I was 16 when I went to Leeds Festival, my first music festival without parents around to steer the ship. As well as the usual advice about staying hydrated and taking an old Nokia 3310 instead of your brand-new iPhone 3, there was one rule drilled into my head — do not stay over on Sunday night. Legends of tents being set on fire, robberies and general anarchy were passed down through generations of attendees and by the time I arrived in 2009, Sunday night at Leeds festival was a no go for anyone who didn’t fancy themselves at the center of a riot. Safe to say, I never stuck around to find out if the rumours were true.
The anxiety I felt about that anarchy was revived watching Netflix’s new three-part documentary series, Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99. Following the planning, execution and eventual downfall of the 1999 festival, a follow-up to the original celebration of “peace and music” in the 60s, the film is a brilliant example of what happens when unfettered masculinity and disillusionment meet a lax attitude towards the safety of festivalgoers. The answer? Utter chaos.
What was supposed to be a fun party and a demonstration against rising gun violence in America quickly descended into what one journalist described as “hell”. Whipped up into a frenzy by aggressive acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit and furious about the endless price gouging — by the end of the festival, water cost as much as $12 thanks to the lack of clean drinking water available (one attendee explains how she contracted “trench mouth” at the festival) — the partiers began to tear apart the festival’s infrastructure, crowdsurfing on the wooden panels that once surrounded the sound stage. With little to no security on site to take control of the situation, radio towers came down, ATM machines were broken into, and bonfires blazed across the airfield where Woodstock ’99 was held.
Perhaps it’s because I have been going to festivals in Britain for a long time, but some of the activities the talking heads (security personnel, tech assistants, people in the crowds) in the documentary were describing didn’t seem that shocking to me. People were naked? taking drugs? Maybe even having sex? These people have clearly never been in Glastonbury’s Meat Rack at 5am. But what did scare me was the animalistic looks on these young men’s faces; not only did they not care how much damage they were causing to the festival, but they also lost any respect for the safety of each other. I’ve seen bloody noses in mosh pits and been thrown to the ground by the swaying of a crowd, but thankfully nothing I’ve experienced even comes close to the mob mentality on display in Trainwreck.
What was disgraceful — but depressingly, hardly surprising — was how the nastiness turned on the women in attendance. What started out as blatant sexism (ogling women who decided to attend the festival topless, telling Sheryl Crow to “get her tits out” during her performance) ended with sexual violence. During Fatboy Slim’s DJ set in what was pragmatically called the “rave hangar”, revelers managed to commandeer a van and began to drive it to the middle of the crowd. The show was stopped and the few security members who were still around managed to make their way over to the van with the intent of driving it back outside. In the back, they found an unconscious, half-naked girl, aged around 15 or 16. Next to her was a boy, visibly dazed but compos mentis, pulling his trousers back on.
Nothing ever came of that incident — it was never followed up either at the festival or in the aftermath. In the weeks after the event, four women came forward with sexual assault allegations. One of them was allegedly raped in the mosh pit while Limp Bizkit played on stage while others reportedly cheered on the attackers. Some of my happiest, most freeing times have been in the crowds of a music festival; that this could happen in exactly that space makes my stomach churn.
The documentary addresses the sexual assaults within the last 10 minutes of the three episodes, with many of the women interviewed, from an MTV reporter who was there at the time to the assistant of the festival organiser, claiming that the #MeToo movement has put a stop to such attacks at music events. But that’s not strictly true. In 2018, a YouGov survey revealed that two in five festivalgoers have been sexually attacked or groped at an event and in 2017, Swedish festival Bråvalla hit international headlines when four rapes and 23 sexual assaults were reported.
Woodstock ’99 is no doubt an outlier when it comes to festivals. With the exception of last year’s Astroworld, where overcrowding led to the death of 10 attendees, anarchy rarely strikes musical events on such a huge scale (when it comes to the behavior of the crowd, other factors, such as terrorism can also strike, as it did at a 2017 Ariana Grande concert in Manchester). But sexual violence towards women is common, so much so that at the beginning of the summer, a group of 103 British festivals, including Latitude and Reading and Leeds, signed up to tackle sexual violence head on with the help of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF).
is it enough? maybe. I have no doubt that with better security and more care for those who had bought tickets, some of the women hurt at Woodstock ’99 would have been better protected. But it’s more difficult to target the intent of the men in attendance. “You can’t help who buys your tickets,” says organizer Michael Lang of the event, and he’s right. But you can make sure they act appropriately and don’t give them ammunition to give in to the worst side of themselves.
yes, trainwreck is a portal back to a different time, when violent masculinity was the norm. We like to think we’re no longer like that, but the evidence suggests otherwise. We may never see another festival like Woodstock ’99, thank God, but I have no doubt that the attitude towards women fostered there still exists.