Music Festival

Remembering Woodstock: Seeing Past the Idealism

Much is being made of the fact that August 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival. The summer of 1969 is considered a historic moment in American history, as the Moon landing, the Charles Manson murders, the Stonewall riots, and Nixon’s first year in office represent a cultural and political shift in the nation’s public consciousness. The music festival at Woodstock, made popular by the 1970 documentary that depicted the event from a variety of perspectives, has grown to symbolize this tumultuous period of time when political and social institutions were questioned and a philosophy of universal peace and love is alleged to have spread throughout the nation’s youth. But many argue that the America we inhabit a half-century later represents not an embodiment of these ideas, but instead a resurgence of the very same conditions that inspired so much political protest at the end of the 1960’s.

Attendees of the 1969 festival would cringe at the Millennial crowds at today’s events.

Woodstock became famous not only for the musical performances, which featured counter-cultural political messages and symbolic protests of the Vietnam war, but for the radical attitudes of its attendees. The festival was totally disorganized, as hundreds, if not thousands of people attended without paying, psychedelic drugs were abundant and cheap, and 20-something hippies walked around in the nude. 

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But the music festivals of today could not be any more different. Though the biggest festivals such as Coachella and Lollapallooza attract thousands of young adults in the same way Woodstock did, attendees of the 1969 festival would cringe at the Millennial crowds at the latter events. In place of anti-capitalist music and attitudes are huge sponsors like American Express and Hewlett-Packard, and attendees are treated to relative luxuries like air conditioning, flushable toilets, and roller skating rinks. Whereas the hippies of the 1960s railed against social inequality, the wealthy class of today’s concertgoers can treat themselves to private pool parties and pop-up restaurants from trendy brands. And instead of protesting political injustices, the popular music of today is produced by major companies and feature inoffensive lyrics designed to appeal to a broad audience.

Today’s festivals are apolitical out of necessity, as they are carefully organized to appeal to the huge brands that attempt to influence the coveted and increasingly sensitive Millennial market.

It’s worth taking a look back at the context of the 1969 festival to determine how the culture of musical festivals became so mainstream, consumerist, and politically inoffensive. Just like 1969, 2019 is a time of tremendous political and social strife, as the foundations of our social institutions are threatened by the resurgence of violent racism and shifting demographics, and technology is fundamentally changing the way we view the world and each other. But it’s important to keep in mind that while Woodstock is widely considered a monumental and unique event immersed in radical political and cultural attitudes, the event itself had little effect on the course of US history. In fact, over the past 50 years, the so-called “Woodstock generation” is now more accurately characterized as having largely conservative views, yearning for a return to an era of strict hegemonic social structures, and ushering in the era of Donald Trump. Perhaps more influential than Woodstock itself is the mythology that sprung up around the event, as people developed the unfounded belief that the concert led to a massive shift in political ideology.

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While today’s youth are just as politically liberal as the Woodstock crowd, the forces of consumerism and corporate influence have transformed the way in which they engage in political and social conversation. Today’s festivals are apolitical out of necessity, as they are carefully organized to appeal to the huge brands that attempt to influence the coveted and increasingly sensitive Millennial market. Instead, political conversations take place mostly on the Web, where the screen serves as a shield to protect from the discomforts of face-to-face arguments.

It is perhaps this cultural shift that led to the failure of an attempted revival of the concert called Woodstock 50. The festival was planned to take place August 16 – 19, 2019, and promised both contemporary artists such as Imagine Dragons and Miley Cyrus as well as artists that performed at the original concert, like Santana and Canned Heat. However, multiple changes of venue, difficulties with regulations, and arguments between investors led to the event’s cancellation on July 31st, only a few weeks before it was scheduled to take place. In fact, many of the regulations that hindered Woodstock 50’s development were enacted as a direct result of the chaos of Woodstock. Whereas the original Woodstock succeeded as a result of the spontaneous building of a community obsessed with peace, love, and music, Woodstock 50 failed due to a belief that nostalgia for the original concert would fuel enough enthusiasm and goodwill to bring about the same success. 

Ultimately, though, the nostalgia many people feel for the original Woodstock, most of whom did not attend the event but instead learned of it through the documentary or from other stories, is just that. Woodstock was an event that was as successful as it was by mere serendipity, and while it was made possible by an atmosphere that enabled the spontaneous birth of a community around principles of love and peace, it had little cultural impact relative to the impression many have of the festival. It may be impossible for an event like Woodstock to happen again today, but nothing, not even the original event itself, could live up to the fantastical mythology that has been created around it.