late-’90s guitar music, we are told, was equal parts defeatism, an appeasement of our baser instincts sparked by the loss of enlightened figureheads like Kurt Cobain, and a rejection of the teen-pop machine. Pawning it off as an objection to Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys is looking at it through TRL blinders. The debut Korn album was certified platinum before we heard “Quit Playing Games With My Heart,” and a year before “Baby One More Time” dropped. There was a hunger for this music independent of anything else in culture. It was a place of refuge for some and an excuse to misbehave for others, and this doc does not concern itself with the difference. Calling the early ’90s a great time for feminism in rock is an oversimplification. Riot grrrl was powered by women being marginalized in punk scenes during the ’90s. Kurt and Eddie Vedder and others spoke up because people were being murdered outside abortion clinics. Omissions and obfuscations abound. Elsewhere, you see Wyclef Jean pelted with debris from the crowd as he tries to re-create Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 “Star Spangled Banner” solo, and it is implied that this is happening because the crowd is too young to catch the reference, when in reality, he asked them to throw bottles. The Offspring guys didn’t remember why it also happened to them during their Friday set; before any song played, front man Dexter Holland told the audience they were dirty.

When the origins of nu metal are vaguely unpacked, no word is uttered about Rage Against the Machine — who were the gold-star example of a rap-metal band animated by a stated political purpose and whose Saturday night performance is only briefly shown in a conversation that didn’t really pertain to them — or Slipknot, or the Deftones, or System of a Down, the bands that represented the best of the era, that carefully blended incongruous sounds and even hipped the listener to important political causes. There’s no word on the family-values politics that would turn the 2000s into a culture war pitting offended, letter-writing conservatives against edgy anti-PC bros. There’s no mention of heated discourse through the ’90s about medicating unruly teens, no window into the reasons the generation of youth that populated Woodstock ’99’s audience would be drawn to darkness. We are told that weird and angry rock music showed up one day yucking everyone’s yum. We see Kid Rock and Fred Durst, the least eloquent mouthpieces you could even find at that time, revolting against nothing, and implications that this music fomented violence even as the doc says it was unwise to blame 1999’s Columbine shooting on the music the killers liked. Two decades after landmark albums like System’s Toxicity, Slipknot’s Iowa, and Deftones’ White Pony, an endeavor like this could have taken the opportunity to give the era the fair reassessment it never got when it topped charts. The closest we get is the minute they let the intro to Korn’s “Blind” rip.

The thing is, only four nu metal bands played Woodstock ’99. (Twice as many jam bands were present!) And concurrent tours with lineups more firmly rooted in the angrier stuff didn’t suffer similar fates. In 2000, Metallica’s Summer Sanitarium Tour, which Korn and Kid Rock opened, did not burn, and neither did the 1999 Family Values Tour, where Korn and Limp Bizkit were joined by Staind, another band that reckoned loudly with emotional pain (before singer Aaron Lewis became a chud). Ozzfest ’99 — where Ozzy Osbourne brought Slipknot, System, Deftones, Fear Factory, Hed PE, Static-X, and others to play amphitheaters across North America — is remembered as a game changer, one of the best lineups in the tour’s long history. In limiting its purview to Lang’s festivals, Woodstock 99 jettisons valuable context. It doesn’t come up that Beastie Boys’ Ad Rock criticized the Woodstock ’99 promoters onstage at the VMAs the next month. We hear nothing about the problems more recent country-music festivals have had with drunken mischief and arrests, an issue that has come roaring back this summer along with venues reopening. Waves of death at EDM festivals in the 2010s go unmentioned. When Coachella is touted as the ethical alternative to the corporate shortsightedness forcing the riot that turned Woodstock ’99 into a historical tragedy, it is never mentioned that the Indio production has had its own well-documented struggles with sexual assault in its crowds. Woodstock 99 makes the events of that weekend in Rome, New York, seem like a confluence of horrors that could only have sprung from the climate of 1999, when in reality, we see a little of its hell every year.

But the message of the documentary isn’t “How do we make sure this never happens again?” It’s “Look at these naked morons.” At the end, you don’t feel much closer to the reasons why music about hurt feelings and breaking things swept the youth of the turn of the millennium. Instead, Woodstock 99 feels drunk on chaos. It’s tempting with a story like this, with art that’s considered to be low and serving a demographic unafraid to indulge its worse impulses, to stand at a safe altitude looking down our noses at the debauchery, as if we’re above it now. Ending Woodstock 99 with a happily ever after, celebrating the temperate climates and free water to be found on-site at Coachella, makes it sound like we’ve learned our lesson, but in a summer where music festivals are moving forward without a plan to mitigate the dangers of an ongoing pandemic, the sigh of relief at the end of Woodstock 99 feels frustratingly perpendicular to reality. If we’re not here to try to learn from the experience or to approach the music that soundtracked it with a fresher critical lens than the condescension, disdain, and bewilderment seen in the film; if this footage already lives on YouTube, where you can watch without suggestive editing; and if the entire story was reported inside and out literal decades ago, what are we here for?

We’re Still Getting Woodstock ’99 Wrong