It could have been my rookie naïveté, but witnessing the 2007 Vans Warped Tour felt magical. On the steamy pavement of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome parking lot in Minneapolis, one scene of young MySpace bands was exploding and growing in real time. Another wave of Warped Tour veterans like Bad Religion, MxPx, and Pennywise were still drawing huge, aggressively enthusiastic crowds. Hundreds of bands crossing genre lines under the punk-rock umbrella played on more than a dozen stages across the US and Canada for 45 days that summer. There was nothing else like it.
Well, I’d never seen anything like it, but I didn’t have anything to compare it to, either. I was weeks away from turning 13 (in retrospect, perhaps too young to be gallivanting around the Warped Tour), and I knew about the festival from bands promoting their sets on MySpace and from Blink-182’s “I couldn’t wait for the summer at the Warped Tour” lyric. A friend I met in community theater (who could drive) asked me if I wanted to tag along. I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing bands I’d recently discovered like melodic screamers Chiodos, metalcore mainstays Underoath, and everyone’s favorite pop-infused Tennesseans Paramore, whose classic release Riot! came out just a month before I saw them play that summer. Looking back, I can hardly believe how loaded that year’s lineup was with bands who were either at or nearing the height of their popularity (Hawthorne Heights, New Found Glory, Coheed And Cambria, the Starting Line) and bands who were newbies then but would become absolute powerhouses in the scene (All Time Low, Mayday Parade, My American Heart, Circa Survive).
That first Warped Tour visit gave me a glimpse into a world I didn’t know existed, or at least a world I didn’t know was accessible to me beyond the internet. I felt relatively alone in my musical interests; Warped Tour felt like home. I’d spend the next year going to as many shows as my parents would allow, and I’d spend the next three summers attending the Warped Tour — leaving the house before sunrise to wait in line for hours and be one of the first to get in, ensuring a prime “barricade” spot for bands playing right at 11AM and a first-look at the secret set schedule only posted on a central blow-up board in the middle of the grounds.
I didn’t get to experience music movements like riot grrrl or first-wave emo or the first decade or so of the Warped Tour, but the smattering of years I was deep in the scene were something uniquely their own — strange, over-the-top, and gratuitous — that I’m grateful to have witnessed. There was ironically bad, started-out-as-a-joke-but-then-not-a-joke duo I Set My Friends On Fire, who rose to notoriety with a screamo cover of “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” Attack Attack! invented crabcore. No genre was free from the synth takeover; at a certain point, every band had a synth player. There were the Warped Tour equivalents of boy bands like The Academy Is …, We The Kings, the Maine, and Valencia. Scene kids had a limitless desire for more post-hardcore and metalcore and pop-punk bands. Bands filled our desire for pig squeals, four breakdowns in a two-minute song, and gang vocals about your friends and your small town and leaving your small town with your friends. And in the offseason, fans would connect over memes and fuckyeah fan pages on Tumblr.
Much has ensued since the last time I went to Warped Tour in 2010. Perhaps most prominently, a series of sexual assault and harassment allegations against bands who frequented the tour led to the festival’s fall from grace in the eyes of many. At the very least, the number and frequency of these cases left a bad taste in people’s mouths. As I grew older I reflected on dynamics at meet-and-greets, the normalization of a complete lack of women on stage at Warped Tour, and the sheer volume of lyrics that encouraged violence against women who rejected men. The allegations and the reports made sense. There was no surprise.
Because of this, there was also no surprise when founder Kevin Lyman announced that 2018 would be Warped Tour’s final voyage. Nor was it surprising that, when I walked into the festival grounds last month in suburban Minneapolis for one final pilgrimage, everything felt scaled-down: condensed space, fewer stages, fewer bands. The density of crowds and number of people milling about felt familiar, but with less space, a smaller attendance has the potential to feel proportional. Crowds looked and felt older than I remembered, too, which checks out with Lyman’s assessment that “14- to 17-year-olds disappeared” last summer. The average Warped Tour attendee’s age rose to 19.
