At the Warped Tour, our would-be reporter confronts her fear of teenagers to indulge her fascination with their music.
Kevin Lyman is a genius. The founder of the Vans Warped Tour figured out that a massive festival could float with ticket prices set at less than $30 by subjecting concertgoers to a slew of advertising booths and paying the bands in part with publicity and merch sales. I attended a sold-out show in Long Beach, one of three 15,000-ticket shows in the Los Angeles area, and experienced the pandemonium first hand. At any given moment five bands are playing, three are signing autographs, and ten are calling people over to their merch booths with a bullhorn. It's dusty, odiferous, and swelteringly hot. For the entire eight hours I spend inside the festival confines, I am nauseous -- I desperately want to see everything but can't.
For me, being at the Warped Tour is fraught with contradictions that mostly center around my sense of self. See, I live in the youth-directed media bubble that Lyman built. I swallow breaking news alerts about the lead singer of Sum 41 getting engaged to Avril Fucking Lavigne like it's CNN. Part of Lyman's genius is that nearly all media relating to the tour comes from tour sponsors Alternative Press, cable music network Fuse, and MySpace.com, where loving tributes to the tour appear with regularity. Fuse even created Warped Wednesdays, which essentially ensures that you cannot watch the channel on a Wednesday without being inundated with fellating band interviews and Warped video blocks. And through these tour sponsors, the bands get so much publicity that they'll do the tour on the cheap. By the time Warped reaches my town, I am deliciously brainwashed. I haven't even thought about a band not on the Warped Tour in more than three months.
Because I feel like a moron for swallowing all this down so devotedly, the only way I can redeem my juvenile tastes is with a press pass. Yeah, I'm totally superficial. I set up my press pass in advance and put in some interview requests, but I honestly thought this pretense was a joke. I fully expected to arrive and have my suspicions confirmed that I am not a real reporter, just some broad with a good Internet connection. But much to my surprise I immediately (albeit accidentally) book real grown-up press time with Fall Out Boy, as they sit ten feet away from me eating lunch. My husband, who serves as my photographer and technical assistant for the day, watches on as I commence to freak out. It's not like I have any delusions that rock stars are superhumans, it's just that I have a hard time believing that anything on TV is real, even if it's having a salad right in front of me.
Warped is utterly disorienting, and I'm an idiot in a haystack. My husband and I try to figure out how to see the bands we want to see, which in his case is easy, because it's no bands. The holy Warped trinity of punk, hardcore, and emo does not suit his indie pop sensabilities. No, he would be pleased as punch if he never had to listen to any band named in the popular fire/firearm motif, like Matchbook Romance, the Explosion, Strike Anywhere, the Twenty-Twos, Bullets and Octane, and the Matches, all on the tour. Because Lyman means for Warped to be an egalitarian experience for the bands, set times are decided by lottery the morning of the show, making it impossible for anyone to map out her day in advance. The schedule is on a giant inflated bulletin board in the center of the grounds, but the shear sensory overload causes me to forget it all the moment I look away. I begin to panic, fearing that I will miss everything, that I will spend the day standing still watching little walking ads for Hot Topic flow around me purposefully getting everywhere they want to be while I stare into the sun and ask, "Why? Why can't I like Wilco like people my age invariably do?" My husband wordlessly points to a sticker on the back of a girl's shirt that instructs us to text message to get the schedule on our cell phone. Oh. How convenient.
Armed with our text message we scamper off to see Motion City Soundtrack. They play their new single "Everything's Alright", and, despite my rapidly ramping paranoia, I believe them. I begin to mellow out until I am smacked by a sea of teens struggling to get closer to see Mark Hoppus, the attractive member of blink-182, (for better or for worse, blink doesn't capitalize its name -- the punk-rock e. e. cummings or bell hooks? Both and?) making a cameo during MCS's set. Hoppus, an established member of the pantheon of pop-punk gods and a former Warped headliner, makes his appearance both to support MCS's new album, Commit This to Memory, which incidentally served as his producing debut, and to promote his clothing label, not coincidently a tour sponsor.
