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What if America's true religion is … rock & roll?
I recently watched Trainwreck, a documentary on Netflix about Woodstock ’99. Over three episodes, the series shows the planning of the festival and then follows the interplay between the main musical acts over the course of three days and what was happening in the crowd. The title contains no hint of patented Gen X irony: it was a debacle. The festival took place at a huge former air force base in Rome, NY and attracted several hundred thousand people, largely teenagers and adults in their early 20s. The weekend was extremely hot and the festival organizers didn’t build adequate water, sanitation, or trash infrastructure. The headline acts were mostly popular hard rock bands, like Korn, Kid Rock, Insane Clown Posse, and Limp Bizkit, and they played before an increasingly agitated and frequently unclothed crowd. As the festival progressed, heat stroke, injuries from mosh pits and crowding, trench mouth, and complaints of sexual harassment were rampant. Several rapes were reported or witnessed. By Sunday, the festival goers had started tearing apart the plywood panels that served as fencing around the base. Michael Lang, who organized the original Woodstock festival, decided to hand out thousands of candles during the last performance, by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the crowd lit fires on the tarmac with plywood and trash; RHCP responded by playing the Jimi Hendrix song, “Fire.” When the stage vacated, mayhem ensued. As giant screens showed Jimi Hendrix playing the National Anthem, the crowd began tearing apart whatever they could find to feed the bonfires; they ransacked the vendor areas selling merchandise; a line of trailers with propane tanks exploded. The State Police were called in to crack heads and arrest anyone who didn’t leave. The next morning the site was filled with trash, char, and puddles of sewage-grade slop. The incongruity with the original Woodstock couldn’t be greater: instead of grass and love and free music and let’s-all-get-along-together, there was asphalt, anger, high prices, let’s-fuck-or-fuck-shit-up.
I will admit that I hadn’t actually remembered Woodstock ’99 before watching this series. The festival happened in the summer before I went off to college, so I would have been in the prime demographic to attend. But I don’t think I watched the news much that summer, and the concert organizers booked a lot of hard rock or rap rock bands whose output runs against my aesthetic sensibilities. With a few exceptions (Willie Nelson, James Brown, The Roots), I have zero interest in the bands from the main lineup. Lest one think that I’m some kind of classical music snob (or, for that matter, a classic rock snob!), my favorite band from this era is the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I challenge anyone to find music from the ’90s that is hotter, funkier, darker, funnier, hornier, or nastier than the 29 tracks on Orange and Now I Got Worry.
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In watching this documentary, I was struck by the contradictions embodied both by the attendees and in the festival presentation as a cultural artifact:
Much of the music was aggressive, featuring fast, pounding rhythms, distorted, guitar-heavy instrumentation and vocals rather deficient in euphony. The lyrical content was fixated on drugs, sex, violence, and degeneracy. But everyone interviewed in the documentary is horrified that actual destructive behavior broke out among the crowd, causing real injuries and costs.
Nudity, public sex acts and drug use seem to have been pretty common during the festival—all out in the open and not policed. And yet, again, there appear to have been numerous incidents of rape or sexual harassment and injuries from mosh pits, heat exhaustion, drug overdoses, and other stupid, reckless behavior, and these are, naturally, condemned.
Live music is a great experience, but part of the appeal of an event like Woodstock ’99 is that it’s a social experience; listening to music with thousands of people is profoundly participative in a way that just watching musicians perform is not. In the documentary’s interviews of festival-goers at the time, again and again, the main attraction of the festival was that it would be a weekend with no rules and no responsibilities. Without rules and responsibility, there can be no community, and no real sense of what social participation means.
Many of the attendees, when interviewed in 2022, likened the experience of the festival to surviving a war or some kind of extended, unexpected trauma. At the same time, the same people felt it was one of the best, most memorable experiences of their lives, and, even in retrospect, they wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
There are a few things we can say immediately about these contradictions. First of all, some amount of drug use and wild, hedonistic behavior does not automatically lead to violence, mob criminality, and general foolhardiness. By the same token, promiscuity and sexual provocation should not be equated with non-consensual sex acts. We can distinguish these things morally, and argue for the value of certain restraints over others. However, the gap between them, psychologically, is narrower than “liberal” sensibilities want to admit, and so we should still view the festival as a study in contradiction.
Second, artistic representations ought to be understood as separate from the real world that they purport to represent. Art stylizes and abstracts away from the messy reality of things, and its ultimate ends are aesthetic and instructive, not merely mimetic. We want our works of art to externalize and formalize our perceptions so that they might teach us something about our cultural values that would not be clear, or so easy to swallow, in any other form. What grounds art, socially and personally, is that, while the content of an artwork can express just about anything, this content is always framed in a moral point of view. Treating artistic content as a strict guide for living inevitably leads to disaster—it’s the moral reaction to this content, as an implicit attitude, that a culture puts forth to you, the consumer of the artwork, as a guiding light. So, the proper view of the music at Woodstock ’99, in all of its chaos and aggressive energy, would be that it represented something about its cultural moment, and the moral sentiments of that moment, rather acting as incitement to actual violent behavior.
