The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Warped Tour is over for good. Will the culture it created finally reckon with its demons?

Fans crowd surf at Warped Tour’s stop at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. The country’s longest-running traveling festival ended on Sunday in Florida after a 24-year stretch. (Josh Sisk/for The Washington Post)

I found my former self leaning coolly against the concrete outside the bathroom at the Vans Warped Tour. There were three teenage girls, eyes ringed in melting liner, their arms and faces streaked with paint. They’d just met Yungblud, the 20-year-old pop-punk heartthrob they’d come to see, and he’d signed the only scrap of paper they’d had to present: a McDonald’s hash brown wrapper.

“I can’t believe it,” one of them gushed. The trash was holy now.

As I wandered the grounds at Merriweather Post Pavilion last month, I saw a carnival of nostalgia. Aging punks walked around with their children. Scene veterans sported shirts of defunct bands and festivals. Performers bragged about their Warped lineage — Less Than Jake’s singer told the audience that it was the band’s 433rd performance at the tour.

In its time as the country’s longest-running traveling music festival, Warped Tour has been the cornerstone of a scene offering shelter for those who have struggled to find one. It’s common for a fan to say, without a hint of irony, that this music saved their life. But the 24-year-old tour’s conclusion on Aug. 5 in Florida — after years of declining ticket sales and a dwindling audience — has coincided with a moment of reckoning for the music in its orbit. Warped symbolizes the best and the worst aspects of a scene that champions safety and community, but where — according to a Billboard interview last year with the tour’s founder, Kevin Lyman — sexual harassment is also “part of the culture.”

The musical content, much of which falls into the pop-punk or emo genres, has often been criticized for its misogyny. Recent years have seen an increased queer and female presence at Warped, as well as that of educational organizations focused on sexual violence, depression, self-harm and suicide awareness. But several acts that have played the tour have been embroiled in sexual-misconduct scandals outside of it. In 2013, Ian Watkins of LostProphets pleaded guilty to child-sex charges. Two years later, Lyman faced criticism when he allowed Jake McElfresh, who performed as Front Porch Step, to play after facing allegations of texting inappropriately with minors. (Criminal charges have not been filed against McElfresh.) “We really tried to address these issues,” Lyman told The Washington Post.

Overlooking the sins of powerful artists has felt intolerable in the era of #MeToo, but at Warped, taste is tethered to identity, and what comes next for its audience is complicated. The tour has flourished because much of its music is confessional and intimate. It fosters a devotion in the young, marginalized and vulnerable that rarely fades with age. Now fans are wrestling with whether the culture can adapt and evolve, or whether its worst roots run too deep.

I fell into the scene as I began to stumble through puberty, newly acquainted with self-loathing, hungry in ways I couldn't explain. The glamour of the day's pop music seemed out of reach. In pop punk, I found artists willing to shove their flaws to the forefront. The fact that much of it was steeped in melodrama was lost on me; at 14, everything is melodrama.

I surrendered to it totally. I wore Misfits T-shirts, listened to Neutral Milk Hotel, read Chuck Palahniuk, watched “American Psycho” and spent hours in comic book stores because I knew these things shaped the people I worshiped. Even as I got older, music remained my refuge.

Last November, two women accused Jesse Lacey, frontman of emo juggernaut Brand New, of sexual misconduct and child grooming. They said he’d used his status in the band to manipulate them when they were underage. In response, Lacey offered an apology that sidestepped the details of the allegations, and the band canceled its remaining tour dates.

In middle school, I carved Brand New lyrics into the backs of my binders until the plastic tore. In high school, I wrote a five-page paper breaking down a metaphor in one of Lacey’s songs. I wrote a short story imagining what it would be like to meet him. Lacey’s open torment had been the selling point for me. I’d found it poetic that he’d kept his demons in the spotlight.

