Growing pains are a bitch. When it began 12 years ago, Warped was the bratty little brother of summer package tours. Skate culture-friendly and fueled by punk revivalism, it was happy to skew away from the format and demographic of festivals like Lollapalooza. But while it's been remarkably durable over the years, Warped is now mired in an awkward tween phase of its own like the kids who've always been its bread and butter, the tour is caught between the scrappy irreverence of its youth and its continuing evolution into a youth-specific brand and lifestyle juggernaut.
Lead organizer and tour founder Kevin Lyman booked a lineup this year that includes veterans Helmet and Joan Jett alongside such young turks as Toledo's We Are the Fury, Swedish upstarts the Sounds and San Diego's Pistolita, whose take on emo includes a piano player. But Lyman also avoided the "TRL"-friendly My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, and it's the first year in history that Warped's attendance is, so far, down from the previous year.
"We really don't have the kind of fans that come out and crowd a stage just to hear one song and leave, like last year," Lyman says. "And I'm sure we lost other people from last year, the ones who said it was too pop." In other words, you'll never make everyone happy.
Besides the challenge of booking 75-100 bands, Lyman and the rest of Warped's organizers also have a bit of an image problem. In recent years, the tour has been as much about merchandising as music, resembling a traveling mall that hits town once a year to gobble up allowances. Hordes of corporate sponsors hawk products from booths, bands try desperately to vend T-shirts, stickers and hoodies, and kids play video games, send text messages, download ringtones, stuff their backpacks with branded swag and mouths with overpriced food, and stage IRL meetups with MySpace friends. That is, they do everything except actually listen to the sounds on Warped's dozen or so stages. Why don't they skip the show and just go to an actual mall?
Cynics also wonder how the tour retains its musical relevancy. With an egalitarian environment that doesn't favor industry vets over newcomers, it can be difficult to get the more exciting contemporary bands to commit to Warped's modest pay and grueling schedule. Why grind out two or three months on the tour, only to migrate from a side stage to a slightly larger one? Your set is still going to be limited to 30 minutes. Besides the Jetts and Helmets of the world, this leaves Warped with a mixture of greenhorns and tired punk retreads youthful near-nobodies like Greeley Estates or Patent Pending alongside the usual sets from Bouncing Souls, Rise Against and NOFX, who seem to play every year. So why would any interesting bands want to play? Why would anyone even bother going to Warped anymore? Especially those over 15?
For one thing, there are a host of young bands who will benefit from whatever exposure Warped gives them, from Ontario proto-metal enthusiasts Protest the Hero to intriguing New Orleans quartet Mute Math, who suggest Coldplay covering Jimmy Eat World songs.
And consider these thoughts on Warped from a 46-year-old, diehard rock fan, Helmet singer-guitarist Page Hamilton: "Would I be attracted to it if I was 12 years old? I don't know. But certainly at my age, there's not a chance in hell you could get me out here. Because standing in 100-degree heat with 15,000 kids is not my idea of a good time. If John Bonham came back from the dead, OK, sure ... but do I want to come out and listen to sixth-generation punk rock? No, absolutely not."
But lest Hamilton come across too cynical, or even hypocritical, he adds, "Just because I don't think what a lot of these bands are doing is musically progressive or interesting, that doesn't mean it's not valid. I'm not their audience. I'm having a blast out here, getting to meet all kinds of cool people, and, you know, these kids that are a generation or two after me that are playing music, they're doing what they think is right, and that's a good thing. And if the kids who come here like it, then that's what matters."
That's the basic truth about Warped it's not for the jaded or the cynics, but for the tweens, the teens, the kids. Those opening up to new sounds and ideas, kids who've never been to a concert and are excited as hell to experience it, kids who like free stuff, kids who eat lots of sugar and run around with their friends and play Pursuit Force on their PSPs and check out bands, because that's what kids in 2006 do. And that's what keeps Warped alive and relevant. "Me and my three favorite bitches will be moshing and crowdsurfing all effin day!" says one post on the Warped Web site's official message board.
Chris #2, bassist for Pittsburgh lefty-punks Anti-Flag, says he's thrilled that Warped provides his band with the youthful ears they hope to reach with their anthemic pop-hardcore diatribes against war, racism and discrimination. "I think about myself and how I stumbled into this activism life and punk rock in general, and I think, 'If I had this going when I was younger, I coulda skipped a lot of steps.' Like, it's really cool for us to talk about something like homosexuality from the stage to 14-year-olds, 'cause in a couple of weeks they're gonna go back to school and realize, hey, when the jock calls someone a fag it's not OK to laugh at that. I know a lot of bands weren't saying stuff like that when I was a kid and going to see shows."
Hamilton's also grateful to bring Helmet who are normally confined to 21-and-over clubs to a younger audience. "I'm not overtly political," he says. "I'm not necessarily trying to change the world as far as governments and those things go. For me, changing the world is about changing a kid's perspective on life through spiritual and intellectual stimulation. If they listen to Helmet even just one song while they're running to a booth to buy an AFI T-shirt and they're like, 'Wow, that song had weird time signatures in it, and it didn't feel the same, and it wasn't just these same three chords,' maybe it turns them on, and through that it gets them into other music and maybe they start a band because of it, or eventually they start to see the greater possibilities in life beyond what they know and see as the norm. If that happens, that's a great thing."
That's noble, but maybe impossible at Warped. After all, Helmet's pummeling time signature workouts are still competing with a dude selling cheap prepaid cellular minutes, 14 clothing companies giving away shirts, and chattering arguments over the merits of MySpace versus Purevolume.
"There have always been challenges," founder Lyman says. "But the kids keep coming out, a lot of first-timers, and that's great. And you know, I just went and saw Johnny Depp in the Pirates thing. It was $10.75, and then with a drink and popcorn it came to, like, 20 bucks and that entertained me for what, two hours? Kids can come to Warped for 25, 30 bucks at the door, be here for nine hours, and I think the quality of our entertainment is a lot better."
Warped Tour 2006: 11 a.m., Saturday, July 29, outside Comerica Park, 2100 Woodward; Detroit; 248-645-6666.
Michael Alan Goldberg is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org