Clara Scott: The problem with Woodstock 50

Thursday, March 21, 2019 - 3:17pm

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I would be one of many classic rock fans to be elated in the wake of another Woodstock. The age in which it fell is a period of time I’ve always been obsessed with, in a way that has greatly colored my understanding of modern pop culture. Everything I listen to or watch is immediately compared to the media of the ’60s and ’70s, the media that I was raised on and developed my own love for as I grew up. I am the poster child for that languid teenager self-proclaimed to be “born in the wrong decade.” Yet despite that love for the Aquarian age, 2019’s upcoming 50th anniversary celebration of the first, most famous Woodstock festival stings more than expected. It makes me wonder if we will ever have something truly like Woodstock ’69 again.

Let’s first understand the context in which the original Woodstock came to fruition: a small festival was planned to be held in upstate New York in the blazing heat of August. They expected 50,000 people — 400,000 came. From those conditions and the social revolution of America’s hippie golden years, Woodstock ’69 became a lasting memory in the consciousness of music lovers and pop culture aficionados alike. People (literally) broke down barriers to enter. It was a magical, if not chaotic, three days in a time full of creation and destruction set against the war in Vietnam. You get the jist: the festival would be hard to replicate in any era, even its own. Everyone knows the name Woodstock.

In this recognition and respect for the original shows my problem with Woodstock’s 50th. Although 2019 is a year of similar revolution, for rights and positive change in the entertainment industries, it is disheartening to know that we are fighting for the same things now that we did then. The Gloria Steinems and Marvin Gayes of yesterday’s pop cultural landscape are reflected in figures we know and love today. In that way, this year would be a perfect time for a remembrance of Woodstock, to think about the things we have done and still have yet to accomplish for rights and the progression of artistic freedom. I acknowledge this, and understand its influence on the decision to have a memorial festival in the first place. No, my issue is not with that aspect of the 50th ― it is with the music.

The final lineup released this week was, to say the least, disappointing. It is not all bad, and serves as an eclectic mix of today’s artists, old and young. With Imagine Dragons headlining the third day, the focus on the mainstream acts of music today waters down the spectacular returns of performers like Santana, who memorably played at the original festival, and those who never got a chance to fully prove themselves in 1969, like Dead & Company, Grateful Dead’s modern iteration including John Mayer. Maggie Rogers is great, sure, so is Greta Van Fleet. But these acts fail to capture the unmatchable feeling conjured by the original Woodstock.

And herein lies the crux of the situation: the majority of today’s music does not have the raw, revolutionary quality of many of the acts included in the initial festival. Maybe it is the time we live in, maybe it is the fact that fame and success are very different beasts than they used to be. Maybe it is because the acts that are pushing the envelope on musical innovation are equaled in the lineup by ones that are just OK. Nonetheless, regardless of the music’s quality in general, I genuinely don’t believe any other time could capture the magic of Woodstock better than 1969 could. The 25th anniversary festival in 1994 didn’t, so why do people believe that 2019 can? Part of why the original Woodstock remains in our memory today is its accidental nature ― no one expected those three days to become as much of a cultural touchstone as they are. It was a wild world then, and it is now. But I don’t know whether that’s worth replicating the same serendipitous genius that produced Woodstock. And I believe that it is foolish to even try.