We Know What Happened at Woodstock ’99. But Do We Know Why it Happened?

“Do I like ‘Break Stuff’ because it makes me want to break stuff, or do I like ‘Break Stuff’ because it articulates my pre-existing desire to break stuff?,’” asks Rob Harvilla in an episode of his podcast 60 Songs that Explain the 90s. “Are Limp Bizkit responsible for whatever you do when this beat drops? Are Limp Bizkit responsible for anything anybody breaks during the song ‘Break Stuff’?” 

This episode, in which, contrary to the prior quote, Harvilla focuses on Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie,” also acts as a quasi-commercial for Woodstock ‘99: Peace, Love, and Rage, the first part in the six-film, Bill Simmons-produced, Ringer-affiliated Music Box series. The irony of the episode, though, is that it doesn’t entirely buy into the film’s premise that nu metal — the much maligned mishmash of rap and metal that reached commercial heights in the late 90s and early 2000s but has become a critical whipping boy ever since — is partially responsible for the vandalism, arson, and sexual assault that took place at the ill-fated festival. Instead, Harvilla suggests that Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst is being made into a “generational patsy.” “We all know why Limp Bizkit did it,” Harvilla continues. “But is Limp Bizkit really why we did it?”

It’s a good question, and, sadly, one that Woodstock ‘99 doesn’t answer, at least not with much success. The documentary, which includes heaps of archival footage from the event, as well as interviews with journalists, critics, organizers, attendees, and artists, has become surprisingly polarizing. On the pro-side, there’s the general public, who have given the documentary a respectable 3.4 rating on Letterboxd (it also has a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). My sympathies largely lie with them (I gave the film a 4.0 myself); Woodstock ‘99 is a compelling film about an event that began as a standard issue boo ndoggle before becoming a legitimate disaster scene. The four day festival was conceived after the largely successful Woodstock ‘94 by original Woodstock founder Michael Lang and producer John Scher, and held at the site of an abandoned Air Force base (and Superfund site) in Rome, New York. Sporting a lineup of some of the biggest bands of the era (the aforementioned Limp Bizkit, Korn, Metallica, Kid Rock, Rage Against the Machine, Sheryl Crow, DMX, Red Hot Chili Peppers, among many, many others), a dedicated rave tent, and wall to wall coverage on MTV, the festival deteriorated quickly — temperatures spiked above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, festival goers balked at overpriced concessions (including $4 water bottles), port-a-potties overflowed, numerous instances of sexual assault were reported, and attendees physically destroyed some of the festival’s structures before setting off a series of fires that prompted a response from the New York State Troopers. Merely creating a coherent chronology of events that were defined by their disorder is a journalistic feat, and director Garret Price does a good job of bringing you into the middle of the chaos, contrasting the misery on the ground with some of the thrilling performances that took place on stage (even the most hardened nu metal hater has to respect “Blind,” Korn’s thrilling set opener). 

In other words, this film is very good at giving you the who, what, where, and when. But where it starts to run into problems, and where the critics have started to chime in, is in describing the why. A series of theories are thrown at the wall and stick with varying degrees of success: some people suggest that the overwhelmingly white and male composition of the festival’s attendees made it a ticking time bomb of testosterone, some blame the media for pushing overly sexualized images of women over the course of the decade, some blame the Y2K panic. There’s likely a kernel of truth to each of these theories, but what they lack is any sense of cohesion and synthesis, and most of the people who are interviewed over the course of the film have too much distance from the event to provide the necessary emotional texture. 

Interviewees Steven Hyden and Maureen Callahan have both done extensive reporting on Woodstock ‘99, but other talking heads like the otherwise great critic (and — surprise, surprise — good buddy of Bill Simmons) Wesley Morris offer anodyne observations describing nu metal as a “swamp.” In the words of Rob Sheffield, who actually covered the festival for Rolling Stone, the film focuses too much on “tired-finger pointing from media folks, on a festival none of them actually attended, discussing music none of them seem to care about.” Sheffield’s right: while there are plenty of interviews with fans, there’s not enough exploration about why nu metal appealed to them, and while Morris accurately notes that it’s uncomfortable to watch a group of mostly white people shout the chorus of “My N*****“ back to DMX, he never stops to wonder why a group of presumably rich kids would be drawn to the music of a Black man raised in poverty, or why DMX invited the call-and-response in the first place. Hyden mentions more than once that the late 90s were a “top down” era, that events taking place at the highest levels of government (like the Monica Lewinsky scandal) and entertainment (Lars Ulrich’s attempt to neutralize file sharing sites like Napster) helped form mass opinion and attitudes. But suggesting that, actually, it was the businessmen and the politicians who gave the Woodstock ‘99 rioters license to act as they did is just a funhouse mirror version of Sam Brownback’s claim that violent video games and Marilyn Manson were responsible for the Columbine school shooting. By viewing Woodstock ‘99 as a “top down” event, the filmmakers both deny the attendees’ agency and absolve them of all responsibility.

