Woodstock ’99, or How To Do a USA in Late Capitalism

Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) on late capitalism, Limp Bizkit, and the polarizing new doc.

They spend some minutes at the top explaining how a train wreck of this magnitude could only happen in Clinton’s late-’90s America, and they are incorrect. I recommend this movie. I don’t think its filmmakers quite understand what they’ve made, which is a two-hour nutshell of late capitalism — saltier and crunchier and more intact than any nutshell you’ll taste on the nightly news, though in the end, still only a shell and not too nourishing. 

They should teach Woodstock ‘99 in grade school. It is both the how-to manual that our corporate masters have been using since the era of the original Woodstock, and a gory play-by-play of exactly what calamities ensue when this manual gets followed:


Whatever the paradise or dystopia in which we find ourselves, it is of our own making. Yes, millions of years of evolution have gifted our species with a survival reflex that is prone to greed, prejudice, competition, and physical violence. But this is far from the whole human being. One could be forgiven for thinking it is the whole human being, when billions of dollars are spent each year to repeatedly poke at this part of ourselves, to unceasingly tap that funny spot on our knee, to make us believe that we are capable of no other choice.

Create an angry population and they will pay someone to have temper tantrums. The greater the spasms of rage, the greater the value. If you’re lucky, you’ll start a rebellion against the rich that ends up making the rich richer.


Wealthy, able-bodied, straight, white males co-opt revolutionary language from the oppressed, in a purely performative revolt against the very system that grants them their every advantage. In so doing, they reproduce and reinforce that very system, building it fresh again and again. As rage is twisted into fashion, the more fashionably enraged are given extra airtime, and actual outrage of actual oppressed people is portrayed and judged as mere fashion. The absence from mainstream discourse of substantive dissent opens up space for phony rebellion, which is why Limp Bizkit wins and Democrats lose.

Armchair psychoanalysis of rage-rock frontmen or American politicians misses the point. If Fred Durst or Donald Trump didn’t exist, capitalism would find someone else to fill those roles. They are the willing suckers for corporate America, a convenience for the leisure classes.

Connecting Woodstock ‘99 to the January 6, 2021 coup attempt is not exactly wrong, but also misses the point. The dynamics of wealth in late capitalism are not appreciably altered whether it’s Rage Against The Machine (left wing) or Kid Rock (right wing) holding the mic at any given moment. As each heatedly accuses the other of destroying society, they in fact work hand-in-hand to create our society, one based on heated accusations with a high profit margin. Since those who designed the system are not physically present, the affected population turns instead on each other. For the most part this rage is self-defeating, with only the occasional minor glitch to corporate bottom lines. But the cataclysm that ends Woodstock ‘99 hints at the inevitable demise of this abusive arrangement. Its participants will either become unwilling or unable to continue.


The patriarchy that came into being in biblical times defined females as the property of males, who were tasked with subjugating their females to avoid the dishonor that would result from any insinuation that the females under their protection were sluts. Late capitalism provides many opportunities to rebel against this sequestering of the female body. Unfortunately, celebrating sluttiness in our overly monetized and gender-unequal economy does not end up dismantling patriarchy, but reinforcing the male subjugation of the female body, which capitalism values chiefly for its owner’s capacity for stimulating male pleasure. Or better yet, endlessly unfulfilled male desire. Any insinuation that this contradiction was solved once Girls Gone Wild DVDs went out of style is obviously laughable.

Flea showcasing his penis is a perhaps admirable revolution against clothes, or an attempted expression of solidarity with naked women. But this once again fails to distinguish between the repercussions of sexually aggressive behavior on the part of society’s oppressor class and its oppressed.


I like Moby’s vegan restaurant but did not agree with his racist analysis that nu-metal removes the subtlety of hip hop, but keeps the misogyny and homophobia. What he’s really referring to is the handful of Black artists who have succeeded within a misogynistic, homophobic economy. Black culture is 50% female, just like his, and is responsible neither for the invention nor incentivization of turning women or the LGBTQ community into targets. Anyway why should Black people be admissible or preferable only when being subtle? 

The main thing nu-metal actually removed from Black culture is Black people. Without the oppressed themselves — their histories, and their innovations born partly from low budgets and the necessities of survival — no musical style, no matter how syncopated, can claim to be a language of the oppressed.

