Entertainment · August 3, 2022

Woodstock ’99 embodied the white male gatekeeping of rock music in the MTV era

If you were near a TV in the summer of 1999, images from the hellfire that was Woodstock were inescapable. Once spreading messages of peace and love in its 1969 hippie era, the renowned three-day rock ‘n’ roll festival morphed into total anarchy in the late ’90s, complete with drug riots, arson, vandalism and rampant rape.

Or as some of the people in the new Netflix docuseries Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 put it, it was like The Fall of Hanoi or Lord of the Flies.

But it wasn’t a war zone, nor was it a scene from a dystopian novel. Those interviewed in the documentaries – including journalists, festival organizers, musicians and visitors – often point to a range of logistical issues that prompted these horrific events. These included inadequate security, over-inflated food and drink, and poorly functioning sanitation facilities, which somehow left attendees walking around soaked in a mud/faecal mix.

The intense July heat and the angry anthems of some alternative and new metal bands that permeated the festival, such as Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff,” are also cited as motivators for the mayhem in Rome, New York.

But if you were black in 1999 and familiar with the alternative rock scene, you know there’s another disturbing truth about Woodstock that still hasn’t gotten the study it deserves: despite the fact that it appeals to a wide range of music listeners directed, it was at the same time decided by a quarter of a million mostly young white male fans who mainly attended to engage in nihilistic behavior – of their own accord.

A group of young men climb to the top of a clay tower and knock it down in footage from the music festival shown in "Train wreck: Woodstock '99."
A group of young men climb to the top of a sound tower and tear it down in footage of the music festival from Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99.

They were fueled in the era of MTV and Girls Gone Wild by their own bitterness, entitlement, and a consistent misogynistic diet. Even if you hadn’t seen it in person, that image alone should be nightmare fuel.

Most people who didn’t fit in – even those who loved acts like Rage Against the Machine, Korn and the Dave Matthews Band as much as everyone else – knew they shouldn’t be attending Woodstock.

“Because it’s not for us,” said Laina Dawes, music ethnologist 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 speaks to black women in the punk, hardcore and metal scene.

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

To be honest, especially in the late 90s, there weren’t any typical Fan of alternative rock music. That was because the previously underground genre had gone mainstream. It was always on the radio, and music videos like Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” or Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie” played frequently on VH1 and MTV’s “TRL” alongside Britney Spears and Aaliyah videos.

Alternative, although still dominated by images of cynical and/or depressed white people, became pop.

Fred Durst, lead singer of Limp Bizkit, performs to an excited audience in a scene from Woodstock featured in the docuseries.
Fred Durst, lead singer of Limp Bizkit, performs to an excited audience in a scene from Woodstock featured in the docuseries.

“This was commercially very successful, aggressive music that got out there for everyone to get,” Dawes said. “Limp Bizkit, for example, went straight into the mainstream, so you could buy albums on Target. The same goes for Rage Against the Machine.”

With its wider audience, alternative rock could appeal more easily at the time everyone who was going through anything at the time – whether it was a mental illness, low self-esteem or anxiety. That means virtually every MTV viewer, regardless of race or gender.

“They have certain hymns and phrases in their music that everyone can remember,” 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 disaffected statement from your favorite band on a t-shirt, was alluring to a generation that in many ways was like that already lost by the end of the decade.

For a large segment of young white men, however, alternative music spoke directly to them and their issues and was specific to the She. As we saw with Woodstock ’99, they responded in a way that more than anything else demonstrated their inherent legitimacy and violent goals.

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

“The music and these types of festivals are perfect for this type of demographic,” Dawes said. “Because it’s the only time they can really let off steam without social constraints.”

Because they were practically the only ones in the audience (Dawes recalled a black friend who joined her saying it was just him “and all the security guards”). But the interesting thing about Woodstock ’99 and the way white male privilege works is that while they made up most 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 acts that performed. Even in alternative music, there was Rage Against the Machine, which has mostly black members, including its guitarist, who is black.

For Dawes, the way young white male fans claimed this particular band, whose music was always political, is a function of white gatekeeping 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 anything after that, hence the lyrics of Rage Against the Machine, is suspect and you can just ignore it. I don’t want to hear any of that racial bullshit.”

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

Lindsay Brice/Getty Images

Dawes has been a fan of the band since attending their first concert in their native Canada in the mid-’90s, where she and her friend were disappointed to discover they were the only black people in the audience, with mostly white “fraternity boys” shirts off, beers in the Hand and baseball caps.” She says her message was lost on white audiences even then.

I don’t want to hear about Indians and Leonard Peltier and all that crap‘ she added, echoing the white fans’ closed stance. “I don’t want to hear from the Zapatistas. So White Privilege also takes those elements from the music that they like and removes the rest.”

And creating the illusion that the music is actually theirs to enjoy and distorting it to suit their own purposes, like what happened at Woodstock ’99.

“It doesn’t really help diversify music fans,” Dawes said. “It certainly doesn’t work to bring black bodies to 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. Not me [want to] get my ass pounded ‘”

That’s a shame. Especially since the white male mob at Woodstock ’99 towards the end of the decade not only monopolized the image of alternative rock, but also swept the crowds for performances of other genres like DMX, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette at that festival. And distorted their messages to fit their ferocity too.

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

But this is what white male rock supremacy looked like in the late ’90s. It held up a sign in the audience urging women like Crow and fellow feminist Jewel to show them their “tits,” or it listened to DMX’s angry, personal lyrics and his use of the N-word and justified it, sing it along to him.

Because in this room they felt more entitled to do so than anywhere else.

“I think there’s a lot of voyeurism in new metal in general because it allows white kids to think they’re going to behave a certain way and get away with it knowing they would if they did.” Blacks would do the same as they are in prison,” Dawes explained. “There’s power in that.”

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

We’re gatekeeping, and this is a men’s event‘ Dawes said. “But it’s not. And it never was. And it was never intended. [Festivals] all different bodies want to be in there. “

A young man waves the American flag amidst debris at Woodstock '99.
A young man waves the American flag amidst debris at Woodstock ’99.

However, Woodstock ’99 apparently did not reflect this. What became of it is another chapter in a long and ongoing story of young American white men empowered by the twisted notion that their ailments give them permission to run amok.

“Right now we’re living in a world where — look at all of them mass shootings that happen by young white men,” Dawes said. “Look at all the violence perpetrated by white men.”

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

“I mean people are losing their ever loving minds right now, but still there will never be a Kumbaya moment that comes to Jesus, Let’s look at the pathology of white men and why they react with so much violence. Because these white people reflect the majority.”