“If you let me have my way I swear I’ll tear you apart,” he sang in 2003’s “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis,” in which the narrator takes advantage of a drunk girl. “Your daughters weren’t careful/I fear that I am a slippery slope,” he murmured in 2006’s “You Won’t Know.”

Until I got to college, I actively disliked female musicians. I was enamored with the myth of the tortured artist; I chased it not only in my taste but also in my personal relationships. Now I wonder if some of these failures can be traced back to the music that shaped me. In part, I want to scrub myself of its influence. The problem is that I wouldn’t know myself without it.

“You cling to the spaces where you feel more cared for than you’ve ever felt,” said the poet and music writer Hanif Abdurraqib, who grew up in the punk scene in Columbus, Ohio, and has written about his struggle to reckon with the racism in punk culture. “The things we enjoy make us complicit to some greater danger, and to come to terms with that complicity is much harder to do when you’re young.”

I was 16 when I first saw Brand New perform. The Cincinnati venue was so packed with desperate bodies that condensation dripped from the ceiling. I found myself confined to the back of the room, unable to penetrate the sea of boys and men crashing against one another, howling along with every syllable. I remember nothing about Lacey’s performance. He was hidden from me, eclipsed by those who acted like they wanted to be just like him.

The myth and marvel of Warped has been that it wasn't just concerned with whether you loved it. It claimed to love you back. It's an idea sown into the fabric of punk: that it's a brotherhood, a family that transcends race and age and gender.

The tour’s goal, as Lyman has often said, was to create a community that would unite the fragmented punk landscape. It was the place to get your punk bona fides — the gateway to live music for thousands, and a first swing at the big leagues for obscure bands that would later become household names: Blink-182, Eminem, Katy Perry, Paramore, Fall Out Boy, Green Day, My Chemical Romance.

“When I was a kid, it was like Christmas in July,” said Maria Sherman, a writer for Jezebel who has broken multiple pairs of glasses in Warped Tour mosh pits. “There were moments where I recognized the problematic nonsense but didn’t have the language for it.”

Many of Warped’s most powerful acts are composed of men who sing about their personal torment (often tied up in their relationships with women) to audiences of young girls who idolize them. The difference between this and the boy bands and stars of mainstream pop is the intimacy. The genre depends on an audience that is willing to go all-in.

“Warped Tour has a lot of overt, white male aggression,” said Kira-Lynn Ferderber, an educator who works to make music festivals safer and more inclusive. Ferderber was invited on Warped Tour in 2017 by War on Women, a feminist hardcore band from Baltimore. “Every single day young women would talk to us about sexual violence, some of it at the tour.”

Change in the scene after Warped, according to Sherman, can start with the artists, but it hinges on a younger audience that demands more. “This younger generation is concerned with accountability and making sure they support artists that they can put their hearts behind,” she said.

But art is a vehicle for the stories we tell ourselves. We chart our histories through the songs that accompanied our most sacred moments, and knowing better now offers no path to go back and rewrite.

“The nostalgia on this scene is worthwhile because of the familial aspect and closeness and the treacherous landscape many of us traversed while in these songs,” Abdurraqib said. “The soundtrack can grow to betray you, but the moment won’t.”

At the Warped Tour’s stop at Merriweather Post Pavilion, I caught the final minutes of electronic duo 3Oh!3’s performance. The gray-haired singer lazily sang a few lines from one of the band’s songs — a long joke about comparing the size of his penis with other men’s. Then, he launched into the opening notes of “Don’t Trust Me,” the hit that launched their career.

The crowd went ballistic. All around me, phones went up, and beer rained down. Hungry hands lofted bodies of crowd-surfing girls, who pumped their fists and sang along: “Shush girl, shut your lips. Do the Helen Keller, and talk with your hips.”

I wanted to be disgusted, to condemn everyone involved. Instead, a familiar confusion clouded my chest. I fought the urge to mouth the words.

This is what they’d come here for. It’s what I’d come for, too.