Woodstock — Three days that defined a generation

Image credits: Ken Ragan/Camera 5

Review of the documentary film Woodstock — Three Days that Defined a Generation by Barak Goodman & Jamila Ephron, 2019

Woodstock was a music festival held in August 1969 in Bethel, New York. Billed as ‘An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music’, the event drew an unprecedented audience of more than 400,000, and has become synonymous with the counterculture movement in the 1960s. Through the 2019 documentary Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, filmmakers Barak Goodman and Jamila Ephron examine cultural significance of the event on its 50th anniversary. Having gained this penetrating insight into the event through the documentary, I shall attempt in this piece to analyze Woodstock and the counterculture movement through the sociological lens.

The functionalist approach to popular culture posits that pop culture can be explained primarily in terms of its social functions of generating solidarity among individuals within large and anonymous communities. This approach has its origins in the study of religion, with French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1912) identifying three theoretical tenets in religion that foster social cohesion — collective consciousness, the demarcation of the sacred against the profane, and collective effervescence.

The counterculture movement was characterized by a group of people known as ‘hippies’, who opposed the Vietnam War and rejected commercialization and established ways of living.

Max Yasgur, owner of the dairy farm that the Woodstock Festival was held on, waving the peace sign to the festival-goers.

Firstly, the collective consciousness of a culture is represented by easily recognizable totems and symbols, and for the counterculture this was epitomized by the peace symbol. First created in 1958 in Britain for a London nuclear disarmament march, the peace symbol spread rapidly among the hippies in the late 60’s, who adapted it with psychedelic colors and patterns and wore it on clothing. Banners of the peace sign were prominently spotted at Woodstock, along with the peace hand-sign.

Another symbol of collective consciousness is music. Music was a key uniting element of the hippie counterculture, especially with folk and rock bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead being associated with the movement and treated as idols. Easily recognizable lyrics and melodies give music a uniting, ubiquitous appeal, and it’s no wonder why collectively appreciating music was the reason why half a million descended upon Woodstock for the festival, when some of the most illustrious names of folk and rock performed.

The second element is the symbolic boundaries created between sacred and profane elements of the counterculture. The hippie counterculture embraced a new style of fashion, with bright colored clothing, flowers, male long hair and short skirts marking a very visible boundary between the hippies and the conservative, corporate identity of the establishment. ()

The fashion contrast is most starkly visualized in this scene of reporters interviewing Woodstock attendees after they landed at JFK Airport. Image credits: Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation by Barak Goodman

The last element mentioned by Durkheim is collective effervescence — how social concentration and collective activity in a shared space creates and reinforces a communal identity. This definitely materialized in Woodstock — with the sheer size of the audience and the stirring, heartfelt performances by the musicians. Many festivalgoers interviewed in the documentary remarked that it was the first time they realized ‘that there were so many people like us’, similar in clothing, music taste, drug habits and ideology. Woodstock was undoubtedly a cathartic and vindicative moment for them that emboldened them and enhanced their sense of belonging to the movement.

Having shown how Woodstock and the counterculture possess these Durkheimian tenets, I will now explore how these tenets enable pop culture to carry out its social roles.

Woodstock, and the broader hippie counterculture, served a key role as a resource for public reflection about societal issues of the time. The political context was fraught with tension — rising opposition to the American involvement in the Vietnam War which manifested in large protests, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr stoked racial tensions amidst the background of the civil rights movement.

Hippie counterculture became defined by its opposition to the war, with its mantra ‘make love, not war’ and their peace symbol. Many musicians in the 60’s used their music to openly express their anti-war sentiments, and you can see this in the Woodstock performances: Richie Haven’s ‘Freedom’ and Joan Baez’s ‘We Shall Overcome’. Furthermore, African American artists like Havens and Jimi Hendrix symbolized the increasing prominence of people of color on the music stage. But perhaps no other musical performance was more emblematic of the political spirit of music than Hendrix’s psychedelic rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, distorting the sounds of the electric guitar to mimic wartime sounds of bombs, fighter jets and artillery in what has been immortalized as one of the greatest rock performances ever.

Jimmy Hendrix performing the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Image Credits: Woodstock: The Movie

Through this, Woodstock shows how popular culture, particularly sub-cultures that are opposed to the prevailing dominant cultural norm, can be an avenue for rebellion. The hippies blamed mainstream authority for the era’s social ills, opposing the Vietnam War and commercialization. To many who attended Woodstock, it was a coming-of-age moment, an act of defiance. With the communal spirit and lack of conflict throughout the event despite various challenges, Woodstock vindicated the hippie’s message of peace and non-violence, and debunked the establishment’s disdain of the younger generation’s culture. It left many with the lofty ambition to change the world, with a newfound freedom and control over their lives.

However, some cynics contend that popular culture does not actually spark social change, evoking Gluckman’s term rituals of rebellion to describe events like Woodstock, which are isolated inversions of the institutional hierarchy that allow subordinate group members to let off steam without granting them real power. Though Woodstock attendees spoke of the collective feeling of liberation, vindication and hope for the future, the concert turned out to be the high-water mark for the counterculture. The movement died down in the early 1970s, prosperity and jubilation faded away to economic strife and recession, and American politics took a conservative turn. Some even argue that music festivals like Woodstock are examples of how pop culture distracts people from their actual situation, and detracts from pressing social problems.

On a personal note, as I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of surrealism and disbelief, for it is such a remarkable contrast with the state of America today.

Woodstock was communal on an unimaginable scale. It had the feel of a weekend camping trip at a location far from civilization when everyone depended on each other. Even with massive challenges, such as the barely-constructed festival site, grossly inadequate food and medical supplies, and a massive thunderstorm that ensured everyone was splashed with mud, the community the size of a mid-sized American city functioned together without any conflict or tragedy. The spontaneity of kindness was just beautiful — early arrivers helping to construct the unfinished food stands, Bethel residents offering all their food reserves to feed the concert-goers, people who recovered from drug overdoses helping out the new victims. I can’t help but wonder today if people would be as generous, forgiving and open-hearted when faced with similar challenges.

Above all, Woodstock was free — the fences that capitalistic society erects to separate the haves and haves-not literally came crashing down in Woodstock, giving the festival a sense of universality and inclusion that seems surreal today. In contrast, cultural festivals today have been infiltrated by capitalism — often sponsored by brands, with exclusive VIP passes enforcing hierarchies in access depending on ability to pay, and organized with the deliberate mix of performers, concessions and amenities to maximize the return on investment. This illustrates how the involvement of corporations in popular culture can work against the democratization of pop culture and even dilute its essence.

In conclusion, Woodstock was a hallmark of 20th century popular culture. A combination of music, solidarity and rebellion, it perfectly captures the essence of popular culture through the functionalist lens. It was personally fascinating to uncover these contours of America’s history that would otherwise have been shrouded in my relative cultural ignorance, and explore a lot of new music that I never knew I liked!


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Isaac Tham

economics enthusiast, data science devotee, f1 fanatic, son of God