Despite the rush of girls getting on the cell phone to report the Hoppus sighting, I manage to enjoy the rest of the set. They close with "The Future Freaks Me Out", MCS's "Free Bird". The lyric "We waste away the days with nicotine and television samples From an era we hate to admit we embrace We fail to represent We fail to be content We fail at everything we ever even try to attempt" pretty much sums up where I'm at during the moment. I am positive that all my preparation is for naught because I have no clue how to do an interview, and I'm hesitant to acknowledge, even to myself, how much I adore these emo bands that sing songs about bitches like me.
* * *
Since I was a small child I have feared teenagers. Proximity to an adolescent would roil my subconscious with rancid pheromones. It's irrational to be sure, but despite my taste in music, being a teen once was more than enough. To gear myself up for covering the tour I spent a great deal of time reading the Warped Tour message boards on MySpace, where many kids across the country waste their summers speculating about which band's have the "gayest" fans, how to obtain smearproof eyeliner for the long day in the sun, and determining the best way to get a backstage pass (sucking dick gets the most votes). The little Warpions challenge my love day after day, but any teacher will tell you that once you separate the pack, or in this case send individual messages, they are actually quite lovely. If you ask an isolated kid why she idolizes My Chemical Romance, she will actually tell you.
Nevertheless I was concerned about how the kids would behave when confronted with all their favorite bands, free energy drinks, and mosh pits as far as the eye can see. But despite some highly regrettable fashion choices (red thigh-high fishnets, no pants, and an oversized My Chemical Romance T-shirt comes to mind), the kids are alright. They help each other up when they fall. They wait in line without cutting. Okay, a few drank so much straight-from-the-bottle liquor that they vomited on themselves, but check this out: Eight Lake County kids on their way to Warped in Marysville, California, rounded dead man's curve to find that a truck had capsized. One of the kids broke the rear window and crawled through the shards of glass to catch an elderly passenger as her seat belt was cut by paramedics. Yup. The world is not going to end when Gen-X'ers retire.
Before my Fall Out appointment I have just enough time to catch Tsunami Bomb. Though at least half of the Warped crowd is female, there is a general dearth of women onstage. Tsunami Bomb, led by Agent M, is the only female-fronted band on a main stage, though the ShiraGirl stage has been added this year, a musical ghetto far off the beaten path. ShiraGirl, the titular band, got the gig by crashing last year's tour and simply setting up and playing, leading Lyman to legitimize their efforts. Apparently, the ShiraGirl bands aren't being paid much because every time I tried to talk to someone in the area, she answered with, "You can buy a T-shirt for $10." They often rely on quirky costumes, and most regrettably, skimpy clothes, but still draw minuscule crowds. Tsunami Bomb, on the other hand, rocks a huge crowd with Agent M's melodic punk vocals. She ends the set with a plea for people to go to the ShiraGirl stage and check out the other female-fronted bands playing smaller stages, such as Stolen Babies. I decide then and there that I must arrange an interview with Agent M.
Unfortunately, my first interview is a mundane roundtable in which "journalists" with even less professional presence than I ask Fall Out bassist/lyricist Pete Wentz tedious questions about life on the road. Backstage, my husband becomes my tape-recorder holder as I try to participate, fumbling through my notes trying to decide what to ask when my turn arises. In my total freak-out I settle for, "What would you do for a living if you couldn't be in a band?" That's right. Hard-hitting journalism. Next stop, the White House press gaggle. Pete spits out an answer that I would gladly quote for you if my tape recorder actually recorded it, but it was something to the effect of "Work at a Barnes and Noble and think about killing myself." Sweet. Someone else asks what he misses most from home. He answers, "My mother," and my recorder-holder and I exchange glances that say, "How fucking emo can he be!" At my final turn at inquiry I decide to ask the question that I most want the answer to, even if it's not entirely relevant, journalistically speaking: "During the video for 'Sugar, We're Goin' Down', why do you salute the camera during the lyric 'wishing to be the friction in your jeans'?" He answers that it was just "a thing" he did. Disappointing. However, I regain my sense of dignity by being the only "reporter" to not ask for Wentz's autograph following the "interview."
