Smells Like False Consciousness: Fragments of a Conversation on Woodstock '99
Issue #49, April 2000
At least one of the aromas of false consciousness is suspiciously evocative of shit. Or so we learned from Woodstock '99. Fun-seeking twentysomethings in the sultry late summer heat were convinced that an appealing means of staying cool entailed a romp in the enormous pits of mud near the rows of Port-a-Sans. What had caused the muck to collect and ripen there is that sanitation in this ephemeral congregation of 200,000 had broken down along with all bourgeois codes of hygiene. Not only were those potties overflowing and unattended, but also many of our Woodstockers didn't bother to use them. In that state of near-nudity and candor, they relieved themselves in any likely nook.
They had gathered to hear the latest proprietors of cool: three full days of rock and rave culture to commemorate the anniversary of that defining moment of rebellious counterculture, Woodstock 1. The promoters had hoped finally to cash in on their association with that cultural past, but these three days ended in a rebellion all their own, complete with raping and pillaging. Roaming packs of males, taking advantage of the near-nudity and candor, demanded with aggressive, adolescent politesse that female passers-by "show us your tits." In that oppressive atmosphere of always-imminent sexual violation, rape was only one form of violence among others and often went unnoticed and unreported.
If Woodstock the First purported to oppose the authority of their bellicose fathers and mothers, Woodstock '99 reeks of a distinctly fin-de-siecle, or millennial, opposition. That is, oppose everything, while getting your money's worth. Or: survive three sweltering days on exorbitantly priced beer and mediocre pizza and the tunes that define who you really are, and congratulate yourself for your endurance, rob some ATM's and torch some property of the Woodstock Corporation on the way out. Oh, and defy the only emblems of authority around: MTV veejays and the few remaining yellow-shirted Peace Patrol security guards.
No one comes clean in the story of Woodstock '99, I am inclined to think. Neither promoters, nor attendees (rioting or not), nor the mass media, nor the artists (some of whom I listen to, don't get me wrong), and perhaps not those (like me) sickly fascinated by the debacle. There is so much to wonder at this event. Can we dismiss it all as merely filthy lucre, filthy bodies, filthy politics, filthy culture? Are our shit-smothered compeers actually saying something political, however inarticulate, in their resistance and riot? What might this all reveal about the state of rock and rave culture as commodities?
What follows is an attempt to interpret Woodstock 99. From two hours of conversation, myself and Sharon Stanley (who transcribed 43 pages [!!] of dialogue) culled the following excerpts. In order of appearance and identified by their initials, those who contributed are Robert Adcock, Sharon Stanley, Mike Signer, Alison Kaufman, Julie Cooper, Robyn Marasco, Jimmy Klausen, and Robin Stein; all study political theory at the University of California, Berkeley.
RA: It's a product cycle in the capitalist market right? And we'll get through this in a couple of years and be back in some other kind of product cycle and something else can be...
SS: But I think it's also like really prevalent cynicism in the culture to the degree where cynicism is now — it's not really cool to not be cynical; you are sort of laughed at if you express any sort of belief in anything...
MS: It's the irony argument, yeah.
SS: And that's a large part of what's going on here I think. I mean these people are like, our generation is smart, if we have a big festival, we're gonna riot. [....] A lot of this is almost like laughing at the past, and being like, we're smart enough to understand that music isn't a force for social change and we're not going to get caught up in that too.
AK: So they're basically saying, "we realize that music isn't all that they thought it was back in 1965, '75." [....] One thing, you can say that the Rolling Stones had this place in history whereas these guys are kind of reacting to social phenomena.... And I'd really love to hear what exactly it is that they are responding to because I don't know their music at all. But I'm not sure if that's just a perspective thing and in 60-whatever, people would be like these Rolling Stones, they're such crap, you know... And kids are responding in this way, and they're just responding to a social need — that's a very historically limited argument. Maybe they are different and we know that now because they're still around, whereas Limp Bizkit, who knows where they're going to be in 2 years. But it's really hard to make that argument from this perspective.
JC: Well, but I think there is a difference between having Woodstock 1 as a new festival as something you create, and then the idea as just having the same — going back to the farm, or whatever.
RM: You see the same thing too in terms of festivals that happen over the years, such as the Warped Tour. When it first starts out, it's supposed to be more D.I.Y. or whatever, and then as the years go by, there's more of this corporate influence and so forth. Or Lollapalooza is supposed to start out as this kind of revival festival and so forth, and then as it goes on, it just becomes... more and more of a corporate influence, and to that extent, maybe that does undermine the quality of the bands that are performing.
