Gingy's Corner

Don’t Use Cultural Emblems as Cheap Set Pieces

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  • I’m going to start this review with a bit of honesty.  I, a young whippersnapper of a millennial, did not attend Woodstock in 1969.  For that matter, neither did my dad; he was 17 in 1969, lived in a rural Kentucky town, and had a socially conservative father who would have had “thoughts and opinions” about some of the music that was playing at the festival.  He heard about it though, and next year at college he saw Woodstock in theaters.  Until recently he had both the original vinyl soundtrack for the movie and the Woodstock booklet that was handed out to people who saw it early on in theaters, but both articles have since been commandeered by me after he dug them out of the basement and brushed off a few decades worth of dust collected on them.

    To me, that seems more like the kind of Woodstock experience most of America would have had.  Official numbers are hard to calculate for obvious reasons, but most sources seem to round official Woodstock attendance at around 400,000 people, give or take some odd thousands on either side of that figure.  The U.S. had an official population of over 200 million in 1969, meaning that less than .2% of people actually attended Woodstock (despite the plethora of hippies that will insist otherwise). Woodstock was by and large a secondhand experience for most.  It was a movie on weekends with friends (in dad’s case, involving a drive down to Nashville from Bowling Green because that was the closest theater that played Woodstock).  It was seeing men and women from socially conservative homes come to college and try out a hippie-chic look that relatives could write off as a phase based on something they’d seen in the movie.  And my personal favorite, it was knowing that every weekend without fail, somebody living in the men’s dorm would have their windows and door propped open to blast Country Joe McDonald’s “Fish Cheer” to the Western Kentucky University campus.

    To the people that were present for the actual festival, Woodstock was doubtless an unforgettable and possibly life-changing experience.  But for people like my dad, Woodstock instead stood as a representation of the late 1960s’ freedom to change and explore outside of the static lifestyles of their hometowns via radical music, fashion, and weekend protests against the man, while at the same time being able to interact with that more traditional model.  You could blast your Vietnam protest songs but still know to store the soundtrack with your other records in a milkcrate when the folks invited you back home for the holidays.  Like many of the festival attendees, you had a normal life with a job and social bonds outside of the counterculture movement.  The impacts were lasting, but more something that was integrated into who you were as a person versus being completely reborn as a full-fledged hippie.

    Woodstock 1969 captures absolutely none of this.

    The visual novel itself is remarkably short; 11 minutes just reading through the first time, and if you’re curious enough to try out other choices there’s a skip button to keep your subsequent readthroughs at under 5, since it doesn’t just fast forward the text but actually uses a fade to black technique to jump over huge chunks of story.  It’s a blitz of a visual novel, trying (and failing) to capture the impact of a cultural emblem in the same amount of time as an episode of a children’s cartoon.  Your character is Cathy, an average college girl from Massachusetts who’s come to the festival with her brother and friends.  They have to park their car along the highway and walk in (accurate, I’ll give them that) and she promptly becomes separated from her party after they take bad acid.  Cathy wanders around the festival a bit and eventually gets adopted into another group, whom she stays with for the rest of Woodstock.

    If you’re looking for a story that adequately captures the vibe of the festival (or even the music of the late 60s and early 70s) look elsewhere.  There is one musical track for the entire visual novel, and I swear it’s the same generic relaxation music we play at the massage clinic I work at. Some of the bands who actually played at Woodstock are mentioned, but only in an off-handed fashion to mark the passage of time, as though the writer expected you to have the festival’s setlist open in another tab so you could nod along and say, “Ah, yes, Jefferson Airplane has been mentioned, ergo we’re clearly on day 2.”

    None of the performers are mentioned or discussed in any capacity beyond the fact that Cathy has a crush on Janis Joplin (which, fair).  Woodstock 1969 treats the performances as little more than tracks in a premade music playlist that can pass without comment, despite the fact that we’re supposed to be following the story of a girl who’s trying to break away and enjoy life outside of a conservative family.  Why wouldn’t there be at least a few paragraphs dedicated to the discussion of the effects that these bands have had on her? There’s a brief mention that Cathy owns some of the musicians’ records despite her parents disapproving, and at one point she runs out of her tent naked because she’s so eager to hear Jefferson Airplane perform, but that’s it.  Cathy could have been listening to the soundtrack in a tent in Montana for all the impact the festival seems to have on her.

    Other elements of 1969 counter-culture are almost entirely removed or sanitized away.  There’s no mention of anti-war sentiments, we never see the outfits the characters are wearing (though the writer does describe a couple anklets and a peasant top), and weed is mentioned as a relaxing drug, whereas acid is only poorly described in the scene with her bad trip.  Everyone is white, and there’s actually a hilariously bad afro that’s been drawn on a white chick in what I’m fairly sure was MS paint.  There are no hints of free love, only non-sexual lesbian cuddling so we can have a few naked sprites on screen. Nothing about this story says Woodstock beyond cherry-picked elements that are randomly inserted here and there to remind you about where and when the story is meant to take place.  A few moments like the rain on the first day and bathing naked in the river are brought up, but those are elements of Woodstock that you could have dug up just by reading the wikipedia article. It’s shallow, surface level representation that contributes nothing to the overall narration or vibe of the visual novel.

    Perhaps I’m being a little defensive here.  It’s not like I was immersed in hippie culture growing up; like I mentioned earlier, Woodstock was something dad enjoyed in his youth and then packed away into storage when he got a full-time job and family.  But he carried some of those artists with him through my childhood (I know the entire Creedence Clearwater Revival discography, no shame) and occasionally he would mention how crazy it was to go to college and see people with long hair listening to Jimi Hendrix after coming from a town that wouldn’t even allow facial hair for high school students and was still grappling with desegregation.  The Woodstock festival was a significant hallmark of his youth, an example of counterculture that was easy to latch onto and explain when discussing music of that period or different forms of anti-war protests in my childhood. Woodstock 1969, in contrast, treats the entire festival as a backdrop for a lackluster lesbian love story, ignoring the social, political, and especially artistic aspects of the time that allowed Woodstock to come about and be so memorable in the first place.  The writer clearly latched onto the idea of Woodstock as an interesting and well-known moment in America history but couldn’t be bothered to look into the when/why/how etc that made it so special. You could have set this story at literally any other time and place and just had records by those bands playing in the background, and frankly it would have been a stronger story because then the reader could have focused on the characters and not the abysmal treatment of one of the most famous music festivals of all time.

    Woodstock 1969 is available on Steam.  Don’t buy it.

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