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Shattered Porcelain

The spiritual end of the ’90s has long been considered the disastrous Woodstock ’99. What this piece presupposes that it came a few months earlier, via a sampler-armed musician who would play the festival’s emerging artists stage.

Rob Dobi

This week at The Ringer, in honor of the release of Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, we will explore events that changed the world as we knew it—specifically ones that marked the ends of established eras and triggered the beginnings of then-unknown futures. Some will be overt and well established. Others will be less trodden and perhaps more speculative. But all will entertain an immovable idea that when things die, there is someone or something that pulled the trigger. Welcome to This Is the End Week.

“We walked offstage and were like, Get out of here. We need to leave right now.” The here is Woodstock ’99. The we is Moby, speaking on behalf of all his bandmates and pals. The consequence is that Moby and his pals didn’t get to watch the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” whilst 200,000-plus furious Woodstock ’99 patrons literally torched the joint. “Our plan had been to park up and stay for the whole weekend,” Moby continues. “But that atavistic part of our brains collectively said, Leave now. It’s bad, and it’s not getting better.” The broader implication being that Moby and his pals didn’t want to witness the precise moment when the 1990s—as a coherent decade, as a set of noble ideals, as an ethos—died.

There sits Moby, glasses and affable erudition and overzealous tats and all, midway through Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, which hits HBO on Friday. Directed by Garret Price (and produced by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons), the documentary interrogates the popular wisdom that the disastrous three-day music festival in July ’99, a cynical echo of the tiresomely exalted original Woodstock 30 years earlier, killed the ’90s, and perhaps by extension killed rock ’n’ roll, for good.

The festival’s full lineup—also including Metallica, Korn, DMX, Kid Rock, Rage Against the Machine, the Insane Clown Posse, three whole female main-stage artists total, and of course, hypothetical festival villains Limp Bizkit—certainly makes the case that nü-metal, and all the knuckleheaded malevolence nü-metal implies, had taken over, squashing Kurt Cobain’s more progressive and inclusive vision of rock ’n’ roll in the process. Rap-rock was king now, and nobody was queen, as crowning someone queen would’ve required paying respect to a woman. And if you were Moby (or a woman), the whole thing sucked.

“When white people have embraced hip-hop, they’ve ignored the funk, they’ve ignored the R&B, they’ve ignored the subtlety, and they’ve embraced homophobia and misogyny,” Moby notes earlier in the film. “The same thing with metal. There’s a lot of wonderful, celebratory, joyful, fun metal, but somehow nü-metal embraced the troglodyte element. And granted this is 20 years ago, and I’m still so baffled at how it went from the sort of progressive, enlightened values of Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe to misogyny and homophobia and the rape-fratboy culture that was at Woodstock ’99.”

For the full, bleak story there, I refer you to the full documentary, or Steven Hyden’s excellent 2019 Ringer podcast Break Stuff that helped inspire it. Meanwhile, I’d like to propose that the ’90s actually died two months earlier, in May ’99, when the Moby album Play came out.

I don’t mean that ugly. First off, let’s rid ourselves of this melodramatic notion that cultural decades must all inevitably die in some ignominious, nihilistic fashion that betrays every last romantic ideal that particular decade stood for. Death comes for us all, it’s true, but time passing in a linear fashion is not akin to murder. You can trace all this generational self-aggrandizement back to the even more popular wisdom that the 1960s died when the Rolling Stones played Altamont, but it’s important to remember that due in part to the original Woodstock, the ’60s had overwrought romantic ideals in the first place, as opposed to every other decade that followed. (The ’80s died when Seinfeld premiered in July 1989, and the ’70s died when I was born.)

The biggest cultural figure of the ’90s, in fact, was often hilariously snide in his rejection of such rampant ’60s-style self-mythologizing: I remember Kurt Cobain as many contradictory, fascinating things, but idealistic is not one of them. The fake-utopian Woodstock brand, as the movie argues vehemently, meant nothing to the kids who ran amok at Woodstock ’99. (The funniest, and also meanest, moment in the doc is when Creed brings out Doors guitarist Robby Krieger to mass crowd indifference.) The bonfires that raged as the Red Hot Chili Peppers took the stage can be read—if you’re willing to self-mythologize arson, I suppose—as Generation X violently rejecting the corporatized boomer nostalgia constantly being rammed down their throats (and chased with a $4 water bottle).