This draws our attention to the music itself. Why these particular forms? Why all the violent and heedless sentiments? Why the rejection of community and responsibility, especially given the central role in the original Woodstock festival played by rhetoric about such things? Why does this music, artistically, direct its moral attention to social hypocrisy and bourgeois rigidity, rather than the agitations and barbarity it often performs?
The documentary has nothing to say about this. Instead, it supplies a few moral conclusions about both the festival organizers and participants. Woodstock ’99 appears to have had inadequate sanitation facilities, not enough access to potable water, no shade structures near the events and no plan to deal with the volume of trash generated. Security was understaffed and not very professionalized. The decision to hand out candles on Sunday night was incredibly stupid. The series portrays the festival’s leadership (especially promoter John Scher) as too concerned with making a profit, and collectively feckless where money matters may have not been the decisive influence. The film also makes a gesture towards the “#MeToo” movement in condemning the frat boy atmosphere at the festival. Sexual harassment was pervasive; a few instances were investigated or reported, which, given the non-existent security among the crowd and its sheer size, means that there were probably more unreported incidents of sexual assault. Many men at the festival could have been implicated in this behavior, and there’s an easy to connection to make to “toxic masculinity.”
These moral critiques are shallow. It’s very likely that some combination of incompetence, obliviousness, and greed led to bad planning decisions. But that only tells us something about a random group of people in 1999 who had the connections to promote a big music festival. Incompetence, obliviousness, and greed are universal human frailties that are in no danger of disappearing any time soon, especially among people with connections. And their failure had a selective effect: there hasn’t been a “Woodstock”-branded festival since. It’s also disturbing to see the rampant sexual harassment, and even assault, by some of the male participants. But all of this was happening in an environment marked, more than anything, by a rejection of uptight, bourgeoise norms around sexual propriety and temperance. Both genders were wandering around the festival grounds naked. In the after-hours rave, people were having sex openly and willingly. Drug use was endemic. This seems like the more salient socio-cultural trend. That crude, ugly, and repugnant sexual behavior would emerge when hundreds of thousands of people convene in this environment … well, that’s inevitable and predictable.
Moralizing is antithetical to the enactment of values—which is the real purpose of a moral sense. Nothing is demanded of the moralizer, and his or her values, in repeated iterations of moralizing polemics, become reified abstractions. But the more glaring oversight in the documentary is that its editorial moralizing doesn’t contemplate the moral perspective of the music that was the festival’s whole reason for being. And we find that the behavior of everyone at the festival leads us to ask the same basic questions as the music, in isolation: why this insistent upheaval of polite decorum? Why the reaction against authority and responsibility?
The historical moment had something to do with it. We can start with a contrast. The original Woodstock had drug use, some nudity, ample sexual activity, and an anti-authority vibe; the organization of the festival was also completely botched. Miraculously, it managed not to devolve into Altamont. However, it was the music that deserves prime attention—the good behavior of people in the crowd was a stroke of luck. The musicians performing there brought together most of the threads of popular music in America going back to the early 20th century. Blues, different kinds of folk music, country, soul, r&b, doo-wop, Latin—many of the best, most creative musicians working in or among these genres showed up at the festival; jazz was the only major genre at the time not making an appearance. Collectively, this music represented the whole country and everyone in it, along a course of development not derivative of some older European tradition, nor some African or orientalist affectation. The artistic range on display was quintessentially American, and, just as important, not merely looking backward, but also forward at what American music could be. The musical confluence is exactly parallel to the political and cultural scene in the year it happened, 1969, a turning point in American culture broadly. There were watershed moments that year—the moon landing, the first message submitted remotely over the proto-internet (i.e., ARPANET), the Stonewall Riots, the Manson killings, Chappaquiddick—but, more significantly, other trends became undeniable and irreversible: the ascension of the Baby Boomers into adulthood, the loosening of sexual mores, laxer attitudes towards vulgarity, racial turmoil, a kind of religious awakening in hippie and “New Age” movements, the Nixon backlash as the first shot fired in the “culture war.” The appeal of the 1969 Woodstock festival is that it’s iconic of what America could be, at a moment when open questions about the country’s future were fragrant in the air. Our rhetoric about it, and all the hagiographic treatment in the media, and the well-funded arts center that today sits at the festival site in Bethel, NY, are not about an ideology of whatever flower-power hippie shit that has become the brand of the late 1960s; it's this sense of the possibility of America, in its best version of itself.
There would be no lingering questions in the air by the time Woodstock ’99 rolled around. The Baby Boomers were turning 50. The Cold War was over. The economy had been on a hot streak for nearly a decade, but this was fueled by a post-industrial transformation that left blue-collar populations disenfranchised—the internet boom, rising global trade, the turn towards services. The Clinton impeachment was a sure sign that the culture wars had bubbled into overt questions of national governance. The phantom Y2K collapse was only five months away. The Age of Aquarius was out, and the End of History was in.
