Stepping into the blind spot: A new perspective on Vans Warped Tour

Ronnie Radke and Falling in Reverse perform during the Las Vegas stop of the Vans Warped Tour Thursday, June 19, 2014.
Photo: Sam Morris
Max Plenke

Warped Tour isn’t for me. I don’t mean that in terms of genre, at least not necessarily. I mean from the music to the merchandise to the advertising, I am literally no longer the demographic. The growled hooks and choruses, encouraging perseverance and a thick skin, aren’t dedicated to me, or anyone else my age.

They used to be. The first time I walked beneath the giant Vans shoe sign I was 14. NOFX and Anti-Flag were the headliners, already ripe by the time I plucked them from the used album bin. I, we, got those messages. Now they’re over my head. I’m beyond even a 21 Jump Street faux belonging, which I think is unfairly premature. All afternoon I get the “here we go again” eyes from chaperone dads because they assume we share the sentiment. My own adulthood is barely actualized, yet I feel as separate from my surroundings as they look.

2014 Vans Warped Tour

Even the names on the giant inflatable show schedule end in invisible question marks when I look at them. Gone are Story of the Year and Reel Big Fish. As metal slowly overtook punk as counter culture’s champion, the new genus plays melodized revenge plots and looks like redwood-size hockey players or exfoliated pseudo Satanist undertakers. Yellowcard, the headliner here a decade ago, is now, by contrast, a soft, whiny dinosaur, a relic of the aughts, overpowered by the severe synth lines and computer samples and tremendous wattage of tourmates like Motionless in White and Breathe Carolina. Even MC Chris, a 38-year-old walking YouTube spoof who raps about Star Wars and wizards, only maintains high ground by being that rapper from Aqua Teen Hunger Force and appeals to the more timeless teenage interests (“Who likes pizza?!” “Who likes ninjas?!”).

The odd part was, I thought I’d recognize band names and automatically assign them to a slot in my viewing hierarchy. But I didn’t know them. And this marked the first time I noticed the shift between the festival I knew and the one that exists. Heavy bands now rap (Falling in Reverse, the biggest draw I saw, is a prime example). Some fill out their double-bass drumming with whizzing and whirring dubstep samples. Even the rappers, a steadily growing presence at Warped Tour, use beats born from metalcore wombs. There’s an entire hemisphere of sound in my cultural blind spot that I would never hear until I stepped into its house and inhaled its air.

Warped Tour is a highly corporatized traveling money machine. But at the heart of it, it represents something music will always need: a Petri dish growing a culture’s Next Big Thing, whether we understand it or not.

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