Meanwhile, though I personally was fortunate enough to be thousands of miles away at the time, I am guessing that Moby played the single best set of Woodstock ’99: the most propulsive, the most exultant, the most inclusive, and the most forward-looking music heard by anybody that entire accursed weekend. Moby broke out in 1995 with his third album, Everything Is Wrong, an alluringly chaotic mix of house, disco, fist-pumping rave bombast, and shameless ambient melancholia. (The ’90s ended for me personally the night in college in ’99 when I read Jay McInerney’s 1984 mopey-cocaine novel Bright Lights, Big City in one sitting and then cried while listening to Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” on repeat. I will not be taking questions at this time.) Moby was, and very much remains, a chaotic person: He veered into hardcore punk with his next proper album, 1996’s baffling Animal Rights. But he was a budding superstar in the realm of what was then unfortunately called electronica, and from the onset he possessed just the sort of mesmerizing rock-star volatility he’d need to transcend it.

Which brings us to Play, easily one of the best albums of 1999. (I have no idea how it didn’t make The Ringer’s Top 40 Albums of 1999 list, and I apologize on this website’s behalf.) More importantly, Play is the major 1999 album (12 million copies sold worldwide!) that both sounded and felt like the future. A future, yes, in which dance music slowly but steadily overtook rock music. A future in which samplers and drum machines and synthesizers assumed primacy over electric guitars. A future in which some of the most critically revered albums (Play topped The Village Voice’s definitive annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll) are specifically designed as both foreground and background noise. (Moby at the time described the album as “something that people could listen to in their daily lives and pay attention and find that rewarding, or not pay attention to it and still have it be a nice record.”)

Look, I didn’t say every futuristic aspect was necessarily good. (The vibe of the 21st century, in spots, has felt suspiciously like Woodstock ’99, but everywhere all the time.) Indeed, Play also sketched out a future in which the biggest records were required to generate constant controversy and backlash. (The album’s myriad earworm samples of blues and folk singers, culled from Alan Lomax’s fabled field recordings, fueled a great deal of debate about cultural appropriation, up to and including charges of “digital blackface.”) And finally, Play ushered in a future in which pop music was synonymous with advertising, with film and TV syncs, with branding opportunities galore. Quite famously, Moby licensed every single track on the album, leading Vice to eventually dub it “the Thriller of licensing.” It was, in fact, the 1995 Michael Mann thriller Heat’s tremendously effective use of “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” that first convinced Moby he oughta get into movies.

The sheer capitalistic fervor of Play might’ve felt dystopian at the time, but let’s just say that Napster launched in June 1999, and the music industry would consequently fall off a cliff a few years later, and starting with the mid-2000s Apple ad boom, even major artists would compensate by making money any way they could from any company that’d give it to ‘em, with illegal-MP3-hoarding fans in no position to take the moral high ground. Play is the very moment when the idea of selling out, so vital in the ’90s, started to die, also. (One could argue that the ’90s as a whole really died the first time someone illegally downloaded Metallica’s “I Disappear.”)

Moby found himself, and in some cases still finds himself, at the vanguard of all of it: the good, the bad, the ugly, the uglier. (He wrote about an alleged romance with Natalie Portman in his second memoir, 2019’s Then It Fell Apart, prompting Portman to respond, “My recollection is a much older man being creepy with me.”) He is not immune to trashy narcissism, or for that matter to the outright misogyny he laments so passionately in Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage. But his glaring imperfections only made him, for a few years anyway, the perfect rock star for a simultaneously wondrous and terrible new century. Moby put on some of the best live shows I saw in the first decade of the 2000s, DJ-as-rock-star carnivales that at their best evoked the big-tent utopian grandiosity of, sure, a Kurt Cobain or a Michael Stipe. The story of major-festival music in the past 20 years is the very idea of the rave tent morphing from a tacked-on afterthought to the EDM-boom-fueling main attraction. Thank Moby. Blame him, too, if you want.

Because sure, Moby was (and remains!) a pretentious goofball; as the Portman fiasco showed, he can still screw up with the best of ‘em. (Please read this recent fantastic GQ interview with Rob Tannenbaum in which Moby, promoting a movie literally titled Moby Doc, concedes that some people really want to stab him.) But that’s a crucial aspect of rock stardom, too. Moby is where sincerity and cynicism collide, not to mention rock music and dance music, not to mention the best and worst aspects of the ’90s and the 2000s alike. Woodstock ’99 proved he knew when to leave, Play proved he knew where to go, and his less desirable antics proved he never quite learned when to shaddap. All of which made him the ideal guy to bid adieu to the ’90s, and to usher in the dazzling, confounding, and often terrible calamity of everything to come.