HBO MAX’s Woodstock 99 documentary which has been making a splash in music journalist circles for its research and production value is out this Friday. Spearheaded by The Ringer as the first in their Music Box series for HBO, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage brings together attendees, volunteers, artists, and the 90’s music critic community to basically create what looks like a better Fyre Fest doc. This time instead of influencers and tech idiots, Woodstock 99 relies on music journalists and critics who covered the festival on the ground with 20 years of reflection and what seems like a whole lot of refurbished footage.
It looks about as promising as the latest run of Ringer content with a greater wealth of subject matter to pull: Fyre Fest was over before it even started. Woodstock 99 went on for three full days. That means in addition to learning about the horrors of the festival from the bafflingly poor organization backed by corporate dollars to the culture shock and rape joke assimilated culture that was inhabited by what you might call the “1999 dude,” you also get some pretty amazing performances.
Aside from what is undeniably one of the most humiliating moments for the entire 90’s rock canon, the Woodstock 99 stage, (despite being too short to actually be visible to the large majority of spectators) had some pretty memorable stuff: Anthony Kiedis off key and high out of his mind on White China Heroin, DMX receiving love from the rock kids, Rage Against the Machine setting upside down American flags ablaze while a sea of people screamed “Killing in the Name” at the top of their lungs… it’s a lot.
The festival ended in complete disaster. It’s pretty famous at this point. The combination of water shortages, overcharging for bare essentials, heat, and drugs caused a general bad vibe throughout the record hot weekend. Kurt Loder referred to it as “waves of hate.” Despite numbers reaching 220,000 with an additional 10,000 volunteers, organizers only installed one stage. Chaos ensued on the third day as the festival grounds resulted in the destruction of trailers & equipment and mass looting. Still, RHCP played on (firmly sticking to their cover of “Fire” as a promise to Jimi Hendrix’s sister, not an impromptu ironic jam). The passing out of candles during “Under the Bridge” resulted in the grounds resulted in a massive fire which could not be controlled.
There were 1200 injuries, 44 arrests, and four reported sexual assaults. Everything including the chaos was broadcast on pay-per-view, and later on MTV news.
There are two things you can’t not talk about when Woodstock 99 is brought up; one is Limp Bizkit. Debatably, the poster boys for the then-“Nu” metal genre. Nu metal was a response to record labels understanding the cross over in sales and similarity in aggression between hardcore rap and schlock metal. Artists like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson helped lay the groundwork, while their labelmates like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and 2pac(later Limp Bizkit too) transformed Interscope into a commercial powerhouse, all with music that was predicated on danger and controversy.
Events like the Wu-Tang Clan / Rage Against the Machine tour, The Matrix (1997), and the emergence of artists like Korn, Papa Roach, Insane Clown Posse, Kid Rock, and System of a Down would cement nu metal or as many would call it “rap rock” as the de facto sound of the post-grunge landscape.
The documentary’s arrival is about as apt as it gets; Nu metal is red hot right now. About a decade after Pharrell championed it, converting its abrasive sounds to a hip hop format for N*E*R*D* and mentioning “Nookie” as one of his all time musical epiphany moments, artists like Rina Sawayama, Grimes, and Poppy started to look back at the raw emotion, embrace of weirdness, tightness, and weirdly kitsch sensibility that inhabited FM rock radio from circa 1996 - Linkin Park. Years later, the major knock on the scene and what ultimately kills most genres was the weight of its own excess.
On an international stage it became clear how outrageous Gen X had become, weirdly antithetical to what artists like Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe had imagined in the years prior. These songs were full of weird political ideology, rapped lyrics, screaming, and aggressive demands to “Break Stuff” and “Kill Yourself.” Their fans had gone from progressive minded and introverted to muscled and backwards capped with pipes in their hands destroying the medical tent to the horror of conservative America. But little do people know that Fred Durst and the rest of Limp Bizkit who are consistently blamed for the violence at 99, played on Saturday, while the riot ensued on the Sunday. People forget that he asked the audience to help each other up if they fall noticing the sheer size of his audience. But still, with fans using scraps from destroyed outhouses to boogie board across the crowd and Durst’s destructive song messages defining the crowd vibe, the seed was undeniably planted for what would ensue the rest of the weekend.
The other thing people mention in 2021 when Woodstock 99 is brought up? Rape.
We’ve known about it for decades now. Upon hearing that another Woodstock existed via VH1 when I was around 10, it seemed that the giant fire and expensive water at Woodstock 99 received far more attention than the four sexual assaults (now often redacted as “alleged”). Ad Rock from Beastie Boys used his speech to condemn the assaults upon accepting his Moon Man for “Intergalactic.” Crowd shots that have existed on YouTube for ages reveal lots of groping and pulling, until now have had pretty quiet comment sections regarding the on-camera aggravation. Through modern eyes, it’s why a lot of people don’t go to festivals. In 1999, it likely wasn’t even considered.
It is truly one of the most shameful moments in rock and roll history to the point where the festival should not bare the name Woodstock. It has little in common with the original; sure the first Woodstock was poorly organized and dysfunctional but it’s held as a symbol an entire generation, one that was embroiled in conflicts they didn’t agree with and who were taking hold of their own culture. In comparison, Woodstock 99 comes off like the death of the 90’s. Sexual assaults at concerts haven’t seemed to stop either with reports publicized in numbers during peak festival season. Artists like Clairo are even making reporting stations mandatory at tour venues signaling a much more responsive community.
It’s the main stain on the festival. Woodstock 99 revealed the consequences of the disaster weekend in large scale form, but more importantly it is a symbol of the degeneration of “rock music audiences.” The Ringer will do their best to show that it was one of the pieces in the “Beginning of the End” pie. Rock and roll would get pretty quiet after that, with audiences either migrating to full on rap that was more authentic and refined to a maturing ear, or the garage rock revival, which was stripping away a lot of the excess that defined commercial rock radio at the time. And now there are actually no bands left. Yeah, it was that bad.
Watch Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage on HBO MAX Fri7/23.