What 90s alt rock radio, Woodstock 99, and the Telecom Act have to do with contemporary right-wing media
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In DJ speak, a “trainwreck” is a poorly beatmatched cross-fade. On the decks, train wrecks happen when beats are out of sync and the DJ doesn’t pay enough attention to (or intentionally ignores) track timing, tempo, meter, etc. In this sense, a trainwreck is a kind of rhythmic dissonance where, as in harmonic dissonance, periodic or phase relationships don’t match up.
Whereas the DJ-speak sense of the term encourages us to think of trainwrecks as clashing rates or frequencies, the term has also been used to describe incompatible vibes. “Trainwreck” is the title of the recent Netflix documentary series on Woodstock 99, the festival that was supposed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first summer of love’s iconic gathering. As the title suggests, though the festival promised peace, love, and understanding, it ended up being more of a mashup of the Fyre Festival with the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol. This trainwreck wasn’t the result of organizers moving at one speed and festival-goers moving at another. The destruction and violence documented in “Trainwreck” emerged from divergent orientations among festival organizers, the conditions of the festival site itself, performers, and audience members. In other words, this is not a trainwreck of clashing frequencies, but a trainwreck of divergently situated perspectives.
The trainwreck depicted in the Netflix docuseries happened when a specific material context enables the emergence of a different range of possibilities and impossibilities than expected—or, more accurately, than investors bet on. Woodstock 99 investors and staff expected peace, love, and understanding, but they created a situation that produced rage and violence instead. This divergence between the traditionally liberal vibes Woodstock 99 investors bet on and the vibes their austerity- and deregulation-driven practices produced is exactly what produced the documentary’s eponymous trainwreck. In this sort of trainwreck, the expectation of proliferating good vibes (either “peace, love, and understanding” or profit) faces material conditions that lead instead to a proliferation of bad vibes (aggrievement, violence, property destruction). This sort of train wreck is less like tempo/meter-salad and more like a record-scratch that kills the original mood and highlights a different, less obviously positive or profitable one.
Although the “Break Stuff”-y vibes were not obviously productive or profitable for the Woodstock 99 promoters, they made an appearance at the festival because they were exactly what topped the alt rock radio charts in the mid-late 90s. After the Telecom Act of 1996 deregulated radio ownership, conglomerates like Clear Channel (now iHeart Media) gobbled up FM stations and turned many of them into the era’s hot new format: alternative rock. But soon that market bubble burst. As listeners bled to other formats, alt rock radio programmers deliberately chose to narrowcast to their core audience: white men. This era of what music critic Chris Molanphy has dubbed “bro-ified” alternative resulted from programmers’ attempt to use popular misogyny as a brand strategy to help them survive the challenges of an industry recently swept by deregulation and austerity. In responding to the deregulated, austere conditions they faced at the festival, Woodstock 99 crowd turned to the same aggrieved white masculinity alt rock radio programmers had turned up to 11 in response to their own struggles with deregulation and austerity.
In both late 90s alt rock radio and at Woodstock 99, the vibe feminist media studies scholar Sara Banet-Weiser calls “popular misogyny” emerged as a way to flip assets newly devalued by advancing neoliberalization (such as ‘traditional’ white masculine privilege grounded in the abjection of otherness rather than post-identity elite capture, or a radio format post-market bubble) into profitable ones. This strategy continues to be profitable today, driving a whole red-pilled industry from Joe Rogan to that Ohio senate candidate from Middletown who shall not be named here and beyond. 90s alt rock radio and Woodstock 99 are early instances of what is now a media-wide phenomenon where we have the receipts to connect the rise of popular misogyny/bro-ification to the attempt to re-make traditionally liberal white masculinity into something that could remain profitable despite its incompatibility with neoliberal upgrades to both gender norms and market relations. In other words, these 90s phenomena help explain why popular misogyny is rampant today in the 2020s.