* * *
To most of the Warpions, the pervasive sponsor booths swarming the grounds are actually considered a perk because of the abundance of free samples they offer -- everything from Punk Rock Confidential magazine to Trojan condoms. Kids happily cover themselves, crotches and asses especially, in little adhesive advertisements for sponsors like SmartPunk.com and Ernie Ball guitar strings. KROQ, L.A.'s Clear Channel rock station, earned distinction as being the most offensive and aggressive advertiser, as they set up camp next to the Code of tha Cutz hip-hop stage and drowned out the raps by blasting corporate rock over the vicinity. The crowd didn't mind too much since KROQ was offering cooling fans and a water spritz. Kids are cheap.
While main-stage bands like the Offspring have lush buses, beverage riders, and fans begging for the chance to buy their T-shirts, other bands travel in unstable vans and push their merch Willie Loman-style to afford the gas required to make it to the next stop. All the hopefuls on the DIY stage, which hosts unsigned local bands, break between nearly every song to beg people to buy an album. Lyman has allowed a few bands, armed with CD players, headphones and lots of discs, access to the festival in order to promote themselves. The CD guys gingerly approach individuals waiting to use the Porta Pottis, asking them to take a listen. They pay their own way along the tour just for this opportunity.
A growing contingent of Warped bands play religiously themed music, including hardcore acts MxPx, Thrice, and Underoath. The latter gains loads of respect from kids as "the hardest band on Warped." Backstage, I see a sign that says, "Scientology Jam Session on the No Use For a Name bus at 9:00PM. Open your reactive mind!!!!" Oh, my god. They're everywhere. There is also a Christian Bible study group composed of bands and tour employees that meet every week. With a show every Sunday, church is not an option. It's hard to imagine how religion figures into a backstage scene unanimously described as a debauched mixture of alcohol and drugs during band interviews in the established Warped media outlets. In many of the more conservative stops of the tour, I imagine that the religiosity allows many kids ordinarily denied access to a punk show to sell the tour to otherwise skeptical parents. Marketing genius, Mr. Lyman.
Though the average age of attendees gets younger year after year, a contingent of older fans remains. The Transplants are big with the young 'uns, but guitarist Tim Armstrong first made waves with Operation Ivy in the late '80s and early '90s. No Use for a Name made a name for themselves in the same Bay Area scene around the same time and holds the distinction of being on the first Warped Tour 11 summers ago. The older folks are generally straight-up punk, with myriad tattoos and piercings, trashed clothes, and spiked hair. Some of them even have little punklets with them, but most of the parents are not quite eager participants, prompting Lyman to create "reverse daycare", an air-conditioned tent full what initially appears to be extras for a modern remake of The Grapes of Wrath, but is actually the wretched parents of the youngest Warpions. Folding camp chairs surround a big screen TV playing The Best Damn Sports Show Period, though the TV is inaudible over the roar of three nearby stages. I had meant to question them about their decision to attend with their children, but fearing I might be the last straw between them and suicide, I quietly shuffle away.
* * *
I try to get up close and personal for the Starting Line's set but was foiled by overwhelming nausea. There are two potential causes for this. The first is that while I enjoy this band's new CD, Based on a True, I finally looked up the lyrics to "Bedroom Talk," their musical homage to lost virginity. I had perceived these to be "Gonna lasso you up / like we just got married / and it's alright now," but it turns out he says, "Gonna tear your ass up / like we just got married / and you're all mine now." Witnessing a crowd of adoring fifteen-year-old girls singing along with those lyrics, I thought I was going to ralph, but then this may have been due to the second cause: I was literally standing in a puddle of vomit. Vomit puddle? Tearing asses up? It could fall in either camp.