I asked 18-year-old attendee Emily and her 22-year-old sister Luna why they thought Warped Tour wasn’t as popular among teens and pre-teens, and both chalked it up to kids not listening to Warped Tour type-bands anymore. Both agreed their peers’ interests overwhelmingly lie in rap and trap music and credit their personal exposure to punk, metal, and all its subgenres to growing up around the music via family members.
I watched 12 sets at my final Warped Tour. Many of the groups I wanted to see scratched the nostalgia itch. Some are still actively making music, some aren’t. I started the day by catching the Maine, a poppy, sassy five-piece out of Tempe, AZ who captured hearts with a couple of EPs in 2007 and the full-length Can’t Stop Won’t Stop in 2008. They played Warped Tour from 2007-2009, then again in 2014 and 2016 before this final run.
Impressively the Maine are made up of the same five guys from a decade ago, and the band has consistently released albums since its initial rise — erring further and further away from bubblegum starry-eyed pop-rock. After opening their set with a cover of Blur’s “Song 2,” singer John O’Callaghan joked about being the Dave Matthews Band and then Hootie & The Blowfish, having “just put out a brand-new record called Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.” It was a level of self-awareness about the ridiculous task of playing juvenile songs you wrote as a teen, balancing songs like “Girls Do What They Want” with new music that you’d like to be considered with a certain level of seriousness. I give the Maine credit for playing all of the stops on the final Warped Tour, knowing crowds are mostly there for the old stuff.
There’s a certain sadness around the perceived absence of music discovery at Warped Tour, but on the flip side, it’s also an honor to be a band that old fans care to revisit or still hold in high esteem, years past their height. Each band I saw took a different approach to navigating being potentially or partially in the nostalgia act category. New Jersey emos Senses Fail told the crowd that their new album “sounds like Let It Enfold You,” the debut album that launched the band’s career. Nearly every band wanted to know how many in the crowd had and hadn’t seen them play before. Metalcore group MyChildren MyBride got their early hits out of the way at the very beginning of the set. 3OH!3 — a duo of two white guys from Boulder who rap purposefully trashy lyrics over cartoonish electronic beats (a genre no one asked for called “crunkcore”) — opened their set by declaring themselves a MySpace band and seemed to enjoy running through the remarkably large number of hits they put out in 2008. A handful of acts — Four Year Strong, Every Time I Die, Less Than Jake — successfully straddled the line between throwback obligations and promoting new (or newish) music with which fans are still becoming familiar.
After watching classic early aughts emo lords Simple Plan play to a gigantic crowd in the mid-afternoon, I talked to a group of three in their late 20s and early 30s who were dramatically belting all the words to the group’s early hits like “I’m Just A Kid” and “Welcome To My Life.” Each of them were experienced with Warped Tour, having attended the festival on and off beginning in the early 2000s. Aaron, 33, described with pride seeing Paramore in 2005 “before they were Paramore” in a tiny tent before he’d heard of them. “It’s wildly smaller [now],” he said of the event. “There used to be skate ramps.” All three expressed remorse that the festival is coming to a close, making guesses that it’s due to young people being less drawn to bands and full albums and more interested in EDM, singles, and concert experiences with elaborate visuals. “But the ’90s are back, so why isn’t this?” Aaron asked. Lynae, 28, believed today’s new bands think they’re “too good” to play Warped Tour.
There’s a combination of reasons why Warped Tour couldn’t stay afloat, the most obvious being that the formula Lyman created in 1995 isn’t applicable to 2018. The subculture has slimmed and gone in different directions; young girls and gender-nonconforming fans are asking more of bands and want to see themselves reflected in the music they consume. As a young girl, I didn’t think it was possible for me to be in a band unless — in this one rare case — you were a talented singer, because I didn’t see it happening in front of me. It’s challenging to cope with a scene that provided a lot of good slowly disappearing, but I rest assured knowing that young punks and weirdos will always find community in music. Maybe it won’t be in parking lots and mosh pits, but I’m confident they’ll be better at holding each other and their idols accountable and work toward a more inclusive, new-and-improved scene — whatever and wherever it may be.
The final Warped Tour wraps up this weekend with Florida dates in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach. Find details here.