Woodstock '99 Was a Violent Disaster That Predicted America's Future

999 was the year that history was supposed to end. “Nuclear War Fear Over Y2K Bug” was one of the more understated headlines that fed into the end-of-the-millennium apocalypticism.

But Y2K failed to bring us back to the Stone Age and, despite Prince’s prophetic exhortations, we pretty much partied the same as we did every other year. It was in that last summer of the century that we bore witness to Woodstock '99. Looking back on the fifth (after the original, '79 and '89's forgettable renditions, and '94’s mud-caked Lollapalooza redux) gathering of stardust two decades after it took place, it's clear that it was this iteration of Woodstock, the one that took place on the hot tarmac at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York—and not the blissed-out hippie convention of 1969 at the idyllic pastures of Max Yasgur’s farm—that is most relevant to America in 2019.

Woodstock '99, which transpired July 22–July 25, uh, 1999, was, to be both simplistic and generous, an attempt to recreate the cultural zeitgeist of the original festival. With a lineup covering the entire spectrum of guitar-forward angst merchants, from Rage Against the Machine to Jewel (with a smattering of legacy and hip-hop acts thrown in for verisimilitude), it was supposed to be a generation-defining event, a celebration of "Alternative Nation"-dom, live-streamed by MTV, with $12 pizza. Unlike all the Woodstocks before it, it was also supposed to turn a profit. Instead, a confluence of corporate rapacity and organizational incompetence resulted in an estimated 400,000 attendees, according to TIME, with barely any security or trained oversight, in a space better suited for 50,000. Supplies were minimal and expensive, the hired security was undertrained and overwhelmed, and much of the music was rooted in a rage aimed more at ex-girlfriends than injustice. The exact causes of the riots that unfolded, where hundreds of shirtless festival-goers set fires and overturned cars, have been ascribed to reasons ranging from the heat, lack of grass, overflowing toilets, and uncollected trash to the overpriced ($4 a bottle) and scant supply of water, to the irresponsible encouragement of Insane Clown Posse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and/or Limp Bizkit. As documented by Maureen Callahan and David Moodie in their classic SPIN postmortem of the event, “Don’t Drink The Brown Water,” the rioting was only quelled by roughly 700 state police in full riot gear—but not before the grounds were aflame, the ATMs were cracked open, and three people were dead, according to MTV.

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Jacob Worek