Just as history has looked back on the original Woodstock with grainy footage of body-painted hippies, Woodstock '99 will undoubtedly be remembered by the bonfires that raged out of control as concertgoers rioted and looted. But the more pervasive recurring image in the 65 hours of pay-per-view coverage was of shirtless young women floating above a sea of male bodies, waiflike teens struggling to maintain strained smiles for the camera as they swatted away unwanted hands.
Singer Sheryl Crow described Woodstock '99 as "the most disconcerting audience and worst performing experience I've ever had." Crow, who also performed at the 1994 Woodstock festival, said that this year's event was different. "This year was much more focused on young, white, male America--an aggressive, macho energy full of discontentment, and I think that's where rock is about right now.
"These people were so full of rage and totally unappreciative of the music, kids raised without any pride in themselves. I'm still really [angry] about the event and regret being a part of it," she said.
What was it about this year's Woodstock that created such tension?
Although each day started with veterans and unknowns, acts that have had hits or may someday have hits, each night climaxed with performances by bands that are happening right now--Korn, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers. All are exclusively male, excessively loud, defined by a diffuse wrath against anything resembling authority, and driven more by rhythm and fury than melody. In other words, they're classic rock groups.
Which means boy rock groups. Right now, the music industry is running scared from the future. The rise of the Internet, the threat of unprofitable music duplication via digital downloads, the predicted demise of the conventional record store, and the commonplace buying and selling of record labels by multinationals have fostered a panicked corporate mentality that frowns on artistic development and looks for quick hits. The promised electronica revolution didn't instantly happen, so American music bizzers have fallen back on what they know--teeny-bop pop and boy rock.
Although reigning sugar harmony kings the Backstreet Boys, their solo female counterpart Britney Spears and Latin heartthrob Ricky Martin will most likely score the year's best-selling albums, the teen-pop backlash began soon after these acts topped the charts. The typical male rock fan hates this stuff with a vehemence that hasn't been seen since the "disco sucks" days of Donna Summer and the Village People, and although the music industry is much more attentive to female and African American audiences than it's ever been, its primary allegiance will always be to college-age white boys.
And rap-influenced hard rock is what college-age white boys like these days.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. When the last technological media upheaval occurred--at the beginning of the '80s with MTV--rock and black pop were seen as mutually intolerant opposites. Eager to shake off its recent disco past, black popular music was either smoothing out in the easy-listening balladry of Kool & the Gang, or roughing up in the form of rap, a sound ignored by major record companies in its crucial developmental years. Despite the fact that plenty of New Wave acts drew on disco and reggae rhythms, black pop was shut out of the rock world, and it took performers on the charismatic level of Michael Jackson and Tina Turner to break down the color barrier of MTV and rock-leaning radio.
Not since rock-and-roll's infancy have white musicians drawn so explicitly and so consciously on contemporary black sounds. And unlike the '50s Pat Boone fan who could fall in love with sanitized renditions of R&B hits and remain unaware of their black origins, today's Korn, Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock fan knows that his heroes are paying tribute to the rhythms and attitudes of hip-hop poets from Run-D.M.C. to Snoop Dogg. Many of the same kids sending Limp Bizkit to the top of the charts have also made possible the mainstream success of such ghetto-centric talents as Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan. Today's typical white male rocker is somewhat supportive of R&B acts like TLC, Ginuwine or Lauryn Hill.
This is progress.
The flip side of rock's current openness to African American culture is that black pop's most positive elements are not always what's most successfully crossing over. Woodstock '99 favorites Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock and Insane Clown Posse all mimic the misogyny that hard-core hip-hop seems incapable of shaking off, and although their more introspective compatriots in Korn and Rage Against the Machine address topics like gay-bashing and modern-day imperialism, their delivery is often so ham-fisted that any thoughtful intent is lost on the kids who need to hear it most.
It was telling that the final words of Rage Against the Machine's Saturday night set--an anti-war chant of "[Expletive] you, I won't do what you tell me"--was appropriated the next night by arsonists and looters facing off with police.
While pop celebrates girl power, rock is once again all about boy power. The inroads made by grunge guy softies wary of thuggish heavy metal and female renegades from Liz Phair to Bjork seem lost to fashion. While VH1 honors the women of rock, hoisting Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner to the top of its honors list, MTV negotiates the divided desires of its young audience by pumping up the rap-rock bad boys so that college-age males don't turn the channel at the mere sight of their younger sisters' goody-goody favorites.
The problem with this strategy is that it leaves out much of the most innovative, soul-searching, potentially lasting music happening right now, and that lack was reflected in Woodstock '99. Not every female musician is busy with Lilith Fair right now, and although Sleater-Kinney, Drain S.T.H. or even Courtney Love and Missy Elliott don't sell the same numbers as Korn and Limp Bizkit, their presence certainly could've helped defuse the male rage that characterized much of the festival.
Although Crow only had Jewel and Alanis Morissette for female company on Woodstock '99's vast three-day lineup, she feels the bill's gender demographics--which included mellow afternoon performances by such summer festival senior standbys as Los Lobos, Bruce Hornsby and George Clinton--were irrelevant: It was the festival's pervasive bullying tone culminating in several rapes that allegedly took place in the mosh pits and on the campgrounds that mattered.
During Crow's set, males in the audience repeatedly asked her to take off her shirt. "At first, I thought it was in fun," says Crow. "But then I saw all these young women who had their tops off being disrespected by the guys, and everyone's bad behavior was exacerbated by the constant presence of the pay-per-view cameras. There is absolutely no justification for rape. None. But I think girls were taking their tops off and the guys were groping them just so they could get on TV."
Crow's sentiments are echoed by Brian "Dexter" Holland of the Southern California punk band Offspring, who was one of two rockers who tried to curb his fans' cop-a-feel free-for-all. (The other was repentant bad boy bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.)
"I stopped our show and reminded the crowd that girls should not have to fear being assaulted just because they are girls," Holland says. "We hate to see anyone bullied, guys or girls. It is not what live music is about. But then you look around at the TV cameras and all they are focusing on is girls with their tops off. So more girls take their tops off. No problem, right? Except then there are girls who don't want to take off their tops and they start getting ridiculed."
A smaller point: At a time when much of rock and pop's creativity is coming from overseas, the fact that few non-North American performers were featured on the main stage is inexcusable. The late-night programming of electronica acts Moby and Fatboy Slim meant no pay-per-view coverage, and techno's Chemical Brothers--the one major act that managed to plug into the original Woodstock's euphoric togetherness--had to go up against Metallica.
"I played in the rave tent late at night to about 40,000 to 50,000 people, and the crowd was very good-natured, gregarious, fun-loving. I personally had a great performance experience, even if $5,000 worth of my T-shirts went up in flames Sunday night," says Moby.
"But the rest of what I witnessed at Woodstock had a frat party vibe that was totally oppressive. Now I personally like testosterone-driven rock--I've played it myself. Yet it's got to be balanced by something else, and that something else was hardly there. Instead they had one aggressive band after the other because aggressive bands are selling records right now," Moby says. "But I don't think the outcome should've surprised anyone."