In his review for Vulture, Craig Jenkins echoes many of Sheffield’s sentiments, and goes on to point out that other festivals with nu metal heavy lineups went on without a hitch, throwing a wrench in the notion that there was something unique to this music that encouraged such wanton disrespect for people and property. He also points out that Coachella, which is held up at the end of the documentary as the Gallant to Woodstock ‘99’s Goofus, has had its own issues with sexual assault, and that EDM festivals saw their own fair share of deaths during the 2010s

These oversights serve a purpose, though, and it’s to generalize the events of Woodstock ‘99 into a tidy narrative that tries to tie what happened in upstate New York 22 years ago with our current era of political unrest. “A lot of that energy just wound up in chat rooms and Reddit boards in 2020,” Morris says about the destructive impulses of the concert goers. But did it really? Can we really draw a clear line between a bunch of inebriated hedonists looking to party to incels and QAnon? What’s striking about the violence of Woodstock ‘99 is how inexplicable it is — how a bunch of people who got together to have a good time ended up hurting their fellow concert goers and rioting against the concert itself. And it’s scary because it’s ultimately nihilistic and apolitical. The toxic online discourse that inspires monsters like Elliott Rodger or the January 6th rioters is explicitly political and ideological, with its own set of twisted grievances and justifications. When I look at Woodstock ‘99, I don’t see a group of resentful basement dwellers — I see the world’s biggest frat house, a collection of overgrown children unafraid of being held accountable for their own actions.

This leads us back to Harvilla’s original chicken and egg question: did people turn Woodstock ‘99 into a war zone because they felt emboldened by the musicians to do so, or did they turn it into a war zone because they felt like it? Moby, the electronica star who begins the documentary by whining about not being able to find his name on one of the festival’s signs, pretty clearly points the finger at the nu metal bands, arguing that they “ignored the subtlety of hip hop” and instead merely “embraced the misogyny and homophobia,” side stepping his own checkered past with women.1This is a problem with the entire documentary, which ignores the questionable behavior of some of its subjects when convenient. It’s happy to paint Creed singer Scott Stapp as a victim of the hostile crowd while ignoring his own history of domestic violence. Those artists aren’t entirely blameless — Kid Rock’s contribution to the era’s political zeitgeist was proudly announcing that he thought “Monica Lewinsky is a fuckin’ ho, and Bill Clinton is a goddamn pimp”2 In an ironic(?) twist, Kid Rock would go on to become an impassioned supporter of Donald Trump and even jokingly considered a run to unseat Demcoratic Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow in 2018. — but the film does a pretty good job of not placing most of the blame on artists like Limp Bizkit who, as many of the commentators note, were just doing their jobs. The true villain the film exposes is John Scher, the events promoter/producer who looks to shift blame to anyone but himself. In both his interview and in archival footage of his press conferences, Scher blames Limp Bizkit for refusing to calm down the crowd, MTV for setting a negative “tone” in its coverage, and even goes as far as to blame the women who chose to go topless for their own sexual assaults (while simultaneously denying that there were as many sexual assaults at the festival as has been estimated). He’s a truly horrid, selfish figure, and there’s a perverse delight to be found in watching Price throw Scher a shovel only to watch him dig a bigger and bigger hole for himself as the film progresses.

But while Scher provides a good explanation for the who, what, where, and when of everything that went wrong, Michael Lang provides a more subtle explanation for the why. A boyish, idealistic relic of the 60s, Lang seems to insist over and over that he wanted to give the younger generation what the Boomers had. “One of the most offensive things about Woodstock ‘99 was that these guys… felt that this was something Gen X needed. That we somehow needed our own experience of what they had,” Maureen Callahan says. “No one was asking for another Woodstock. There was no desire for it.” 

I can’t say whether or not Woodstock ‘99 was something that people wanted or needed (I was five years old at the time) but what Callahan circles around but never quite lands on is not just that Woodstock ‘99 wasn’t needed, but that an authentic version of Lang’s original Woodstock could never be possible in 1999.  The original Woodstock was a business venture, sure, but it was a business venture that had its pulse on the counterculture, and could at least profess to be a genuine expression of the tastes and attitudes of young people at the time. Woodstock ‘99 could never be that because it wasn’t created by young people, it was created by old people looking for something to sell. While much attention is paid to the nu metal acts, Woodstock ‘99’s lineup is a mishmash of styles and genres, featuring jam bands (moe., Dave Matthews Band), post-grunge acts (Live, Bush), rappers (DMX, Ice Cube), electronic acts (The Chemical Brothers, Moby), radio friendly female singer-songwriters (Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Jewel), and incredibly out of place classic rock artists (Bruce Horsnby, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson). For Lang, it was inconceivable that these different artists might have different fan bases that might not gel, because when he was a young person everybody seemed like they all listened to psych rock and folk. Generation X, and every generation after it, is much more fractured and disparate than the Boomers were. There is no cohesive counterculture for them to coalesce into because there is no monoculture for them to rebel against. It should be no surprise then that they gravitated towards music that wallowed in feelings of alienation and anomie, and that when someone from their parents’ generation tried to metaphorically and literally put them in a box, they started to go crazy.

Maybe that’s part of the tragedy of Woodstock ‘99 — maybe it’s the event that finally made it brutally clear how much harder it was to label anything as a generational moment, and therefore that much harder for any member of a subsequent generation to feel like they’re a part of something. The way we communicate, socialize, consume, and think have shifted at an alarming pace since the mid-20th century, and I’m sure that I don’t have to tell anybody under the age of 40 that not everyone has come to this realization. The sick irony, though, is that there truly is a top down effect to these changes — we didn’t invent the technologies and feed the economic and societal conditions that made this generation-breaking shift inevitable. Gen X, and perhaps even Millenials and Zoomers as well, don’t have any preternatural desire to break stuff. Everything has been broken for them already.