The Vans Warped Tour
June 19, 2016
What's so wrong about cashing-in on millennial dysphoria? MTV forgot how. Alternative Press, Fuse and young adult novelists get it, which is why they're the modern-day equivalent of MTV for 15-year-old emo kids. MTV should hire Vans Warped Tour architect Kevin Lyman to market their outdated brand to depressed teenagers. Lyman's teenage retail strategy has turned Warped, now in its 21st season, into a traveling checkout lane for kids willing to pay $40 dollars for a Pierce the Veil T-shirt.
So who the hell is Pierce the Veil? I have no idea, but if you go to a nearby Hot Topic and ask the chubby goth at the register, you'll get a sad-faced emoji followed by #BiggestBandEver as your answer. You can also ask about PVRIS, August Burns Red, Black Veil Brides, News Years Day and about a hundred other bands being marketed to teenage weirdos on this year's Warped Tour, which came to Pomona on Friday on the first leg of its annual summer tour.
On average, 500,000 teenagers and their tattooed parents attend Warped every summer. The massive operation includes 40 different stops across the nation, each of which is supported by fleet of tractor-trailer trucks and hundreds of buses that turn places like Detroit and Orlando into pop-up shops that promote California culture like a flea market in Venice. In 1995, the same year the X Games started, Lyman launched Warped by combining extreme sports culture with pop-punk. What Punk Rock Bowling is today, Warped was in the '90s: the old-guard-punk fest that was too corporate for some, but the punk rock baptism for others, myself included. I almost died in a Pennywise circle pit at Warped on two different occasions.
Today, bands like Pennywise, NOFX, Rancid and just about anyone on a Punk-O-Rama comp is unfamiliar to younger millennials. So instead, Warped books emo and post-hardcore bands like Pierce the Veil, who have more followers on Facebook than Arcade Fire — even though you've never heard of them.
Today, 92% of the Warped audience is between the ages of 15 and 25, the majority of which are bikini-top-wearing white girls who think Andy Biersack of emo-goth band Black Veil Brides is hot. More than half of the bands on the current lineup are some derivative of metal, post-hardcore, and goth culture. It's as if Lyman stole his genius marketing strategy from Paramore, who partnered with Twilight's depressed teen demo with “Decode.” The result is a festival that now lacks the cheeky college humor of NOFX, the outspoken politics of Anti-Flag, and whatever shit it was that had Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach impaling his face with a microphone. Instead, today's Warped is designed for the apathetic Snapchat generation — kids who prefer to belong to the same sadness society while listening to bands that almost exclusively sing about feeling alienated and angry.
Meanwhile, the PG era of Warped is in full swing. Moshing and crowd surfing are prohibited. Does this keep it from happening? Of course not, but the fear of getting your skull smashed by a six-foot-tall gang member is gone — thanks to Lyman's safety initiative.
While things have gotten safer and more organized, with parents getting in for free with their kids, they've also gotten more homogenized. Every band includes fast double-bass drumming, Cookie Monster vocals, or that high-pitched whiny emo thing that even hardcore bands do these days. It's like every Warped band attends the same music school for the exceptionally sad. During my visit to the Pomona stop of the tour, I had a chance to catch sets by 22 of the 100 bands on the bill. Out of the 22, I had heard of just four: The Wonder Years, News Years Day, Citizen (because they're a top seller at Amoeba) and Riff Raff. Here's what a few sounded like from the perspective of someone that jumped into his first mosh pit at the 2000 Warped Tour in Anaheim.
PVRIS – Shark Stage – 12:50 p.m.
Lynn Gunn is a star. Lowell, Massachusetts' PVRIS (pronounced Paris) looks and sounds like Paramore meets Skrillex. Gunn is still learning the art of owning a stage, but she's almost there. She has the voice, look and attitude to be the next Hayley Williams — she just needs the hit record.
Riff Raff – Journeys Left Stage – 5:40 p.m.