Though I am admittedly biased toward the emo bands, I try to broaden my horizons by checking out Avenged Sevenfold, a So-Cal melodic hardcore band. Mind you, I won't be checking them out from too close of proximity, because hardcore fans scare me, even the melodic subset. People get tattoos for this band, and as much as I desire journalistic legitimacy, hardcore mosh pits are out of bounds. I'm old and breakable. From a distance at least, AX7, as they are referred to on message boards (and subsequently the band's own merch), stood out as the only band with props and a smoke machine. The opening sequence of their set, which included "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music abruptly broken into with a heavy onslaught of metal guitar, was mucked up by the sound engineer, but the loving audience couldn't have cared less. Actually, I don't think it would have mattered to their fans if they had left the stage props behind and played acoustically. They attract that kind of following.
* * *
The scalding sun renders me idiotic and I lose track of time. I am at the ShiraGirl stage when I need to get to the press tent all the way on the opposite side of the grounds in five minutes to keep an appointment to interview Tsunami Bomb. "It can't be done," I announce as I try to find a trashless piece of pavement to sit on. "Nonsense," my husband counters, as he yanks me off in a mad dash across the punk-rock playground, where no clear line is drawn between audience and pedestrian making each individual a roadblock. We make it, only a little worse for the wear.
Tsunami Bomb and I come from the same area of Northern California, so I figure interviewing them one on one should be easy since we've all shopped in the same mall. Though normally I am wrong about such things, Agent M and bassist Matt McKenzie are easygoing people with no shortage of intelligent and insightful things to say during my time with them. Both of them are the kind of people that I want to invite to a dive bar to chat about exes and conspiracy theories. When the interview is over McKenzie says "Good questions!" I try not to beam like someone whose self-esteem rests on just such an affirmation. After he walks away my husband whispers, "He has the dreamiest eyes I've ever seen." I know!
After several hours of wandering the grounds and talking to people I am more than a little tired. I now have no choice but to keep my sunglasses on because -- damn me for mocking the eyeliner-curious girls on MySpace -- my makeup has become a gruesome black smear across my face. From the neck up, I've been mauled by a hyperaggressive chimney sweep.
All that's left to observe is the Fall Out Boy set. Fall Out Boy had the crowd at hello, but still insists on whipping the kids into a frenzy, culminating with Wentz stage diving with his mic into a crowd so large I couldn't see the where it ended. It's a fitting finale for the day, with Justin Pierre of Motion City Soundtrack joining the fellows for a song. Embarrassingly, I salute Wentz as lead singer Patrick Stump recites, "Wishing to be the friction in your jeans." Wentz may be a mama's boy, but he also writes the kind of lyrics that even only moderately disturbed teenage girls want to carve into their arms. I salute him, because as a writer I dream of writing a line as uncontrollably awesome. With my tape recorder, I recorded their set and despite being about fifteen feet from the mammoth P.A. speakers, I can barely hear anything over the screams of thousands of smitten teenage girls and, humiliatingly, my own sing-along.
At the end of the day, as booths are broken down and pavement space is cleared, an obscene amount of trash is left covering any piece of ground not occupied by sprawled out kids trying to rally up the energy to get home. After eight hours in the sun, many are badly sunburned and already peeling, and others manifestly dehydrated. Several have scraped-up knees and elbows from the brutal circle pits. Though the scene was similar to the battlefield in Gone With the Wind, each individual kid has a weary smile spreading on his face, all looking like they just had a massive Thanksgiving dinner. As soon as I get home, I dutifully check the MySpace message boards, where several teens have already posted their thoughts on the day. We all loved it.
They call Warped "the tour that never dies". I can't disagree. Not only does Warped turn the profit that is only hypothetical to most other major tours, but has spurned its own marketing niche. "Warped" is a genre to fledgling bands whose eventual goal is the tour's main stages. Though I missed a great deal of the bands and never got a chance to play laser tag, I saw enough to leave me dizzy for weeks. To paraphrase Fall Out Boy, despite intellectual objections, I fall apart to songs about hips and hearts. And, though it's been said so many times before that I'm not sure if it matters, Kevin Lyman is a genius.