Warped Tour: How emo culture has expanded in inclusivity through the years

If you ask (pretty much) anyone what they think of when they hear the words “Warped Tour,” there’s a 99.9% chance they will formulate some type of scenario including a bunch of sad, white boys with black eyeliner fetishes that are head-banging in the middle of a mosh pit.

And while this may be a pretty accurate depiction, the festival has played a much more important role in the lives of thousands of kids that never really found themselves under the classification of “mainstream.” Dating all the way back to 1995, Vans’ Warped Tour has housed a number of iconic names (Good Charlotte, Eminem, Blink-182, Machine Gun Kelly, Katy Perry, and so much more) and propelled the intertwinement of emo and pop-punk, birthing a culture of its own.

The festival gave both bands and fans alike a place to express themselves in ways that pop culture typically frowned upon. As we say goodbye to the final Warped Tour, I caught up with a few fans at the New York show and talked to them about emo culture, what it means to them, and how its grown in terms of inclusivity through the years.

READ ALSO: Turns out Warped Tour emo style hasn’t really changed since 2006

“To me, being emo can mean a spectrum things as far as style, looks, and sound,” Kris, 22, told me. “But at its core, I think it’s about being open to express usually the harder, sadder, and tough to cope with emotions.”

Kris, who identifies as gender-queer, also explained that they feel, “Emo culture is really evolving to be more inclusive to queer people, people of color, women, and a mixture of all three.” Which wasn’t always the case when alternative music first found its claim to fame in the 1980s.

During the first emergence of the emo scene, many bands weren’t particularly friendly to the LGBTQ+ community, with bands like Sloppy Seconds releasing tracks such as “I Don’t Wanna Be A Homosexual.” Even when we look back on the days of MTV being our only form of watching the new Panic! At the Disco music video, many pop-punk fans used lingo that often demeaned the gay community. “Fag” was a term frequently thrown around as was using the word “gay” to describe things that were “lame.”

Jack, 27, who identifies as a transgender man, feels that the pop-punk movement has spent most of its time flat-out ignoring gay, trans, and non-binary people.

“I think pop music has progressed, but pop-punk has ignored (the LGBTQ+ community),” Jack said. “It’s ironic because punk has always been rebellious music for the outcasts of society, like the band Misfits.”

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However, as we reached the late 2000s, bands began expanding their political awareness. In 2007, Fall Out Boy released a song called, “G.I.N.A.S.F.S,” or in other words, “Gay Is Not Synonym For Shitty.” FOB is also responsible for some more subtly queer tracks, like “Thx Fr Th Mmrs,” where the chorus boasts, “He tastes like you, only sweeter.” Many fans also analyzed anthems like “Bang The Doldrums,” which is rumored to be about a secret relationship between Pete Wentz and Mikey Way of My Chemical Romance.

Pop-punk has also always claimed a large sum of responsibility for gender-bending in terms of fashion. We can certainly thank Pete Wentz and Brendon Urie for making black-eyed makeup look and skinny jeans sexy. To this day, you will still see fans of all genders sporting heavy liner and skin-tight pants with chains hanging off the pockets at these shows.

“My outfit choice was pretty calculated. I wore a loose dark gray tank top with tears in it so I get a nice breeze throughout the long day,” Kris said. “It has a skull on it, writings about a zombie show – very emo.”

One of the more visually noticeable changes that I’ve realized through the years, at Warped Tour specifically, is the growth in numbers of people wearing or holding rainbow flags at shows – something I’ve really only ever seen before at pop events.

This first caught my attention as recently as last year, when I’d photographed a fan in a rainbow cape. I counted even more flags when I returned this year. Though it may not necessarily be an outstanding number, its certainly far beyond what I would have seen years ago.

“I think the rainbow flag is a symbol of pride for your sexuality,” Audrey, 22, who identifies as bi-sexual, explained. “When I see fans bring them to concerts, it means to me that they feel comfortable and accepted in that environment and by that artist.”

“I didn’t even realize people did that, but I would assume it’s just taking pride,” Jack agreed.

This notion may be partially contributed to by the evolution of punk music in general, with newer artists like Princess Nokia bringing new styles and themes to the forefront.

“Emo (music) has kind of disappeared from the forefront, versus how prominent it was around 2009. It is still very much alive though,” Evan, 20 who identifies as gay, told me. “For example, now we have emo music blending genres and styles. This year, Princess Nokia put out an emo rap mixtape, which is something that would have been unheard of 10 years ago. Genres and styles are bending while the principals stay the same.”

Kris also noted Princess Nokia’s mixtape, saying, “I see it crossing into and creating new genres, merging with rap, pop, noise, really anything and it’s really all exciting to me.”

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With new sub-genres like trap music finding a home under the punk label, we’ve seen the community grow more compassionate to a variety of issues, like mental health and drug addiction. After passing of an accidental overdose in late 2017, a rally of support emerged for rapper Lil Peep, who brought an entirely new sound into the punk scene.

Because so many fans connected with themes of suicide and depression in Lil Peep’s music, it seemed as though people found greater empathy for his cause of death, with many taking to social media to acknowledge drug addiction as a serious mental health issue. Though depression may not necessarily be a new theme in punk music, the response to these topics has certainly grown, and the community has become more inclusive because of it.

Although emo culture has often been associated with a negative connotation, it has provided a system of support for so many over its decades of existence. For many, it is a way of life and something that has brought them together with others.

“I think being emo is immersing yourself in a subculture that is more of a way of life. It’s an emotion, a feeling, rather than a specific style,” Evan told me. “When someone says ‘that’s emo,’ they’re usually referring to a style or look, when really it’s more of the emotional inside that ties the community closer together.”

So, as we bid farewell to one of the most iconic festivals in music, we thank it for providing a home to such a wide variety of people, particularly teens, who have needed it the most.

Until next time, Warped Tour!

Photos by Keri Dolan

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