Netflix recently released Clusterf*ck: Woodstock ’99, their three-episode documentary series directed by Jamie Crawford exploring the titular music festival. Even though it’s been barely a year since HBO released its own Woodstock ’99 documentary, which you’d think would’ve already scratched this itch, I immediately binged all three episodes of the new version the second they were available. Then I watched them again two nights later when a friend came to visit.
I devoured it all, despite it being largely material I’d already seen, delivering information I already knew. I did it so fast and so reflexively that it forced me to ask myself, why? What is it about this seemingly obscure event from 23 years ago that makes me want to keep reliving it, rehashing it, relitigating it? What answers am I hoping to find this time around?
The last time I sped through two docs about the same thing this eagerly was Netflix and Hulu’s competing Fyre Fest documentaries, so maybe there’s just something endlessly intriguing about watching music festival-goers suffer, cocky festival organizers devoured by their own hubris. And sure, maybe there’s the nostalgia factor. I was 18 when Woodstock ’99 happened, so the time period is etched indelibly in my mind. It’s always luridly fascinating to relive those days of bare breasts, baggy pants, and ICE spiker, when the biggest political issue on most young white kids’ minds was how MTV sucks now and your moms was always trying to tell you what to do.
Yet there’s more to Clusterf**k‘s appeal than simple nostalgia. The music and fashion is safely anachronistic, but the event itself, the way it plays out and is eventually covered, feels like a cultural harbinger. It feels like a coming out party for a certain brand of feckless post-counterculture liberal that’s still with us today. These eternally optimistic yet clueless ex-hippies transform seamlessly into “the man” without even realizing it. Woodstock ’99 feels like a transitional moment, perhaps the first time that people of my generation realized that the counterculture we’d been raised to worship had become the culture, and they were hopelessly out of touch. That they’d keep trying to recycle their youth for new generations without acknowledging that the material conditions that produced it had changed.
Woodstock ’99 was an attempt to recreate Woodstock ’69, when four 20-somethings organized one of the touchstone cultural events of the sixties. 30 years later, some of the same people, notably original Woodstock organizer Michael Lang, tried to do the same thing. Only instead of putting on a cool free party featuring bands they liked for their friends, they’d sell it to their children’s generation, using all the free love imagery that had been floating in the cultural ether for the previous 30 years.
Even in the gesture itself, this self-serving capitalism disguised as pedantic altruism and generational noblesse oblige, you can see the origins of the Silicon Valley messiah complex — the way Google built a sprawling monopoly while espousing “don’t be evil” as a mantra. Instead of choosing acts they knew and understood, it was like Woodstock 99’s organizers just went to radio programmers and invited the top 40 acts, with little regard for how they’d fit with each other or further the stated themes of the festival. In that way, it feels like an early example of trusting “Big Data.”
Chances are you already know the broad strokes of what happened next: the organizers, who hadn’t made enough money on Woodstock ’94 because the fence broke and people got in for free, moved the whole thing to a decommissioned air base. To save more money, they farmed out the logistics out to amoral contractors, confiscated everyone’s water on the way in, skimped on security, and, once 250,000 kids were trapped inside a massive animal pen built atop miles of scorching hot blacktop on the hottest weekend of the year, they gouged them for necessities like food and water while failing to provide the basics like security, trash, and sewage service. All while selling their flesh, exuberance, and eventually, suffering, on Pay Per View. Festival goers watched the price of food and water double and triple during the course of the festival, not yet knowing to call it “surge pricing.”
All weekend the organizers had been stoking rumors of some big closing act surprise — Prince? a reunited Guns And Roses? Michael Jackson? Bob Dylan? — but instead, when the last official act (Red Hot Chili Peppers) came to their encore, the audience received candles for a planned Columbine victim vigil, along with a giant video screen playing old Hendrix footage. At which point the attendees used the candles to torch the venue. Which was, hilariously, treated as a shocking event (Burning Man, which always ends with a big fire, had been chugging along uncontroversially for 13 years already at that point).
It’s funny that the enduring debate of the festival has been “what went wrong?” when it should be blindingly obvious to anyone why a bunch of dehydrated kids who’d been denied water wanted to break shit. And it wasn’t because Fred Durst told them to “break stuff,” no matter how big a douche Fred Durst may be (I understand that talking heads shitting on Fred Durst makes for delightful doc content, but blaming him for a riot that happened a full day and half later ignores a lot of basic cause-and-effect). To its credit, Clusterf**k seems to blame the music a lot less than the HBO version.
What other recourse did those kids have after being sold a false bill of goods, gouged, and then exploited for content? Property damage was just the most obvious way to even the score. The organizers had commodified the “Woodstock” brand, and in revenge the festival goers succeeded in sullying it forever. It’s cathartic to watch, another reason these docs are so watchable.