The Politics of Appealing to Pissed Off White Kids
JK: This is like me being protective big brother, but I knew that my sister liked Limp Bizkit so I read this article about them last summer. What you [Robyn] say about race is totally true because they are totally self-conscious, or at least, Fred Durst, who is the lead singer of this band, is very explicit about his origins, and he says, "When I was growing up as a white poor Southerner, blah blah blah, I took my influences from lower-class white culture, i.e. metal, and sort of underclass black culture, i.e. rap" and so...
AK: Like Elvis?
RM: Right, well, Elvis stole black culture!
JC: Well, isn't all of rock just stolen black culture?
JK: Yeah, yeah, but he's using the class element as ...part of his rebellion to the world. It's part of his identity, or the identity of the band... this Southern melding of white and black that is like the future of politics or something.
RM: Kid Rock says that, one of Kid Rock's lyrics is that "Oh well, you're straight outta Compton, well I'm straight outta the trailer." That's a direct response to NWA, that's a direct response to saying, like, we have all of these circumstances, we're poor, we have issues... I think it's trying to like express lower middle-class, working-class and lower-class white angst or anger or whatever.
AK: How do you translate that into — so therefore, let's rip down all these things and rape all of the women, do you know what I mean? How do you get from that to let's totally destroy the place?
MS: No, the starting point of the conversation was, is this understandable in any terms of freedom? That's what I was responding to. And I was saying 'no, it's not.'
AK: My question is, does it matter? If ultimately the effects are the same, if you end with however many people raped, and how many people dead, and however many dollars' worth of property destroyed, I mean whoever's property it may have been... maybe there's a difference between looting some bystander's store versus this property specifically for the show, but nonetheless, if that's the outcome, do you look at it in terms of what's the intent of the people who are doing it, are they like: we have a political program because we're gonna... or we have a program because we're against having our rights taken away, and we're gonna take girls' shirts off or whatever...
RS: It's like, I'm gonna take off this girl's shirt and I have the right to do it. And I'm not saying it's a politicized — like that's political...
JC: I'm not saying it is politicized. I'm saying that they're — that, when you start with a definition of liberty, of freedom, in which the antithesis of freedom is license, already, you're not going to be able to understand what's going on.
SS: I think actually in terms of what the intent is and whether that's relevant, it isn't really that relevant in terms of evaluating Woodstock, but it's relevant in terms of evaluating part of a broader question — like, is there something wrong with youth culture today or whatever, what is this symbolic of? I mean, if it's not symbolic of anything, then, yeah, you just look at it and you say, well all right, you had too many people in too hot a place and they rioted and all this stuff got destroyed and that's horrible, but maybe... if it's symbolic about something else then you start asking about people's motivations and intent.[....]
RA: It seems like we have two competing theoretical frameworks. In one theoretical framework, you say, this is just one instance of a general human phenomena called riot. And it occurs in all societies, all cultures, in certain situations generated by heat and mass of people and unsanitary conditions, or something like that, you have the general phenomena of a riot and this is a case of that. Or in another situation you go, this is a particular thing that says something about youth culture today or some crisis in our culture, today.
JC: What about the framework that says this is rock music as opposed to...
RA: Right... Or this is not a general human phenomena, this is something about rock music.
MS: But rock music...? 5,000 people were injured and people were raped and physical property was destroyed ... that's what we're talking about. We're not talking about the response to music. We're talking about — there's something distinct here from Phish concerts.
AK: But what if you say it's like historical thing, it's a historical kind of thing ...in the 50's you had rock concerts where stuff was happening that was really shocking then....
MS: But violence!
SS: What about punk?
JC: Yeah, maybe this is just because I come from punk rock or whatever but I just think there is an irreducible element of violence in rock. And obviously I don't think it should manifest itself in terms of rape. I mean it doesn't necessarily have to involve misogyny but I think there is an irreducible element...
RS: I think that it's resistance, not riot. It might be violent, but it doesn't have to be...
RA: Resistance to what?
RS: It's just resistance to like the machine or whatever. You go to a Dead concert, and it's all about resistance, but it's like the most peaceful thing ever. You know what I mean, there's camaraderie, and I mean it's a different — I definitely agree that there is this common thread through all of rock music but I don't think it's necessarily violent.
AK: Can I ask you a question Robyn? You're fairly involved in youth culture and metal. And I think Sharon was saying earlier to me that there are not a lot of women in the metal scene. What's your feeling about the involvement, what's your perspective, I have no perspective on this at all.