- “All You Need Is Vibes”
As I show in this section, the trainwreck at Woodstock 99 happened because organizers’ traditionally liberal vibes clashed with the neoliberal material conditions they created for attendees. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, traditional liberal ideals of tolerance (a version of peace, love, and understanding) functioned in conjunction with institutions that ensured the disproportionate distribution of property and personhood-as-property along strict race and gender lines. For example, formal equality before the law purports civil equality in the streets while enforcing private inequality “in the bed,” to riff on a Ludacris lyric. Or, as Marx puts it in “On The Jewish Question,” liberal formal equality before the law produces merely political emancipation while naturalizing and private “human” inequalities—this allowed states to “tolerate” religious minorities while also oppressing them in private. This split between civil/public and private is what allows “toleration” to function in service of (rather than in opposition to) systemic oppression: civil tolerance is a red herring deflecting attention from private intolerance. Neoliberalism gets rid of the public sphere and privatizes everything. The Woodstock 99 organizers took a distinctly neoliberal approach to festival logistics, from the market-based provision of all basic resources like food and water, to austerity coupled with significant expenditures on securing the festival site. Whereas the original festival had a robust mutual aid program that kept attendees fed, the 99 attendees were abandoned to fend for themselves. Much like current clashes between young adults struggling to pay off student loans and buy a home and boomers who benefitted from the New Deal welfare state, Woodstock 99’s trainwreck happened because organizers did not adjust their expectations to fit the neoliberal conditions they had created.
Woodstock 99 was intended to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the original 1969 festival with an updated version of the original event. As “Trainwreck” repeatedly emphasizes, the boomer promoters envisioned a recreation of the “peace and love” ethos that defined the original festival. Michael Lang, the main promoter of both the original Woodstock and its Y2K remix, put it this way: “I hate to use ‘vibes,’ but there were amazing vibes in the valley” during the original festival, where “peace and love and flower power” ruled. His intention in the 99 event was “to give that generation an idea of what Woodstock is about…counterculture, no violence, just peace and love and music, that was it.” For example, to boost the peace and love vibes, the last day of Woodstock 99 featured a candlelight vigil to protest gun violence, which the recent Columbine school shooting had thrust to the foreground of the nation’s consciousness.
And, in an attempt to prevent festival grounds from devolving into an overcrowded mud-pit like the original and a money-looser like the 94 event, they held the festival at a military base that had been recently decommissioned in a round of budget cuts; this provided them with a paved festival ground that could be easily fenced in to control admissions and prevent unticketed attendees from just wandering in. Organizers thought that if they could secure the gate and the venue, then good vibes (and profits!) would rule throughout the festival.
Despite this attempt to fix the problems that plagued the original Woodstock and keep the vibes from turning sour, we all know that they failed quite spectacularly and tragically to do this. As one talking head in the series put it, the attempt to “integrate some of the original values of 69 into 99…was incredibly naive.” This failure happened because organizers had an overly-narrow understanding of the festival’s material conditions; focusing festival resources exclusively on border security and venue integrity, they left everything else—including food and water—up to private markets and private individual responsibility. As “Trainwreck” makes clear, where the original event used mutual aid, such as community kitchens that fed festival goers, Woodstock 99 relied on private vendors for concessions; as supplies dwindled and demand increased, these vendors ramped up prices on essentials like water, forcing attendees to drink gray water that was originally intended for showering and which got increasingly contaminated with human waste as toiletry infrastructure burst way past its capacity. Between the market-based solution to resource provision and the underfunding/under-servicing of “public” infrastructure like water, Woodstock 99 took an austerity-forward approach to resource provision. As one of the organizers put it, “corners were being cut.” Similarly, they left personal safety—especially women’s personal safety—to individual women’s private responsibility. Replete with accounts of just about every kind of sexual assault and harassment imaginable, “Trainwreck” depicts a scene that is quite the opposite of hippies’ old ideals of free love. Whereas “free love” was, at its best, a common commitment to the ideal of sex-positivity, what happened at Woodstock 99 was more a patriarchal war of all against all in which every individual had to fend for themselves. Woodstock 99 organizers accounted for material conditions in exactly the same way the neoliberal state does: resources are devoted only to security, and everything else is abandoned to austerity and deregulation.
