first person / culture

Woodstock’s Contradictions, 50 Years Later

With five decades of hindsight, the festival still poses questions about its utopian ideals and our relationship to them today.
Woodstock was a brief moment that would provide contradictory lessons for generations to come. It was entertainment that felt momentarily rebellious — “a festival of peace and music” — that posited art as an alternative reality. Rock concerts, happenings, be-ins and love-ins were all part of the late-1960s cultural upheaval, but they were local events, not city-sized assemblies with people, presumably like-minded people, as far as the eye could see. Woodstock was on a different scale, a few quantum leaps up. It lived up to that “peace and music” billing to gather an unexpectedly large, unexpectedly amiable community; it envisioned pleasure as a solution to societal strife, not merely a distraction from it. (That didn’t pan out.)

But Woodstock also partied while people died in Vietnam; the continual helicopter shuttles, audible in the live music recordings, were constant reminders of military technology, flown by the National Guard. The best song about the festival, “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell (she wasn’t there), envisions bomber jets “turning into butterflies.”

Most importantly, the scale of Woodstock showed people who had considered themselves “freaks” that they weren’t as small a minority as they had thought. Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band paused during a tuning break to marvel, “The thing that surprises me is, like, how many of us there are. And it makes me fantastically happy.”

For those who were coldbloodedly watching numbers, even in 1969, Woodstock simply identified a big, promising segment of the youth market, ready for the commercial exploitation that would ensue almost immediately. “Woodstock Nation,” despite Abbie Hoffman’s hopes when he coined the term, turned out to be a demographic rather than a political force.

At every festival that I’ve attended since Woodstock — Bonnaroo, Reading, Coachella, Electric Zoo, Rock in Rio, even the first Lollapalooza (which did hint at a new outsider community) — the audience has been treated more like consumers than crusaders. Woodstock was different, a festival experience that was still largely unformed. Wow — all these people! But one of Woodstock’s main lessons was one of the most obvious ones: People like free stuff.
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