Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: Van’s Warped Tour is, was, and always will be for teenagers.
The touring festival started by former Lollapalooza stage manager Kevin Lyman celebrated the 20th anniversary of its first show Sunday, and it’s no surprise that it has continued to cater to the middle and high school set. The two-decade-old touring festival has teenagers built into its very bones.
It’s cheap (relatively speaking), and it comes to towns of all sizes across America, which makes asking for a ride from your parents a lot easier.
Of course, teens wouldn’t come to any old festival just because it’s there. Lyman and Co. earned their status as the last relevant touring festival by continuously and relentlessly catering to the tastes of alt-youngsters, filling their roster with whatever resonates and fueling the booms of three successive waves of teenage-centric music in the process… pop-punk, emo, and metalcore.
Pop-Punk: The Tour’s First Success Stories
The mid to late ‘90s were a rough time for teenagers looking to stray from Top 40 sounds. In the days before Tony Hawk Pro Skater soundtracks and internet ubiquity, kids looking for a bridge between the pop sounds they knew and the harder punk they’d heard about had few options.
In that context, Warped Tour seemed like a revelation.
Warped Tour gathered up skate-punk titans like Pennywise and Guttermouth and placed them alongside poppier names like Face to Face and soon-to-be superstars like Blink-182.
With their “boy band with power chords” sound and their penchant for juvenile smartass lyrics, there’s no doubt that the Blink boys would have broken through eventually. But building up a devoted fanbase of kids through several years with the Warped Tour didn’t hurt. And the band knew it.
“There’s a support system for your band; a support system to find people that you truly identify with. That’s the idea. You know, the best thing about punk rock is that it’s not for adults,” said Blink’s Tom DeLonge in a soon-to-be-published history of the tour.
Prior to their first stint on the tour, Blink-182 released the (excellent) album Cheshire Cat. It failed to chart in the United States. Dude Ranch — their next album, released as they began their second stint with the tour — went platinum.
Prior to their third stint with Warped, they dropped Enema of the State to hordes of adoring fans. The album has sold more than 4 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Blink are far from an anomaly. The tour also had a hand in introducing countless kids to the third-wave ska that came to dominate a significant portion of the ‘90s. No Doubt and Sublime both took part in the first Warped Tour, and, as the festival grew, it snagged more and more successful brass-loving punks: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Buck-O-Nine, Bouncing Souls, Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish all gained national attention after stints on the tour.
While the slightly harder take on pop showcased by the tour tended to ease kids into punk more generally, the organizers of Warped made a point of making this connection explicit. Once they were lured in by pizza-loving punks or a ragtag bunch of skankers, teens didn’t need to leave festival grounds to find something outside of their comfort zone.
The pop-punkers of the early years frequently shared stages with scene gods like The Specials, Social Distortion, and Agnostic Front. Kids who just wanted to find something different were rewarded with Latin fusionists like Ozomatli and rockabilly hucksters like Reverend Horton Heat until the early 2000s.
The First Shift: Warped Gets Tender
By the early 2000s, the original teens had moved on toward more adult-oriented forms of punk. In their place came a wave of kids emboldened by the internet, and its ability to instantly share their feelings with folks around the world.
This newer, more sensitive brand of teen molded Warped in its image, ushering in an era of heart-on-sleeve emo bands shouting sad bedroom tunes into the 100-degree heat.
The ska bands and old guard reps hung around for a few years, but one look at the crowds showed that operatic and emotional bands like AFI and The All American Rejects were the future.
By 2004, you were more likely to see Fall Out Boy or Good Charlotte on a Warped poster than Pennywise. MySpace gave a lot of the bigger bands their fanbases, but Warped expanded their palette once they were in the door. Kids came for FOB and caught Taking Back Sunday. They bought a ticket for Yellowcard and ended up loving Motion City Soundtrack.
Kids came to Warped in the mid-’00s and caught feelings in the current and former sense.
Third-Wave Warped: Fest-Core
By the late ‘00s, those overly emotional MySpacers had become ironic adults, burying their more embarrassing teenage tendencies under several layers of Charles-ian detachment and ditching LiveJournal music recommendations for easily skimmed Pitchfork reviews.
The teens that replaced the emo kids brought metalcore to the festival, a logical stylistic evolution as kids began to live more and more on the internet. The emo Warped bands of the early 2000s still had a kind of old-world shyness about emotions. They let them out, but seemed a bit sheepish about the whole thing.
Metalcore delivered the same angst as the former bands, but did it at the top of its lungs with a well-placed growl to back it up. MySpace-era Warped-goers put their emotions out and then wilted under scrutiny. Facebook kids threw their emotions out their with a “f*ck you” and a fist. These were kids who couldn’t perceive anything strange in being so up front with anger and hurt.
The crabwalking and shrieking iteration of Warped has proven to be one of its longest-lasting, and it rules the lineups up to the present day, with bands like Escape the Fate and Black Veil Brides seeing significant boosts in visibility every summer.
While this era of the Tour is probably the most derided in festival history, it’s truthfully no different from any other version of the festival, in that it’s catering to the tastes of teens.
As the Warped Tour celebrates 20 years, we should celebrate it for what it is, not what it’s never been. The tour is an excellent way to spread the music that teens love to kids who might not have heard it otherwise.
Anybody older than 20 who likes to bash the festival needs to keep in mind the way old-school punk fans probably felt about them while they were bouncing around to Frenzal Rhomb, or the way those first-wavers felt about the eyeliner-wearing MCRmy.
Refrain from trash-talking the tour by reminding yourself that It’s. Not. For. You. And while you’re at it, maybe take a minute to admire the fact that Warped Tour has managed to be so good at what it does for so long.