A Matter of Style

Watching My Generation, a documentary which compares the 1969, 1994 and 1999 Woodstock concerts the narrow telescope of history lights up to roast the ants. The biggest victim, I think, is the view presented of the 1969 festival. Don’t get me wrong, the film is relatively fair in presenting the facts— such as the Who demanding their money, cash in advance, before they would take the stage— but the view of the 90s interviewees when looking back at the previous festival shows a media-driven response to the hype of what Woodstock was in 1969.

Moby, for example, expressed his feeling that the youth culture of the sixties had not yet been co-opted by big business and that the spirit of sixties youth, although naive, was somehow more coherent. Another young girl suggested that the sixties was unified by fighting the Vietnam War, and the present generation has no war to fight against. It seems to me that this has changed since the release of this movie, but I can’t see that contributing much coherence to the present age.

I was eleven years old when the first festival happened, but growing up in the 1970s the hype had already begun to snowball about the “summer of love” and all that. I thought it was nice how the filmmaker chose to display a pissed-off Pete Townsend smashing a guitar while the interviews spouted the peace and love thing. Interviews with the middle-aged attendees of course were quick to point out how much more violent and nihilistic the 90s generation was. Of course being somehow “smarter” and more aware of the futility of political action— that there wasn’t any point in caring because the 60s really changed nothing— made the younger generation somehow “better” than the kids in the sixties, at least if you listen to them.

Every speaker clearly serviced their own rhetorical need to feel above the excesses of the generation opposed to them. It’s all such utter crap. The situation at each of the festivals was unique. I suspect that the “peace and love” vibe sold by members of the crowd at all the festival’s incarnations was primarily marketing. As for the generational differences in attitude, I think old-timer Todd Rundgren put it best, loosely paraphrased:

In the sixties, the in style was to act like you cared. In the nineties, it’s more hip not to care.

I sincerely believe that there is probably very little quantitative difference in the involvement of either generation. It’s largely a matter of fashion, of style. The punk fashion (sold by the media, not manifest in reality) which emerged in the intervening years was one of apathy. A quick survey of most of the music which emerged in the whole DIY aesthetic would fill books with its involvement in resisting corporate culture, not through violent means, but by the creation of a new culture. The short-circuited hooligans of the last Woodstock are victims of not just one, but two media stereotypes— that the present generation is powerless against big business, and that punk is entirely about “fucking shit up.” It’s a pity, really.

To forge a culture, people come together. If there’s a Budweiser sign hanging in the corner, then it should be suspect. The lack of corporate sponsorship in the sixties does not make the people of the sixties any smarter— I suspect that if big business had been involved in the original festival, the vast majority of the attendees would have done much the same thing as the later shows. No generation has a monopoly on being young and stupid, and as for the apathy, well— most of the people I knew in the seventies who talked of the sixties counterculture didn’t talk about political action, peace, love, or any of that crap. Like any group of young people, they talked about partying and getting laid. It’s amazing how the lens of history can forge coherence that never really existed.

1 thought on “Style”

  1. During the 70’s when I was in high school I was sort of down on my generation. I looked back at the 60’s and it seemed to me like they were at least trying. They had dreams of changing the world and they spoke out. We (the 70’s generation) did nothing. We just sort of floated through life having a good time, listening to our music, talking about clothes, TV and the opposite sex. I really hated that because I wanted to be part of something important…. like the 60’s.
    When the 25th anniversary of Woodstock rolled around with all the hype and the articles about it I got to thinking the 60’s generation were a bunch of hypocrites. They graduated and went out and got jobs and forgot about their dreams of changing the world, even the ones who made it to a high enough position where they really could have done something to change the world. Sell-outs every one.
    Now, I realize they were all just kids, just like kids of every generation, going along with the latest fashion, just like you said.

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