Warped Tour’s Warped Legacy
Content warning: grooming, mentions of sexual assault
March 3, 2023
In 2015 I met one of my favorite pop punk bands at Vans Warped Tour, a traveling music festival for alternative acts. I was only 12 at the time, so I honestly do not remember much of the interaction. I do remember that I was so excited to meet artists I admired, and I laughed with them as they debated how to sign my black shirt. They eventually settled on a silver Sharpie and we took a picture before moving along with our days. Looking at this picture now, the divide between them and me is stark: I was a young girl with chubby cheeks, grown men towering over my short frame.
Months later, the lead singer of this band followed me on Instagram. I was surprised; I knew he did not remember meeting me, and the following seemingly came out of nowhere. I soon understood his intentions when my DM’s were flooded with flirty messages. He continuously slid up on my stories to call me beautiful, comment on my body, and leave a trail of fire emojis in his wake. Part of me was flattered—a man whose music I loved thought I was pretty. But I also knew that something was deeply wrong. Why was this man hitting on a girl 15 years younger than him?
I never really entertained him, but that did not stop him from trying. Through my high school years he continued to contact me, view my stories, and like my posts. Maybe he doesn’t know I’m so young, I tried to reason, wanting to preserve the idea that the people I looked up to had to be good because I wanted them to be. But even if I was not young, what gave him the right to unceasingly sexualize me? I soon realized that I could not control the actions of public figures, and he in fact did not deserve the benefit of the doubt. He watched me post as I attended prom, graduated, and began college; he knew my age, and he just did not care.
The truth is, many of the celebrities we look up to are not the idols we want them to be—especially within the alternative and punk music spheres. Sexual assault is a rampant problem within the music industry, where (generally) male artists are able to wield their power, age, and status over younger fans for their own sexual gain. Warped Tour, which ended in 2018, was a longstanding breeding ground for grooming and sexual misconduct; in fact, it was the nation’s longest running music festival. For decades, male artists, armed with raw, emotional lyrics, were able to use their perceived vulnerability and stardom to connect with fans and give them a false sense of security. Throughout the country, these artists were given relatively free range to engage with, and at times groom, fans. Warped Tour’s founder, Kevin Lyman, even said in a Billboard interview that sexual assault is “part of the culture.” Lyman also allowed Jake McElfresh—operating under the stage name Front Porch Step—to continue performing on the tour even after allegations of sexual relations with minors emerged.
But McElfresh is not the only one to abuse his power. Other popular alternative bands including Sorority Noise, Brand New, Pinegrove, and SWMRS have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, including interactions with fans and minors. I can only imagine how many stories are left untold. While Warped Tour has ended, these injustices persist: a result of a broader culture of sexual exploitation and patriarchy in society. Especially within alternative music spaces—which garner many young and vulnerable outsiders—the propensity for abuse of power is widely tangible. The rampant predatory behavior is especially abhorrent within a community that is supposedly progressive and inclusive of those on the fringes of society.
Around a month ago, the band member who continuously harassed me posted a lengthy statement regarding being allegedly catfished and blackmailed. He claimed that he had been engaging in sexual conversations with someone on Instagram, when it turned out to be a fake profile. This profile tried to force him to send them money or else they would tell the world he sent explicit photos to a minor. The musician asserted that he asked for the woman’s age when they were talking, and that the idea of being with a young girl was “disgusting” and made him “sick to his stomach.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity and irony of the situation, scrolling through years of messages I have that prove otherwise.
His band broke up years ago, though he still performs and produces as a solo act, his influence enduring. It is a reminder to me that being a man with even an ounce of fame comes with immense power—power that is often misused. I hope that through this article, I am able to shed light on how pervasive this issue is, especially within music scenes. And, to survivors of any form of sexual abuse, I want you to know that you have all of my love and support—today and always.