By now you may have endured Netflix’s documentary series on the effluent-soaked fiasco that was Woodstock ‘99. Thirty years after the first game-changing event in New York state, a supposedly celebratory reprise, staged on baking concrete rather than cooling grass, moved from disorder to chaos to something liked mass insurrection. The descriptions of backed up lavatories are disgusting. The reports on price gouging are infuriating. The horrifying tales of sexual assault chillingly close down any sense of Schadenfreude.
And what was it all for? Something not explicitly addressed in the documentary is the utter wretchedness of the line-up. Imagine enduring all that for the pleasure of being yelled at by Korn, Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. Little wonder, you may reasonably argue, the audience set out to burn the place to the ground on the last day. Then again, whereas attendees cannot have expected the substandard logistics, they knew they were going to suffer Insane Clown Posse, Dave Matthews Band and — identified by Rolling Stone readers as “worst band of the nineties” — the post-grunge stylings of Tallahassee’s Creed. The point is not that the organisers failed to attract popular acts. These groups were all (in the US, anyway) properly enormous. The argument is that, viewed from this safe distance, the late 1990s now look like a dire time for saleable, white American rock music.
This is not nostalgia talking. Rock got better relatively quickly. The industry belatedly twigged that acts from other genres could fill stadia. But something about the looming millennium seemed to drain middle-stump rock of its creative energies. The CIA’s “enhanced interrogators” gratefully embraced the right sort of music to blare volcanically at detainees in imminent conflicts. Audiences at Woodstock ‘99 stripped to the waist (sometimes beyond) and yelled “show us your tits” at unfortunate female entertainers. Maybe, as cults suggested, the world would end in 2000. Maybe parts of the world had it coming.
A lot of this is down to the unlovely genre known as Nu Metal. On paper, the idea sounded workable. At the start of the 1990s, grunge artists such as Nirvana, Hole and Mudhoney had reintroduced rougher textures into a music smoothed out by the previous decade’s excess. Incoming hip-hop influences promised a widening of hard rock’s palate beyond white suburban colours. What we got was bands yelling sexist, frat-boy gibberish over amphetamine riffs apparently created by passing the fretboard through a malfunctioning sewing machine. “My girlie ran away with my pay when fellas came to play!” Fred Durst shrieks in Limp Bizkit’s charming Nookie. “Now, she’s stuck with my homies that she f**ked.” The album Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, that band’s crowning achievement, features a euphemism for the human anus in its title. “An interminable groan, a harried hustle toward obsolescence ... turgid non-effort” the Village Voice raved. In 2013, the New Musical Express described Nu Metal as “the worst genre of all time”.
Let us be fair. There were other things to hate at Woodstock 99. There was the less frenzied, less offensive but considerably more pedestrian Bush. Gavin Rossdale’s unthreatening rock act is actually British, but, given their hugeness in the New World and their near invisibility at home, they count as honorary Americans. They are to US rock as Norman Wisdom was to Albanian comedy. Dave Mathews Band stood in for a whole school of low-fat American rock — the more poppy Hootie and the Blowfish come to mind — that barely registers east of Martha’s Vineyard. It was appropriate that the characters in Friends, a model of 1990s edgeless entertainment, went to see the Blowfish in an early episode.
In the early 2000s, acts such as The White Stripes and The Strokes ... confirmed that rock need not bland-out or pull down its trousers to remain vital
Nick Cave wants to add something about another Woodstock 99 headliner. “I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the f**k is this GARBAGE?’” he famously fumed. “And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” If you want footage of the RHCP bassist’s unsheathed sex organ the Netflix doc is there to oblige.
For many decades a myth persevered that music in the mid-1970s was rubbish and it took the Sex Pistols to shake some grit back into the scene. You’ve seen all those punk documentaries that begin with Rick Wakeman playing two keyboards at the same time while dressed as Anne Boleyn (or something). But this is plainly a distortion. The UK singles charts were certainly clogged with awful novelty records, but elsewhere you had Bowie at his best, Springsteen on the rise, oddball acts such as Henry Cow and pre-punk evangelists such as Patti Smith.
That was not a trough to compare with that ploughed by Nu Metal and circling American acts in the last years of the previous century. There was no subsequent shock to compare with punk. But, in the early 2000s, acts such as The White Stripes and The Strokes (whatever you think of either band) confirmed that rock need not bland-out or pull down its trousers to remain vital.
The genre got through it. But only just. Beware. It could happen again. The Woodstock ‘99 doc abounds with apocalyptic warnings.
Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99 is on Netflix