Adult Swim caricature of a Spring Breakers white-boy pimp; aspiring pro wrestler; and hackneyed clown that should be selling cellphones at the mall — Riff Raff is all that. He's also a joke. Two hundred and fifty people signed a petition to keep this loony-tune off the bill, but that didn't stop him. Nothing can; he's like a neon-green STD that won't leave your crotch. To review his music would probably infect me. Far East Movement joined him on the stage … probably just to get paid and move on. Good for them. And some Travis Barker-looking geek played drums.
New Years Day – Journeys Left Stage – 7:45 p.m.
From all the bands I saw that day, Anaheim's New Years Day had the most well-crafted gimmick. They have this haunted mansion aesthetic down to a science. Each member, including lead-singer Ashley Costello, looked like a character from Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios. At times, they sounded pretty hard — something of a mix between Marilyn Manson, No Doubt and Fall Out Boy. This is a band I'd want to see on the Sunset Strip … I'm not even sure why.
Bebe Rexha – Journeys Left Stage – 6:40 p.m.
She has a unique voice. The Sky Ferreira faux-punk gimmick is OK. Somehow everyone thinks she's going to blow up because she wrote a few hit songs, like “The Monster” for Eminem. But the punk thing seems a bit manufactured. She even gave some speech about what punk means to her. Whatever, she's a pop star. I guess Lyman think she's the next Katy Perry. I think she's the next Skylar Grey.
Motion City Soundtrack – Shark Stage – 3:05 p.m.
Even though they seemed out of sync at times, they kinda reminded me of Jimmy Eat World meets Ozma meets Weezer. Jesse Johnson, their keyboard player and hype-man, just danced like a madman the entire set. Their geeky energy and catchy pop-punk sound was way more appealing to me than than all the screamo-metal shit that got depressing under the blistering sun.
The Wonder Years – Shark Stage – 5:25 p.m.
Probably the best live band I saw that day, Philadelphia six-piece The Wonder Years was nonstop pop-punk with the volume turned up to 11. Holy shit these dudes were loud. In terms of vibe and overall presentation, they reminded me of Cold War Kids doing emo. Everyone in the crowd knew the words to every song, which was cool to see.
August Burns Red – Shark Stage – 6:35 p.m.
This band makes no sense. How could a bunch of white guys from Pennsylvania be so pissed off? Also, why aren't they wearing black? I mean if you're gonna do the death scream on every song, nonstop for 30 minutes, you could at least look intimidating. These dweebs looked like the emo version of LFO, and sounded like horrific death metal. WTF? Their merch includes a red lifeguard T-shirt, which is just confusing. Their drummer, however, is an absolute monster that has clearly studied Dave Lombardo of Slayer.
Pierce the Veil – Unicorn Stage – 8:20 p.m.
San Diego's Pierce the Veil, a massively popular “mexicore” band, was the biggest draw in Pomona. About 10 minutes before their set, half the crowd was singing acapella versions of the songs. Once they came out, the band ripped through a 30-minute set of inspirational, emo-sounding post-hardcore that was fast, chaotic, brutal and screamo enough to appeal to hardcore metalheads. I was being crushed for most of the set, so yeah, this was the only band where things got a bit scary.
For 20 years, Warped has managed to promote California culture and help legendary pop-punk bands like Rancid and NOFX become household names (and OK, Good Charlotte, but nobody's perfect). And it remains a relative bargain, at least up front: Whereas Coachella costs $375 for a general admission ticket, Warped is around $40 for 11 stages, 100 bands, and 9 hours of songs for outsiders and kids looking for a connection. It's like an all-inclusive cruise package that pitches you on the cheap ticket price, and gets you with the trinkets and drinks.
Lyman keeps Warped ticket prices down by partnering with over 60 sponsors that include booths for good causes, record labels, Trojan condoms, the U.S. Army, even the goddamn Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation. Corporate sponsorship keeps ticket prices down and allows the festival to pay the bands, but leaves Warped open to criticism that it whores itself out to just about anyone with a check (which isn't true; I mean, they weren't into Calvin Klein, so there). But hey, welcome to all-ages capitalism. It may not be the anti-corporate punk rock of my generation, but at least it's still anti-cool, which is maybe even more important.