Expecting individuals to radiate with good vibes despite being both abandoned and policed is a quintessential example of neoliberal resilience discourse. As I have explained extensively in my book Resilience & Melancholy, resilience discourse is the systematization of neoliberal private responsibility, in which individuals are expected to take damage and loss and turn it into profit/human capital/property. Though resilience discourse doesn’t come into full force in the music industry until the late 2000s/early 2010s (James, 2015), Woodstock 99 provides a significant precedent for it; here, Boomers held up ideals of peace, love, and “good vibes only,” and expected geriatric millennials/xennials to generate those without also providing this younger generation the material supports Boomers had in the 60s and early 70s. From this perspective, the Woodstock 99 organizers seem to foreshadow elites today, who serve austerity and expect resilience. But, as the documentary shows, despite this expected resilience, what Woodstock 99 organizers got instead was rage.
- Alt Rock Radio Vibes
The impact of the festivals’ various performances on the crowd’s vibe is one of the docuseries’ major themes: some artists, like Bush and Sheryl Crow, deliberately mellowed the boisterous crowd, whereas acts like KORN, Limp Bizkit, and Fatboy Slim egged the crowd on toward ever more extreme behavior. Bizkit’s frontman Fred Durst incitement was possibly the most direct and definitely the most revelatory. Before going into the track “Break Stuff,” Durst asks “How many of you people like *NSYNC?,” and immediately delivers the track’s introductory line: How many of you people ever woke up one morning and decided it was one of those days and you were just gonna bream some shit?/well it’s one of those days.” Before the instruments join in, Durst instructs the crowd, “when this song kicks in, I want you to kick in.” The crowd does as they are told and goes berserk. With its reference to one of the era’s most popular boy bands, Durst’s preamble is especially revelatory, because it creates a sense of shared sensibility through the disidentification with and not-so-implicitly misogynist disavowal of a pop act whose fan base is overwhelmingly femme. Here, the repudiation of femininity serves as springboard to the imperative to exercise white men’s traditional entitlement to the property of others, i.e., to break stuff that’s not theirs. This vibe is definite by its racial and gendered orientation: it is a white masculinity centered around misogyny and property right.
There’s a reason why this aggrieved white masculinity was the vibe most of the festival’s headliners brought to the stage: as I explain in my forthcoming book about modern rock radio station WOXY (which you can preorder here) it was the perspective centered by the most popular rock music of the day, the mainstream alternative you’d hear on corporate rock radio stations. Music critic Chris Molanphy has dubbed this the era of “bro-ified alternative,” and this bro-ification was no mere accident. After the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, megacorporations like Clear Channel took advantage of the deregulation of the number of radio stations any one entity could own and started gobbling up stations. At that time, alternative rock was at its peak, and alternative was a very attractive format for station owners because it was popular among the white audiences who weren’t likely to already be listening to the country station in their portfolio. Across the mid-to-late 1990s, alternative radio blossomed as the Clear Channels and Jaycors of the US radio world switched many of their newly-acquired stations to an alternative format in an attempt to maximize their audience shares across their portfolio of stations. This created a market bubble in alt rock radio. As the format began to bleed listeners in the late 1990s, programmers attempted to shore up a core audience of white men by playing music that appealed directly and narrowly to them. As an August, 2000 article in the New York Times explains,
Because women are seen as more likely to switch to pop stations — particularly the increasingly trendy adult-contemporary stations, which specialize in melodic pop artists like Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt — men became the most readily accessible rock demographic. And most of the formerly free-wheeling alternative stations pursued them with a harder-sounding, more tightly formatted playlist. ”Most of the alternative stations have gone decidedly male,” [K-Rock program director] Mr. Kingston said. ”They’re playing Metallica and Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach.””
At the end of the 90s, alt rock radio’s decisively bro-y vibe was a carefully crafted business strategy that actively excluded women (recall Durst’s “we hate boy bands, right?” comment) and amplified music with a bluntly and cartoonishly macho feel. As Durst’s jab at boy bands reveals, the most effective way to tap into this audience of white cisheteromasculinity men was through the explicit exclusion and violent abjection of everyone else.
