After 25 years, this subculture struggles to define itself
By John Sewell
JULY 24, 2000: Packaged rebellion is nothing new, especially in the world of rock 'n' roll. As far back as the late '60s, corporate record companies were using slogans like, "The Man Can't Bust Our Music" to hype their supposedly counterculture acts. This ad campaign was just the beginning of a marketing schtick that would eventually encompass all aspects of advertising for anything youth oriented.
By the '90s, almost all advertising aimed at the teenage (and younger) market was totally steeped in irony. Grunge chic and anti-establishment rhetoric was used to flog everything from rock bands to breakfast cereal. Thanks to the newly diversified media of cable television and the Internet, even subculture wasn't so underground anymore.
As grunge reached its zenith, Jane's Addiction's Perry Farrell used what remaining brain cells he hadn't already vaporized to come up with a brilliant idea: The Lollapalooza Festival. Lollapalooza was a tour that combined the more adventurous yet commercially successful bands of the time with sideshow performers and leftist politics to present a traveling Woodstock for the '90s. And, for a few years anyway, the tour was the hottest ticket in rockselling out large outdoor venues and establishing a new breed of wilder, weirder mainstream rockers like Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Nine Inch Nails, and others.
Now that the Lollapalooza Festival is no more than a flannel-encrusted memory, The Vans Warped Tour has filled the void as the biggest and best alterna-toura make-or-break opportunity for bands and products to come in contact with their target audience: "the kids." Since 1994, the yearly event has successfully combined extreme sports and rock bands that usually fall somewhere in the punk spectrum to create a marketer's dream.
Essentially the punker's version of Lollapalooza, Warped has come to symbolize the commodification of punk. And in the Catch-22 sphere of punk subculture, mass success indicates failure. So there has been predictable criticism of Warped and how it has exploited the punk scenewhich is ripe for the pickingto sell athletic shoes and create a watered-down, "extreme" marketing niche. Yet punk bands still covet a slot on the tour because exposure equals sales, and that's the name of the game, baby.
"The Warped Tour is like capitalism with the gloves offthere's no padding whatsoever," says Tim Barry, lead vocalist for Avail, a band featured on this year's tour that had been previously been lauded for its uncompromising DIY stance.
"I fully understand people's negative ideas about it. Last year when we did it, it hit me pretty hard. It's total commodity-core. I mean, everybody's pushing some kind of product. It seems like all of the biggest bands that draw people to this event have already got huge sponsorship. And a lot of people perceive that as negative.
"For that matter, people perceive any corporate influence on music as being negative," continues Barry. "I really did, especially when I was younger. But it flips both ways: it's beneficial for bands to get that kind of massive exposurenew people can hear your music.
"And on this tour there's so many good bands. It'll be nice to be able to introduce tons of kids, in one day, to bands they've never heard like Snapcase or Hot Water Music. That's rad. So you can flip-flop on it."
Negative response to Warped reached its peak last year, when the tour featured controversial artists Eminem and Blink 182 as its most prominent acts. Tristin Laughter, publicist for Berkeley's Lookout Records label, spearheaded an expose on Warped that became the cover story for the summer 1999 issue of Punk Planet. The piece featured articles by Laughter, Punk Planet editor Dan Sinker, and Spin magazine writer Charles Aaron.
"I was motivated to write that article for Punk Planet critiquing last year's Warped Tour specifically because the headlining bands [Blink 182 and Eminem] are really the two that I think most typify the kind of hatred towards women that is so pervasive in music todayeven in so-called punk music." says Laughter. "I did the article because those bands are such flagrant examples of an attitude that is so not subversive or critical or alternative. And then that led me to critique the whole endeavor, which seemed in many ways to be misleading or false.
"Last year was a really poignant year because of the bands at the Warped Tour and because of the events at Woodstock, with the rapes that happened there," Laughter continues. "I think a lot of people were motivated to complain because of all of that."
Laughter was also motivated by members of Blink 182 using the Warped Tour stage as a conduit for pornography. "The heinous thing about Blink 182 is that they went on the Howard Stern show and said, 'We're gonna be photographing girls' tits for Playboy magazine from the Warped stage.' And to me that was so wrong. Because I've always had really passionate feelings about punk rock: It really formed me and changed me and shaped me. Punk is something that I care about and I resent what Blink 182 is doing.
"The Warped Tour was originally conceived as a punk mega tour. But bands like the Dead Kennedys or Fugazithey wouldn't be playing with someone like Eminem: an artist who writes songs about drugging a girl at a party and then raping her. Punk is a romanticized movement, and most people that have been involved in it feel really passionately about it. And, as a feminist and a punk rocker, I felt like speaking out."
Laughter is not nearly as critical of this year's Warped outing, which features friendlier, more tolerant acts such as Green Day and NOFX. She also realizes that the event is an important springboard to greater exposure, even for bands with more politically correct agendas than those featured on last year's tourlike Avail, a band once publicized by Laughter.
"Avail has a lot to say that is important and urgent," says Laughter. "And for them to play the Warped Tour could really change a kid's life. That may sound grandiose, but I think it's true. If there's something in the mix of Warped that's important for a kid to see, that makes going to the show important. And for a band to be involved in a bigger marketing opportunitythat gives a band like Avail a chance to connect with young fans who might not know about them."
Sure, this year's Warped Tour is a more PC face of the commercialized world of punk. But, almost 25 years into its existence as a rigidly defined subculture, can punk transcend the marketing and still be a valid youth movement? That's debatable.
"Punk rock bores the living shit out of me," says Avail's Barry. "The attitudes that revolve around the very clique-y scenester types whose first intention is to always criticize people really bugs me. I don't consider myself to be a punk. I used to, years ago.
"But being called punk means that you're kind of instantly pigeonholed into some kind of a mindset that we didn't create for ourselves. I completely distance myself from the punk rock handbook that says what you can and can't say and do. It's just all a crock of shit at this point as far as I'm concerned."
Nonetheless, Avail rose from the punk scene, and that involvement played a major role in shaping the band. Barry says that the financial reality of being in a band is often a far cry from the idealized notions presented by punk pundits. "For a lot of people, anarchy means 'Don't pay the bands,'" he says, laughing. "I mean, what the heck is that?
"When people criticize Avail for anythingplaying Warped, playing at a club that they think is too big, for our music, our personalities, who they think we are or whatever, we just have to ask ourselves: Do we really care? We make our decisions on our own. Going on something as big as the Warped Tour, you know you're gonna get criticism. It doesn't really matter where the criticism is coming from."
Laughter is a little less critical of the subculture as a whole, still believing that involvement in punk can be a life-changing experience. "I know that punk can still have a dramatic effect, especially for teenagers," she says. "Punk has always been a feeling of alienation and differentness and separation. And it's also been a politicized critique of mainstream culture in a lot of cases.
"It [punk] speaks most powerfully to the young. And that affection for the music and the message can live on forever. There's just something about late adolescence that is so inexpressible. And the anger and sexuality of punk rock just expresses that perfectly."
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