RM: I mean, there are women on the scene, but there's not a lot of women taking active roles, like, I mean, versus like punk or whatever, where you see — I mean, there's still a whole lot of misogyny in punk, but you see more women taking active roles and you see women kind of carving out spaces and so forth. But, no, clearly, there's not as much of a presence of women in metal. And in some ways, the Woodstock events are not surprising to me at all, because I feel like misogyny is nothing new in heavy music. And so, in that way, I mean, I think it's taken to the next level but it's nothing new. In some ways I'm tempted to just be like, go to shows, and see the women around me, and just be like "Oh, false consciousness everywhere!"
RA: I can smell it!
MS: Smells like False Consciousness? (laughter)
MS: I'm still unclear on what you were saying, which is, what is it that they were rebelling against at this Woodstock?.... In Woodstock 1, there was an explicit political protest... understandable as an explicitly self-conscious challenge to lots of different kinds of political and social systems that were like, institutional and that were — you didn't need to interpret it, it was there. And then there was I guess another culture kind of, performative, aesthetic kind of rebellion or something at a deeper level, and it had to do with challenging ways of dress or culture. But I don't, I'm not clear on what they're rebelling against here. I really am not. Except for the fact that the water costs too much. Or that the promoters were like — but I think, can you all say specifically what the rebellion was against?
JK: OK, so there's the question of whether we should be or can be imputing something to this, or whether it's just something mysterious and unknown...
MS: Not mysterious and unknown, but inarticulate and unintended. [....] Un-self-conscious.
RS: I mean, I don't know anything about this, but if you see kids who are pissed off, ask them why they are pissed off. And they have an answer.
RA: All 18 year olds are pissed off.
RS: [And] their answer means they rape people?
RA: They just rape people because they're beasts.
RS: How is that helpful to prevent it from happening again? You're just gonna dismiss anything...
MS: The way to prevent it from happening again is to have constraints.
RA: Bring in the police force.
MS: Because if it's inarticulable, if it doesn't actually have a logical...
RS: But that's attacking the problem after it's — I mean that's a hack job. Let's fix this problem by adding more police? [....] That's crazy!
MS: But how do you fix cultural malcontent, you know? It's like mass-emotional cultural malcontent.
SS: But people sometimes are capable of sifting cultural malcontent through more creative mediums. I mean I don't know why, but some people are more creative in their expression of malcontent than everyone running around raping people.
RM: I think of it as like a very specific kind of rage or whatever. I think that like they're not talking about rage of youth in general, like all young people. This is like a very small portion of even the youth population. I mean we're talking about young white men... that's who Woodstock is trying to appeal to, and that's not the only people you see... at the show, but this is like a very particular kind of rage and in some ways I guess responding to what Mike was saying about how I might be[interpreting], I just see this as very much a way of validating whiteness. Like this is our white rage, this is how we express it and so forth. I mean I'm very critical about it, I'm not trying to glorify that at all.
RA: Do you think these kids would actually say I'm validating my whiteness? Would anybody say I'm validating my whiteness except you, the theorist?
RM: Well, I think so, yeah.
SS: Kid Rock!
RM: I mean I think they would probably say something really racist. I don't know if they'd say I'm validating my whiteness, but I think it's a way to try to express a certain kind of rage, and that rage is like, white male rage. You were talking about multiculturalism, and how this might be a response to — I mean, when I say this, I'm not trying to validate this at all, but in what ways might this be a response to multiculturalism, or women in rock —
JK: -Or middle-class feminism.
RM: -or middle-class feminism. I guess I worry about talking about youth culture generally, because I think it's such a small slice of youth culture.
But Was It Resistance?
JK: This is another problem. Is rock as a commodified art form, is it necessarily about creating these forms of resistance? And that there's always this overthrow, this is part of this discussion we had earlier, you know, there's one type of rock, and then there's a new type of rock that's a resistance against that one, and then there's a new resistance against that one, and then — so you have this... fad culture. I mean now we get into mass culture as necessarily changing, and it's about, if you're talking about commodities, then you definitely have to change the appearance of them and the way you relate to the commodity, and that stuff has to change in order for the product to survive.
MS: What I'm wondering — when does this like become political resistance? Because if I'm a designer working in Italy, and I design like a line, guessing like three years ahead, and everyone's gonna be tying shoelaces around their head, because I think that it's like the new thing. That's resistance, it fits into all the categories of the paradigm that you're introducing, but it's — I mean, this is my big beef constantly, you have to draw a line about when it's worthy of being, of having the word political applied to it.