Traditionally, white masculinity is grounded in a logic of purity and abjection, so the performance of that white masculinity includes the policing of racialized and gendered boundaries and violence against anything outside those boundaries. In some ways, alt rock radio of the late 90s was the audio version of yogurt for men (a.k.a. “brogurt”) or “Dude” grooming products, which are defined by their narrow consumer profile rather than their broad reach. In fact, these products suggest that men aren’t included in the market for generically-gendered products, and want/ought to use only those products specifically framed for men. From this perspective, there’s men, and there’s the rest of the general public, and the two are entirely separate categories. For example, Men’s Health quotes the now-defunct website for the brand Power Yogurt: ““In a niche typically dominated by female consumers, we decided to develop a new Greek yogurt specifically suited to address the unique health and nutrition needs of the most neglected consumers in the category: men,” the product’s website reads.” Now, it may indeed be the case that in the US yogurt is traditionally marketed to women as a diet-friendly product, the language of “most neglected consumers…men” echoes the specious red-pill-y claim that white men are the most disadvantaged group in today’s so-called “woke” society…the same claim that’s at the core of what feminist media studies scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser calls “popular misogyny.”
Popular misogyny is popular feminism’s evil twin: they share the fact of being pop cultural phenomena facilitated by social media, but they have opposite politics. According to Banet-Weiser, “if popular feminism, no matter how commodified or banal, allows for an opening of space and mind to think about broader opposition to structural sexism and racism, popular misogyny performs a similar function, and opens up spaces and opportunities for a more systematic attack on women and women’s rights.” Popular feminism is the transformation of feminism from a political practice into a brand, like the many branded “feminist” verticles such as Broadly or The Cut, or the wave of corporate feminist pop music of the mid-2010s. Like contemporary poptimism, popular feminism takes something that was traditionally devalued for its femininity and flips it into a profitable business strategy. As Banet-Weiser explains, “for popular feminism, becoming popular has also often meant something that feels familiar: commodifying and branding a movement.” Popular misogyny is likewise the flipping of often denigrated masculinities like the not-too-vaguely Nicklebacky white masculinity of someone like Alex Jones to the more obvious incel identity into a business model. Brogurt is quite literally the transformation of “We hate [insert product traditionally associated with women and girls, like boy bands or yogurt]”-style misogyny into a brand. In other words, the “popularization” of feminism and misogyny is actually their privatization in the sense of their enclosure or transformation into forms of capital accumulation.
More specifically, popular misogyny flips traditionally liberal white masculinity, which defines itself through the abjection of non-white, non-masculine phenomena like the one-drop rule/hypodescent, from something old-fashioned into something profitable. As I and many other scholars have discussed, neoliberal patriarchal racial capitalism excludes via nominal inclusion: girlbosses like Amy Coney Barrett break the glass ceiling in order to further oppress women as a class, the first Black president of the US infamously drone-bombs people of color in the Global South, etc. In the context of the state and corporate DEI industrial complex, traditional white masculinity reads as backwards and lacking in human capital–just think of those protesters depicted in Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” video, or popular concepts like “toxic masculinity” and “white fragility.” These days traditional exclusion-first white masculinity is uncool and unprofitable. Popular misogyny is a way to flip that devalued asset into a successful brand. In this light, the thread from bro-ified alt rock radio in the 90s to podcaster Joe Rogan is direct and unbroken: both use the same popular misogyny as a business strategy to turn assets originally devalued by neoliberal reforms into profitable (ish, in the case of radio) business models.
As the sad decline of LA modern rock giant KROQ reveals, these days alt rock radio is on its last legs. At the same time, the much more diverse range of artists and genres Billboard tracks on its “Hot Alternative” chart flourish on streaming service playlists. Even though popular misogyny has ceased to be an effective way to keep alt rock radio afloat, in general it continues to prove to be a winning money-making strategy for media personalities with huge court settlements to pay and for right-wing politicians across the globe. Looking back on alt rock radio history is an important lesson in how we got here, and in how exactly the mechanics of popular misogyny work.