It is a historical fact that the economic success in which the richest Americans have always luxuriated was built with 400 years of free labor from kidnapped Africans, and continues via The New Jim Crow. Whether or not white Americans cop to this knowledge out loud, those not at the very top can take some solace in knowing that no matter how miserable their lives become under our current economic system, they still aren’t at the bottom of the totem pole.

So white mobs shouting the n-word with impunity was not just some late-’90s aberration, but part of the larger historical project to absolve white guilt by finally eliminating moral relations between people. Capitalists share a dream of reducing human beings to competitors, to potential customers, to numbers on a ledger sheet, to anonymous trolling social media accounts, and to cold-blooded job descriptions in which anyone is replaceable. Within this fantasy, harm has no consequences, since those consequences do not appear on that ledger sheet, and as such, the harmers — and their racial, gender, and class beneficiaries — are promised sweet relief from the constant shame they actually feel.


Most capitalists pray for disasters from which they may profiteer. The really smart ones, though, need not pray, as they can simply design and implement such disasters themselves. Wars, crashes, climate catastrophes, and music festivals are all great opportunities for the rich to buy up basic human needs (food, drinking water, shelter, bathrooms, medical care, and song) in bulk and sell them back to humanity at a profit. The profit becomes extra if you can pull off price-gouging, shortages, means-testing, interest, fees, and penalties.


Planners, financiers, and celebrities shift their inherent physical, financial, and emotional risks away from themselves, to the people from whom they are extracting the money. The customer is always maybe right, but probably wrong. This is the neoliberal mission and those in power have applied it to all areas of life, more thoroughly in the age of the compulsory iPhone than in 1999.


Self-empowerment, altruism, forgiveness, or atonement, especially in cases where a positive result is visible to the public, are a threat to a societal order based on hierarchy, revenge, face-saving, and winning at all costs. Thus bullies and politicians find a way to turn even the most genuine expressions of care into an opportunity for degradation or destruction, with bonus points if it’s the anti-violence groups themselves that are made to seem at fault for supplying the means. When peace candles end up being used to set fire to corporate property, the propaganda machine can chalk it up to the inherent evil of unpatrolled youth or “human nature.”


Our alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and opioid epidemics are corporate creations and great for buying CEOs new yachts.


Those in the movie who bemoan the ‘99 audience’s ignorance of Pete Townsend or Jimi Hendrix destroying their guitars in genius acts of anti-materialist performance art miss the point that the material result of a rich rock star destroying their guitar is that they buy another guitar.

It is precisely the most successful of the liberated, freedom-loving baby boomers of the original Woodstock generation that became the architects of our current libertarian hellscape, in which human freedom is redefined as freedom from economic regulations for the most money-grubbing among us. Whoever starts with the advantage, or is the bigger bully, or has the most natural-born greed, should simply be allowed to win, as a matter of principle. Being broke is retroactively redefined as laziness, mutual aid as whiny entitlement, and taxes as theft.

The well-endowed victors of the Woodstock ‘69 era, as if struggling to get a word in edgewise ever since, hold press conferences to convince the world that their plan is still working, even as it collapses before everyone’s eyes. Their emotions run high, not to heal or even address those harmed, raped or killed under the system they designed, but rather in a desperate attempt to escape responsibility for the damage being done to their PR image.

Above all, naked women and non-subtle Black people are at fault.


Once property damage occurs, escalate the physical violence or threat of physical violence to include weapons. Any harm that results doesn’t count, since police are state-paid. Overtime in this case, much to the officers’ glee.


Add ominous or sad sounding keyboards in the voiceover/montage sequences to give the impression that the documentarians are scared or sad about Woodstock ‘99. They are, of course, happy about Woodstock ‘99, since its very tragedy leads to an enhanced view count and Rotten Tomato score.

Cultural commentators are in the habit of painting Woodstock ‘99, or any other capitalism-induced misfortune, as just another illustration of the essential darkness of human nature. But I’ve played quite a lot of concerts in 27 years of touring that were nothing like this. As a concert, Woodstock ‘99 is the exception that the self-appointed shamers of metal or rap or freethinking youth would have you believe is the rule. No. Leave the corporate douchebags out of the equation and you will have already saved yourself a lot of grief. Most of the human gatherings I’ve attended, be they concerts or BLM protests or birthday parties, are celebrations of creativity and mutual care. That stuff is human nature too.

Deerhoof’s new album Actually, You Can is out October 22 via Joyful Noise Recordings.

Greg Saunier heard “Start Me Up” when he was 13 and from that day forward has devoted his life to rock music. He is the drummer for Deerhoof as well as a composer and producer.