If in the summer of 1999 you found yourself anywhere near the TV, you could not help but see images of the infernal fire of Woodstock. The iconic three-day rock and roll festival that once promoted peace and love during the 1969 hippie era turned into total anarchy in the late 90s, with drug-fueled riots, arson, vandalism and rampaging turnips.
Or, as several people describe it in the new Netflix docu-series Train Wreck: Woodstock ’99: it was like “the fall of Hanoi” or “Lord of the Flies.”
But it was neither a war zone nor a scene from a dystopian novel. Those who have been interviewed in the documentary series, including journalists, festival organizers, musicians and attendees, often point to a number of organizational issues that catalyzed these horrific events. These include lack of security, overpriced food and drink, and faulty sanitation that has somehow resulted in patrons walking around covered in a mixture of dirt and feces.
The intense July heat and the furious anthems of some of the alternative and new metal bands that permeated the entire festival, such as Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff”, are also cited as motivations for the Rome, New York riots.
But if you were black and familiar with the alternative rock scene in 1999, you know there’s another disturbing truth about Woodstock that still hasn’t been properly explored: a quarter of a million, mostly young white male fans who mostly attended nihilistic behavior – on their own.
They reveled in their own bitterness, rights, and constant misogyny in the era of MTV and Girls Gone Wild. Even if you weren’t there to see it in person, this image alone should be pure nightmare fuel.
So most of the people who didn’t fit in – even those who were just as into bands like Rage Against the Machine, Korn and the Dave Matthews Band – knew they shouldn’t be at Woodstock.
“Because it’s not for us,” said Layna Dawes, ethnomusicologist and author of What Are You Doing Here? The Life and Liberation of a Black Woman in Heavy Metal”. As part of her work, she interacts with black women from the punk, hardcore and metal scenes.
“They wouldn’t go for it because it would be embarrassing for them to go to shows where these bands perform,” Dawes added. “They are big fans of Korn. But they also won’t feel safe in such an environment.”
True, in the late 90s there was not much typical fan of alternative rock music. This is because the previously more underground genre has become mainstream. It was always on the radio, and music videos like Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” or Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie” were heavily played on VH1 and MTV’s TRL, along with Britney Spears and Aaliyah.
The alternative, while still dominated by images of cynical and/or depressed white guys, became popular.
“It was very commercially successful, aggressive music that was distributed in a way that anyone could get it,” Dawes said. “Limp Bizkit, for example, immediately became mainstream, so the albums could be bought at Target. Same with Rage Against the Machine.”
With a wider audience at the time, alternative rock might have been more appealing to anyone who experienced anything at that time – be it mental illness, low self-esteem or anxiety. That is, virtually every MTV viewer, regardless of race or gender.
“They have certain anthems and phrases in their music that anyone can get hooked on,” Dawes said. “The most popular one [Rage Against the Machine’s] “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
And rebellion, even with your favorite band’s dissatisfied statement printed on a T-shirt, attracted a generation that in many ways already lost at the end of the decade.
However, for a large number of young white men, alternative music directly addressed them and their problems and was specifically per them. As we saw at Woodstock ’99, they reacted in a way that, more than anything else, showed their innate rights and violent goals.
“Music and these types of festivals are perfect for this type of population,” Dawes said. “Because it’s the only time they can seriously relax without any social restrictions.”
Because they were practically the only ones in the audience (Daws recalled that a black friend who was present told her that it was just him “and all the guards”). But the interesting thing about Woodstock ’99 and how white male perks work is that while they made up the majority of the faces in the crowd, they were far from the only ones at the festival.
In fact, George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars, DMX and Wyclef Jean and the Refugee Allstars were just a few of the black bands that performed. Even in the alternative music space, there was Rage Against the Machine, which had mostly members of color, including a black guitarist.
For Dawes, the way in which young white male fans claimed this particular band, whose music has always been political, is a function of white gatekeepers that persists in live rock music to this day.
“Black people are fine as long as we sing, dance and perform for white people,” Dawes said. “But everything after that, hence the lyricism of Rage Against the Machine, is suspicious and you can just block it. I don’t wanna hear about that race shit“.
Dawes has been a fan of the group since attending their first show in her native Canada in the mid-90s, where she and her friend were disappointed to realize they were the only blacks in the audience with mostly white fraternity boys with their shirtless , with bears in their hands and in baseball caps. Even then, she says, their message was completely ignored by white audiences.
“I don’t want to hear about Native Americans and Leonard Peltier and all that crap.” she added, echoing the limited attitude of white fans. “I don’t want to hear about the Zapatistas. So white privilege also takes those elements from the music they like and gets rid of the rest.”
And to create the illusion that the music really belongs to them, to enjoy it, and to distort it to suit their purposes, as happened at Woodstock ’99.
“That being said, it doesn’t really help diversify music fans,” Dawes said. “Of course it doesn’t work to bring black bodies to these festivals. So, there are people who want to leave, but they’re like, “Damn, I’m not going to go.” Look at the crowd. This is madness. I don’t [want to] kick my ass.”
It’s a shame. Particularly because the white male mafia at Woodstock ’99 not only monopolized the image of alternative rock by the end of the decade, but at this festival they also captured the crowd to perform in other genres such as DMX, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette. . And twisted their messages to fit their savagery.
But that’s what white male supremacy in rock looked like in the late ’90s. He held a sign in the audience demanding that women like Crow and her fellow feminist Jewel show them their “boobs” or else he would listen to DMX’s angry, personal lyrics and his use of the N-word and justify his singing along with his .
Because in this space they felt entitled to do it more than anywhere else.
“I think there’s a lot of voyeurism in new metal in general because it lets white kids think they can act a certain way and get away with it knowing that if black people did the same thing they did they would end up in jail,” Dawes explained. “There’s power in that.”
But this further marginalizes both non-white male performers, putting them in the same danger as many white female fans who are alleged to have been assaulted, and precludes all opportunities for a more diverse audience.
“We guard the gate and it’s a man’s event‘ Dawes said. ‘But it’s not. And never was. And it was never intended. [Festivals] because there are all different bodies.”
However, Woodstock ’99 did not explicitly reflect this. This is yet another chapter in a long, long history of young American white men inspired by the twisted notion that their discontent is allowing them to spiral out of control.
“Right now we live in a world where – look at everything mass shootings what happens to young white men,” Dawes said. “Look at all the violence that comes from white men.”
She pauses briefly before getting to the heart of what isn’t talked about enough in Woodstock 99 talk.
“I mean, people are losing their ever loving mind right now, but there will never be a kumbai, a moment of coming to Jesus, Let’s look at the pathology of white men and why they react so violently.. Because these white people represent the majority.”