RS: OK, but why? It's like you're trying to decide if you're going to side with them or not, if it's really political or if it's something else? Obviously there's a problem, whether or not it's distinctly political or just social.
MS: Because I think that Gap's new jean jacket billboard which I just saw is not political. I don't think that it has any intentionality in it of changing...
JC: Why does it have to have a political intention to be political?
MS: Or subconscious intention. I don't think it has any...
JC: How can you decide what's gonna have a political impact or not?
MS: So the people tying shoelaces around their head is resistance.
JC: I'm not saying it is resistance, I'm saying we don't know, it could be.
MS: But is it?
RA: It's a bloody decision, you gotta say something about the world.
JC: I mean I could stand up here and say something, make a statement with a political intention and it might not have a political impact. So I mean...
SS: But people tying shoelaces around their head — I mean — sorry I can't stop bringing this up, but yeah, when people in the 1970s in Britain started spiking their hair or wearing tattered clothing, that actually was political.
SS: Or, God Save the Queen? That was obviously political, right?
SS: Putting pictures of Queen Elizabeth with a safety pin through her nose, that was a political statement about authority in England.
RA: How? What did that change about how politics worked in England?
SS: It failed!
JK: It changed the way people related to power. It was something diffuse.
RM: It also really changed the way that adults thought about youth.
SS: I mean, people were scared to death of Sex Pistols. Do you have any idea how scared people were of them? I mean, you had Margaret Thatcher making speeches about the Sex Pistols and how they were going to ruin youth culture. I mean people were really scared of them.
JK: Yeah, if you want to bring back race, what about fears of hip-hop culture? What if Woodstock were like an entirely African-American festival of like rap and hip-hop and you know, various kinds of music — there would be some pretty palpable white fear there, I think. That would be very political. I mean people would be scared shitless.
JC: Yeah, I mean, think about punk rock, the use of the swastika or something. So if a punk is wearing a swastika on his jacket, I mean what is the intention behind the gesture? Is it to say I'm a neo-Nazi, or is it to say "fuck you!"? I think the fuck you gesture can have a political impact which would be different from the skinhead who's wearing the swastika because he wants to say that I believe in the superiority of the white race or something. I mean this criteria of intention that you're imposing just seems...
RA: What particular political program is put forward by fuck you?
JC: I mean I don't think politics has to involve a program or statement of goals or whatever. I mean obviously we just have different definitions of politics.
SS: ...Part of the whole movement was a response to the idea that there wasn't any future for these people in Britain anymore. And it was not necessarily supposed to change that; the Sex Pistols didn't think they could change that, right, they were just there to point it out. That's what they thought they were doing. They were saying look what you've reaped in our society, you've reaped us — and that's a problem! And that was like, the swastika was part of that, and I mean, it was a statement about what had gone wrong and it wasn't necessarily a program to change it but it was still trying to change people's attitudes to that. And it did!
MS: That if something accidentally, that the impact or if the use of something is political, then the original thing is political. Like if this incident here, if this riot is taken as politics by other people or if we take it as political, then it becomes political by extension... But I don't think that... this is necessarily political.
RM: Could it just be something that's really significant to politics? Maybe it's not...
MS: That's a different phrasing...
RM: ...I don't necessarily think that anyone was arguing that this is like some kind of model form of political initiative. I think what people are saying is that this is significant to politics for x, y, and z reasons, and then we can debate about that. So whether the act was intended to be political or whether in itself it's political or whatever, I mean, that's how I see this as becoming politically important, more so than talking about the intention of whoever participated.
JK: ...French Revolution analogy: were they really rebelling against the Church, or were they rebelling against what the Church stood for? So this is what you're asking — like, are they misogynists, or are they hating women because women stand for something?
AK: Well, I don't know. Or I mean, they're just saying like, they're rebelling against x,y,z, when the reality is that they're just not rebelling against shit, they just want to riot. And that's the false consciousness.
JK: So I'm imputing even more consciousness to them then...
AK: Well, I mean seriously, they're like "you can't tell us what to do, blah blah blah!" and really it's just because they want to like rape and burn.
JC: If we're using the French Revolution example, [Hannah] Arendt would say that we can't tell whether it's false consciousness or real consciousness but from the external perspective, we all want a narrative, and that's where the politics comes in.
James Klausen is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley.