Punk’s not dead? How Vans Warped tour jumped the shark

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The festival defined noughties pop-punk and united Americas outcasts but as it shuts for ever, we ask: did it fail to champion diversity?

The sun is blazing mercilessly in Columbia, Maryland, on a Sunday in July. It is not yet noon, and the nasal singer of a jet-black metalcore band is crying out: Will you miss me when Im gooone? Already this weekend, I have seen hair-dye jobs in impossibly electric hues of bubblegum pink and highlighter-pen lime. I have seen ripped fishnets and Tim Burton mini-backpacks and earlobes stretched as big as the rims of drinking glasses. I have perused the wares of outfitters called Mall Goth Trash and Sad Boys Club. I can confirm that the campaigns to Stay Positive and Hail Satan and ensure that Skas Not Dead! have endured in some corners of America.

I am on my third consecutive day inside the misfit carnival that is Vans Warped tour, which, after 24 years, finished its final run as a national touring festival last week. While American festivals such as Lollapalooza have long retired their caravans and turned into annual fixed-site weekenders, Warped persevered as a roving punk-themed circus. The brand will probably continue with abbreviated tours, says Kevin Lyman, its founder. An exhibition about Warpeds history will open next year at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. But it is the end of an era for the generation who invented mall punk.

Kevin Lyman, 58, creator of the Vans Warped tour. Photograph: John Wolfsohn/Getty Images

Now 58, Lyman says he felt like an outcast as early as junior high. He was partial to British street punk, reggae and the Clashs Sandinista! album. Socialising with the band geeks and theatre kids You got food thrown at you in school, he says. I was always the guy who said, Lets unite and throw food back. After several years working behind the scenes at Lollapalooza, Lyman founded Warped in 1995.

Warped made its name packaging the more brashly commercial strains of pop-punk, emo, hardcore and ska that peaked in the early- to mid-2000s, though the tour has also featured household names including Limp Bizkit and Eminem (and, early on, Katy Perry). It had no identified headliners: the schedule changed daily and was not announced until gates opened. To ensure you would see your favourite band, you simply had to arrive by 11. No one did things the way I did, and no one has since, says Lyman. This was the last festival for the people.

A fan in the crowd at this years Vans Warped tour Photograph: Taylor Ward/Vans Warped tour

Lyman sought to put punk rock in the sunshine, to escape the violence of clubs, which he thought distracted from the genres radical message. But Warped ultimately became a shorthand for an easily digested candy-coated version of rebellion. The spirit of commodified dissent was exemplified by its name sponsored by Vans shoe company, in a checkerboarded break from punks historically anti-capitalist ethic. Warpeds scale meant it dealt bands like gateway drugs, which plenty of young people need. My three days following the tour evoked a complete scene of maladjusted suburban youth: the car park, the mall, the skate park, the mosh pit.

In contrast to its diverse audiences, Warpeds lineups were shockingly male and white and, at times, the tour presented worrying streaks of conservatism in Maryland, I saw a recruiting tent for the US Marines. Warped came under fire in 2015 for allowing a performance by Front Porch Step after he had been accused of sexual misconduct and preying on young fans. This prompted Paramores Hayley Williams, one of Warped tours most renowned alumni, to tweet: What happened to our scene?

Lyman says: If I look back at Front Porch Step, probably I made a mistake. With hindsight, I probably wouldnt have let it happen. Lyman says hes open to criticism, though he seems allergic to the way it plays out online. Maybe thats why Im ending it, he says. We all used to be a community that figured things out. Now people prejudge so quickly on the internet.

Only 7% of bands on this years touring lineup included women, such as Australias Tonight Alive and ska revivalists the Interrupters. The feminist rock band Potty Mouth (incidentally once managed by Warped veterans Good Charlotte) ended up on one Californian date after tweeting about gender disparity on the tour: We wanted access to that fan base of young girls, says bassist Ally Einbinder. For us, it would be breaking into a whole new audience who might not hear of us otherwise. Lyman mentions that the production crew of Warped tour has been heavily dominated by women, and reasoned that this years gender disparity was due in part to the fact that he curated the festival (he still chooses the bands) as a nostalgia tour.

We were never, at any point, even remotely in the cool kids club of punk rock … Less Than Jake. Photograph: Piers Allardyce/Rex/Shutterstock

Over the years, Warped formed alliances with bands such as Less Than Jake, a Floridian ska-punk troupe who first played the tour in 1996 and have remained fixtures since. The drummer, Vinnie Fiorello, reminisces about performing, in the scrappy early days, on a stage made of plywood and cinder blocks. Warped was supposed to be a punk rock summer camp, he says. Less Than Jake embodied that, instigating maximum fun and an air of weirdness: regular mayhem at a Less Than Jake Warped set might, for instance, find a metalhead shooting a toilet-paper gun.

We were never, at any point, even remotely in the cool kids club of punk rock, says Fiorello. But Warped was a common denominator among punk bands, hardcore bands, screamo and metal, ska punk. You had to play Warped tour. Fiorello, who also co-founded the influential pop-punk and emo label Fueled by Ramen, noted that Warped was a crucial marketing tool: Warped tour would be a huge chunk of the launch for a record or label or band. It was in the Less Than Jake marketing plan in the 90s, for sure. The end of that truly means the shrinking of some ways to market whats out there.

Fellow ska-punk elders Reel Big Fish have also been enmeshed in Warped since 1997. Year after year, they built their audience on the tour, though trumpeter John Christianson was not shy about the price. Theres a lot of anxiety, he says. Theres five bands playing at one time. Five bands playing at one time is cacophony, and that is not any fun for me.

Chuck Comeau is the drummer of Montreal pop-punks Simple Plan: 11 Warpeds in total. You had this cultural movement that was happening, he says of the scenes 2003 peak. And Warped had the cultural currency. If you wanted to be part of this scene, if you wanted to be respected, if you wanted to reach the audience, it was a must.

A crowdsurfer at the 2018 Vans Warped tour Photograph: Taylor Ward/Vans Warped tour

The music of Warped has not all aged well. In Maryland, surprise guests Good Charlotte led a workmanlike singalong to Girls and Boys, their arguably sexist 2002 single about teenage materialism. Speaking backstage, Buddy Nielsen of the New Jersey post-hardcore band Senses Fail (eight-time Warped veterans, who this year performed a medley of nu-metal covers) cited childhood trauma and a bad relationship with his mother as sources of the toxic masculinity in some of his earliest material. I dont necessarily celebrate those songs, Nielsen says. I wouldnt encourage my daughter to listen to music like that. His self-awareness reflects a broader cultural milieu that has recently been forced to reckon with its ingrained misogyny.

I was watching a formulaic pop-punk band in matching Hawaiian shirts play a side stage when I heard a womans demonic roar in the distance and ran towards it. Where my fucking ladies at? seethed Lauren Kashan, singer of Baltimore metalcore band Sharptooth. They played Clever Girl, the title track from their 2017 debut, which culminated with a mosh-summoning breakdown and an incendiary refrain: Dead men tell no tales, the crowd chanted. Dead men talk no shit. This jolt of radical feminism felt shocking in the context of Warped tour. The world we live in is not a safe place for too many of us, Kashan shouted from the stage. So this needs to be.

Sharptooths sets were thrillingly righteous. Kashan issued a call to arms or systemic indictment between every song, attacking street harassment, police brutality and US border policy. She drew attention to the fact that she would be the only woman performing on that stage all day and, before a song called Left for Dead, spoke bluntly about her experiences of sexual violence. Ive been raped multiple times, Kashan told the crowd. I dont like talking about it, but if Im the person with the mic and I cant talk about my trauma, how is any other survivor supposed to ask for help?

I watched a pink-haired girl in the eye of the pit scream along with Kashan: I cant be silent anymore! Sharptooth and [2017 Warped band] War on Woman make me feel so relieved about being into music in this scene, says Niquey, 20. Stuff like that needs to be talked about at places like Warped tour because its so hypermasculine. Niquey has come to Warped every year since she was 12 she had only seen Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers in concert before that and said she looked forward to it more than her birthday.

Some have welcomed the demise of Warped and the aggressively male-dominated culture it came to represent. But after witnessing Sharptooths set, it occurred to me that it would be a tragedy for Warped tour to simply end, not evolve, at a moment where powerful, wide-reaching platforms are increasingly rare in rock music of any kind. Potty Mouths Einbinder agrees: There is so much potential to make some changes and evolve the whole culture of the festival, she says. But so much of that cultural shift would have to come from the top down.

Raw and feminine and powerful … Members of Doll Skin pose with fans Photograph: Jordan Mizrahi/Vans Warped tour

I felt optimistic watching Doll Skin, a band of women aged 18 to 21 who play pop-punk with riff-heavy nods to classic rock, and strive to be as raw and feminine and powerful as we can, according to singer Sydney Dolezal. They played an original song called Punch a Nazi and a cover of Fugazis Waiting Room, which stood out as strongly at Warped as the flower crowns in their circle pit.

Multiple times a day, Dolezal says, young girls approach Doll Skin to say they feel inspired by their set, sometimes crying. If theres anyone out there who feels like they cant be in a band they can, she says. Its attainable. You dont have to be a super shredder you can just play guitar. You dont have to be soloing on drums, you can just play a beat. You dont have to be doing runs, you can just yell into a microphone. Its no stretch to say this was the most punk statement I heard at the 2018 Warped tour.

In Mansfield, Massachusetts, I meet 19-year-old Felice, who wants to see more bands resembling Doll Skin at Warped. I wish we could see more intersectionality, she says. I wish I could hear more queer artists or artists of colour. Her friend Felisha chimes in: Its a prime time to keep going if anything. But after Doll Skins Long Island set, another new fan, Katie, 26, had a firmer suggestion: Burn it to the ground and start something new.

A pair of 23-year-old fans on Long Island, Neena and Gabrielle, tells me they had long fantasised about forming bands. Growing up, they were enthralled by fictional all-girl groups such as Josie and the Pussycats. Neena wonders whether she might have taken up drums had she seen more female instrumentalists.

Im such an emo kid. You feel like an outcast sometimes, Gabrielle says. But when youre in this setting, you see there are thousands upon thousands of people who are just like you. Its so comforting. I mention how the huge number of outsiders does not quite register until you get here, and it makes you realise Neena finishes my sentence how not alone you are.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/aug/15/punks-not-dead-how-vans-warped-tour-jumped-the-shark

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