Woodstock ’99 epitomized rock music’s white male gatekeeper in the MTV era

If you were anywhere near a television in the summer of 1999, the images of the hellfire that was Woodstock were unmissable. The famous three-day rock and roll festival, which once promoted messages of peace and love in the hippie era of 1969, descended into utter anarchy in the late 90s, with riots fueled by drugs, arson, vandalism and rampant anglerfish

Or as some of Netflix’s new docuseries “Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99” describe it: It was like “the fall of Hanoi” or “Lord of the Flies.”

But this was neither a war zone nor a scene from a dystopian novel. Interviewees in docuseries — including journalists, festival organizers, musicians and attendees — often point to a number of logistical issues that catalyzed these horrific events. These included insufficient security, overcrowded food and drink, and faulty sanitary facilities which somehow led to attendees walking around drenched in a concoction of mud and excrement.

July’s intense heat and raging anthems from some of the alternative and new metal bands that permeated the entire festival, such as Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff,” are also cited as motivating factors for the chaos in Rome, New York.

But if you were black and knew the alt-rock scene in 1999, you know there’s another disturbing truth about Woodstock that still hasn’t received the study it deserves: opted in by a quarterback. of a million fans, mostly young white men, who mostly witnessed nihilistic behavior — on their own.

A group of young men climb to the top of a sound tower and flip it over in music festival footage shown in "Trainwreck: Woodstock '99."
A group of young men climb to the top of a sound tower and knock it down in music festival footage featured in “Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99.”

They were fed their own bitterness, their rights, and a constant diet of misogyny in the era of MTV and “Girls Gone Wild.” Even if you weren’t there to see it in person, that image alone should be pure nightmare fuel.

So most people who didn’t fit that — even those who were just as much into acts like Rage Against the Machine, Korn, and the Dave Matthews Band as much as anyone else — knew not to not report to Woodstock.

“Because it’s not for us,” said Laina 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 talks to black women from the punk, hardcore, and metal scenes.

“They wouldn’t go to that because they wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a show where these bands are playing,” Dawes added. “They’re big Korn fans. But they wouldn’t feel safe in that environment either.

In fact, at the end of the 1990s in particular, there was no typical alternative rock fan. This is because the previously more underground genre had become mainstream. It was still on the radio, and music videos like Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” or Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie” played heavily on VH1 and MTV’s “TRL,” alongside videos of Britney Spears and Aaliyah.

The alternative, while still dominated by images of cynical and/or depressed white people, has gone pop.

Limp Bizkit lead singer Fred Durst performs to an amplified crowd in a Woodstock scene shown in the docuseries.
Limp Bizkit lead singer Fred Durst performs to an amplified crowd in a Woodstock scene shown in the docuseries.

“It was very commercially successful aggressive music that was distributed in a way that anyone could get it,” Dawes said. “Limp Bizkit, for example, went straight to the mainstream, so you could buy albums at Target. Same with Rage Against the Machine.

With its wider audience at this time, alternative rock could more easily appeal somebody who was going through something at the time – whether it was mental illness, low self-esteem or anxiety. That is, virtually all MTV viewers, regardless of race or gender.

“They have certain hymns and phrases in their music that everyone can hang on to,” Dawes said. “The most popular is [Rage Against the Machine’s] ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.'”

And rebellion, even wearing a disused statement from your favorite band printed on a T-shirt, was appealing to a generation that was in many ways already lost by the end of the decade.

For many young white men, however, alternative music spoke directly to them and their issues and was specifically for their. As we saw at Woodstock ’99, they reacted to this in a way that showed their inherent right and violent goals more than anything else.

A young man talks impatiently to an MTV News reporter in footage from the festival in Rome, New York.
A young man talks impatiently to an MTV News reporter in footage from the festival in Rome, New York.

“Music and these types of festivals are perfect for this type of population,” Dawes said. “Because that’s the only time they can seriously let loose without having any societal constraints imposed on them.”

Because they were pretty much the only ones in the audience (Dawes recalls a black friend who was in attendance telling him it was “just him and all the security guards”). But what’s interesting about Woodstock ’99 and how white male privilege works is that while they made up most of the faces of 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 are just a few of the black bands that have performed. Even in the alternative music space, there was Rage Against the Machine, which has mostly members of color, including its guitarist, who is black.

For Dawes, the way young white male fans claimed this particular band, whose music has always been political, is a feature of white control that persists in live rock music to this day.

“Black people are fine as long as we sing and dance and play for white people,” Dawes said. “But everything that follows, hence the lyricism of Rage Against the Machine, is suspicious, and you can just block it. I don’t wanna hear about that racing shit.”

Vocalist Zack de la Rocha jumps high off the stage as he performs with guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk in Rage Against the Machine on January 28.  23, 1999, at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.
Vocalist Zack de la Rocha jumps high off the stage as he performs with guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk in Rage Against the Machine on January 28. 23, 1999, at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.

Lindsay Brice/Getty Images

Dawes has been a fan of the group since attending their first concert in her native Canada in the mid-90s, where she and her friend were disappointed to realize they were the only black people in the audience with mostly black people. “white frat boys with their shirts off, beers in hand and baseball caps. She says their message got totally lost on white audiences, even back then.

I don’t wanna hear about Indians and Leonard Peltier and all that bullshitshe added, echoing the limited attitudes of white fans. “I don’t want to hear about the Zapatistas. So white privilege also takes those elements of the music that they like and gets rid of the rest.

And create the illusion that the music is actually theirs to enjoy and contort to meet their own goals, like what happened at Woodstock ’99.

“Doing so doesn’t really help diversify music fans,” Dawes said. “It certainly doesn’t work to get black bodies into these festivals. So there are people who want to go, but they’re like, ‘Damn, I’m not going. Look at the crowd. It’s crazy. And don’t [want to] kick my ass.

It’s a shame. Especially because the crowd of white men at Woodstock ’99 not only monopolized the image of alternative rock towards the end of the decade, but at that festival they also won over crowds to perform acts at other genres, like DMX, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette. . And they corrupted their messages to fit into their savagery as well.

A young woman is pulled from a violent crowd at Woodstock '99 by festival security.
A young woman is pulled from a violent crowd at Woodstock ’99 by festival security.

But that’s what white male rock supremacy looked like in the late ’90s. He was holding a sign in the audience asking women like Crow and fellow feminist performer Jewel to show them their “boobs” or he was listening DMX’s personal and angry lyrics and his use of the N-word and justified singing it along with him.

Because in this space, they felt justified in doing so 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 behave one way and get away with it, knowing that if black people did the same something they would do being in jail,” Dawes explained. “There’s a power in that.”

But it further marginalizes non-white male performers, putting them in similar danger to the many white female fans who have allegedly been assaulted, and it rules out any potential for a more diverse crowd.

We guard access, and it’s a male event“, Dawes said. “But it’s not. And it never was. And that was never planned. [Festivals] want all the different bodies in there.

A young man waves the American flag amid rubble at Woodstock '99.
A young man waves the American flag amid rubble at Woodstock ’99.

Woodstock ’99 obviously didn’t reflect that, though. What he has become is another chapter in a long and enduring story of young white American men empowered by the twisted idea that their grievances give them permission to lash out.

“Right now we live in a world where – look at all the mass shootings that go by young white men,” Dawes said. “Look at all the violence that’s going on from white men.”

She pauses for a brief moment before getting to the heart of what isn’t talked about enough in conversations about Woodstock ’99.

“I mean, people are losing their ever loving spirit right now, but yet there will never be kumbaya, the time to come to Jesus, Let’s look at the pathology of white men and why they react so violently. Because these whites reflect the majority.