The historical perspective, however, just gives us context. Likewise, characterizations of the music of these festivals gives us a form in which certain deep psychological urges happen to express themselves, in context. The contradiction at play, I think, are in these deep urges themselves, which are the source of moral perspective at work, in history, in form. People came to both of Woodstock festivals in droves because they wanted a communal experience. They wanted to participate in an event greater than themselves and their everyday lives. The experience was meant to be ecstatic. The focal point was, of course, music, but the music was rhythmically complex and loud, played in the heat, attended by dancing, sexual anticipation—and copious drug use. The merchandise and artwork on the site, or, in the case of Woodstock ’69, the hippie aesthetic of the way people dressed, presented an iconography meant to surround the gathering. All of this signifies a religious impulse.
We’ve been told, culturally, that Christianity is the American religion. Some allowance is made for Judaism or other world religions if your ancestors happen to come from a place where they are practiced. Or maybe, if you have the right kind of pretensions, certain “New Age” fixations are accepted, to the degree that they can be laughed off. But the behavior during both of these music festivals was extremely pagan. American popular music is entirely pagan in its substance. Lyrical content is absorbed in the here and now, in human emotions, in sexual appetites and the hardships of love, in fate which impinges on us arbitrarily. More than this, the feel of the music expresses these concerns. Darkness, not always visible in songs of a noon-time mood, nevertheless comes every night and exists to be tested or explored or embraced.
For most Americans, attending church involves a combination of didacticism and polite ritual. There are churches where the music is hotter and more up-beat (mostly in the South), and, of course, a revival tradition that includes speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, the handling of snakes and shouting from the pulpit; these might, indeed, be said to incorporate some ingredients of the pagan, as many early Christian rituals have been acknowledged to, but, at a minimum, their verbal content always emphasizes the defeat of evil and the yearning for salvation in a biblical context. A large segment of the population needs opportunities for ecstatic and communal experiences, and not just in an abstract sense where any form of experience will fit the bill, but experiences whose content reflects their social and civilizational reality. The Christian ethos yearns for salvation in an otherworld, sublime in its perfect order, where, here, in this world, coils the taint of evil and its broken things: this is not the sensibility of a modern, industrialized society, where the spirit must contend with the numinous variety of the physical world, and can only find sublimity in its own manifold imaginations.
Though I may not be forgiven for these reductive abstractions on such a topic as religious faith in the modern world, this piece is a short meditation, not an academic exegesis. For a longer treatment along these lines, my starting recommendation would be Camille Paglia’s seminal book, Sexual Personae. Her working thesis is that we can see cultural decadence in art where pagan instincts are repressed, or dissipated through socio-cultural exhaustion; the pagan elements themselves are morally neutral, but, more importantly, necessary for a well-rounded human being.
Because of the stranglehold that Christianity has on our expectations about what it means to be “religious,” social cues usually indicate that these communal, ecstatic experiences—being, frankly, pagan in character—can only be accessed through partying and drugs. What really ought to be profound and serious is, instead, construed as silly, but also chaotic and defiant. The religious impulse, then, is not controlled, not mediated through defined forms. Both the dark things and the mystery of the physical world must be touched in ritual, especially in a modern context, but this should be an adult concern, not a childish one. We are left with music that is both remarkable and childish; we live in a vulgar moment, especially now in the tailwinds of the Trump era, and yet everything is still possible for human beings. We are submerged in contradictions. If we were more conscious of these things, the contradictions could surface as ambivalence, the mind drawn towards two dialectic possibilities, both alluring and engrossing in their separate ways—two spirits in one body, two roads diverging in a wood, two kinds of love. Such self-knowledge would allow us to submit ambivalence to rituals, hopefully something new and original. And rituals, in turn, can resolve such implicit cultural or psychological tensions in the hopes of making individuals more whole, as human beings in a social environment.
In reviewing the threads I’ve tried to weave together here, I go back to the Blues Explosion. The name of the band was the music: Blues gone supernova. They put a heavy emphasis on rhythm and often abandoned vocal melody; Jon Spencer is Elvis as James Brown. Unlike most of the other bands from the ’80s and onward, they were keenly interested in the roots of their music, even doing an album with R. L. Burnside and inviting Rufus Thomas to contribute to a vocal track on Now I Got Worry. At the same time their music is becrusted in irony, and full of wild experiments with the electronic alteration of tone. The Blues Explosion stripped rock of its pretenses. In the same gesture, they exposed the soul of rock & roll as its own singular pretense, but, unlike the others, this is a pretense of ritual, a fiction, at once artificial and supreme, meant to enact the moral life of its participants, through religious spectacle. It’s just that our moral life, here in America, is warped, angry, confused, incomplete—because we don’t understand our rituals as such.
Note: An earlier version of this article claimed the final act at Woodstock ‘99 was Guns ‘N’ Roses when in fact it was Red Hot Chili Peppers. The story has been corrected.
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