Of course, the leadership of the time, even 23 years later, seem utterly oblivious to all this (if not prevented from acknowledging it for legal reasons). The fascinating aspect of Woodstock ’99 is less the fires and the riots and the sexual assaults themselves (which, it should be noted, Woodstock ’69 also had lots of) than watching those same organizers continue to deny the basic material conditions that created the disaster. In that way they seem to eerily mirror our current political leadership.
In one unforgettable scene, a veteran of Woodstock ’69 drives around the trash-strewn grounds of Woodstock ’99 (the trash hauling contractors nowhere to be found), trying to hand out garbage bags in the vain hopes of getting the festival goers to clean up after themselves. If her generation could clean up their own trash (citation needed), why couldn’t these kids? When her audience, by and large, look at her like she’s insane, it doesn’t seem to inspire much self-reflection. No acknowledgment that cleaning up food and trash you’ve been allowed to bring in to sustain yourself at a free concert is fundamentally different than being asked to pick up the remains of $4 water ($7.11 water in 2022 dollars) you’ve been forced to buy by a venue that can’t maintain trash, food, or sewage after you paid them $150 to get in. And also, by the way, owns the rights to the images of you passed out naked in the mud in perpetuity.
Even 20 years later, being interviewed in the present, Woodstock 99’s organizers still seem incapable or unwilling to learn basic lessons. Asked to explain why the kids tore down their peace wall and looted their vendor village, they say, seemingly without any sense of irony, things like “I guess they just didn’t have that same spirit.”
Over and over, when presented with material conditions and institutional failure, they blame culture. Organizer John Scher (portrayed once again as one of the main villains of the story) says of the festival attendees, “I think they were entitled and fearful of growing up.”
Michael Lang, Scher’s long-haired flower child partner adds, “I don’t think they were able to embrace the social issues in the same way.”
If the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting the same results, what does it mean to expect people to act just like you did while treating them completely differently? These people will exploit your youth and then call you childish if you object.
It wouldn’t feel so relevant if the people who ran Woodstock ’99 didn’t seem so cut from the same Kente cloth as the people currently running the country. Lang died from non-Hodgkins lymphoma three months after shooting his interview. John Scher (whose name is conveniently scrubbed from the Woodstock ’99 Wikipedia page, and Wikipedia in general, which must’ve cost a pretty penny — and didn’t work that well considering most of his other search results are news articles about him blaming women for their own sexual assault) is still alive (he’s about 71, based on this Billboard article) and still working. Both are younger than both Joe Biden (79) and Nancy Pelosi (82), not to mention half the congressional leadership.
It’s not to say that everyone from the same generation is exactly the same (which by implication would make me responsible for the popularity of Limp Bizkit, a band that once released an album called “Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water”), but it is hard not to see echoes of that confused hippie lady desperately trying to hand out trash bags in every dire-sounding fundraising email from the DNC. “Won’t you please help us clean up this mess we created?? All we need is a bit more of your money!”
It’s hard not to see a little of Joe Biden in the footage of John Scher and Michael Lang’s increasingly out-of-touch press conferences, insisting that everything is okay, and even if it isn’t it definitely isn’t their fault. The Chapo Trap House boys once described Joe Biden as “the guy who tells you the ice cream machine is broken” and I haven’t been able to think of him any other way ever since. John Scher and Michael Lang were early harbingers of this, the guys who smile and say the shitters are full but they’re working real hard on it. What was Bill Clinton’s famous catchphrase? “I feel your pain.”
These are all people who have clearly sold out their peace and love and flower power values for a comfortable position in society long ago, but if you point out their hypocrisy in any of this or their basic incompetence in any way, it’s because you’re too selfish or irresponsible. The youths are too entitled! They can’t even appreciate being charged for things we got for free!
It’s not so much their hypocrisy or their incompetence that rankles; my own generation is clearly capable of same, as the aforementioned Fyre Fest example could attest. It’s the refusal to relinquish the cultural conversation, the refusal to stop insisting. Nancy Pelosi is in her eighties and has tens, or hundreds of millions of dollars to her name, depending on who you ask. Dianne Feinstein, widely whispered to be suffering from dementia, is almost 90 and even richer. Joe Manchin, the Democrats’ bete noire, is 74 and also a millionaire. Donald Trump looks like this now.
Nothing against older folks, I hope to become one myself some day. But the majority of the political leadership on both sides is well past the age when we would start to consider them incompetent for other jobs. They could just ride off into the sunset for comfortable retirements, on dopily named yachts eating fancy ice creams from custom fridges, and everyone would be happy for them. And yet they don’t. It seems that they can’t manage the one act even Limp Bizkit was ultimately capable of: leaving the stage.