Before Jake McElfresh, who performs under the name Front Porch Step, performed at Warped Tour’s Nashville stop on July 1st, he was given a lengthy introduction.
“This is Warped Tour, and the reason why we come here because we are the outcasts, we are the fuck ups, and we are the people that the outside world will tell us that we cannot be. This is evidence that we can be who the fuck we want to be.”
This description was met with cheers and praise, but the notion is hauntingly condemning for the safety of the musical community which surrounds the tour. By giving McElfresh a platform, even if it was only for 20 minutes, and by defending so vehemently his right to said platform, it is apparent that this community, by and large, is more interested in defending the comfort of an alleged pedophile than it is in creating a welcome and safe space for its members.
As Anna Acosta stated in her “Breakup Letter to Vans Warped Tour”,
“Not all transgressions ought to be forgiven, and not all wounds should be allowed to heal—not while the thing that caused them is pushed under the rug and considered acceptable. There are mistakes and then there is negligence. Cruelty. I cannot continue to support a culture that intentionally mistakes one for another.”
We can reasonably place this scene within the “punk” subculture, whether or not many of the community’s artists match up to the stylistic constraints of the genre. In his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning Of Style, Dick Hebdige defined punk as a youth-based movement with music at the center. He said, “Subcultures are expressive forms, but what they express is in the last instance a fundamental tension between those in power and those condemned to subordinate positions.” (132).
The question we have to answer in this iteration of the punk movement is the direction in which that “tension” is directed. As it turns out, the idea that punk communities are built up to protect “outcasts” and “fuck ups” does not paint the whole picture. At this point and time, the scene has been built up to protect abusers from victims. This conflicts with Hebdige’s summation of the punk movement because these men hold the position of power; the women they harass or assault do not.
But Warped Tour 2015 finished its run nearly a month ago. Why are we still talking about it? The fact of the matter is that Warped Tour has significance in the alternative rock scene. For the past two decades, the traveling festival has provided a way for fans to catch a sizable portion of the subculture’s most popular acts in one chaotic swoop. While a visit to a single stop will reveal a diverse group of people, the significance of the tour is perhaps most weighty for the youngest of its attendees.
For these fans, this event is a cultural epicenter: a place where a community normally accessed via the Internet suddenly takes tangible form. It’s an incredible and intimidating transition. However, like most cultural microcosms, Warped Tour is far from an infallible physical representation of our scene. In fact, it’s becoming clear that many of the decisions made by Kevin Lyman and the Warped Tour team, and the pervading attitudes of many of the tour’s performers and attendants, are inflicting actual harm.
If Warped Tour is a central part of this community, then it’s clear from the festival’s most recent round that this scene is not open nor is it safe. After Kevin Lyman insisted that Jake McElfresh, who was known to have engaged in sexual activities with underage women, would not be appearing at any of the festival’s dates, Front Porch Step gave a performance on the Nashville date’s Acoustic Basement stage. When McElfresh was heckled by a angry attendant, the songwriter started in on a speech about how “proud” he was to be himself. From the platform he was awarded by Lyman, McElfresh confidently asserted his right to a position of power in the scene.
In the weeks following Front Porch Step’s appearance, Kevin Lyman took to Twitter and made it clear that he wasn’t so interested in being open to conflicting viewpoints on his decision to allow McElfresh to perform (something that was apparently part of his therapy). He also spoke to Billboard about his decision, downplaying the severity of McElfresh’s actions as though they had inflicted no damage upon anyone (“The kid got himself in a little trouble”).
Jake McElfresh was given a platform, and there was to be no honest or helpful discussion about it. What does this say about our scene? Perhaps more importantly, what does this say to our scene’s young and impressionable members? Punk was originally a youth-oriented movement, and, even if this definition is no longer completely accurate, it stands to reason that the kids in these crowds will soon enough be standing on those stages. We take this for granted.
A good portion of the scene’s rising acts have members under 21 years old, and they bring with them ideas that permeate their experiences in the scene—that consent is negotiable, that positions of power can be abused for their own gain, and that many fans and authorities alike will take the abuser’s side rather than confront the idea that the person behind their favorite song is a bad person. Because being an “outcast” can mean that you don’t fit in or that you’ve violated someone’s safety and comfort.
These are ideas that don’t just plague Warped Tour, they’re imbued upon the very fabric of the community, with new, rising acts being accused of sexual misconduct week after week. McElfresh’s appearance was just a heavy reinforcement of these toxic ideals.
Unfortunately, this has become the state of the scene, and women bear the brunt of the harmful environment much more than men. It’s a vicious cycle; as abusers are defended at the scene’s central events, young fans will take what they see and carry it on into the next iteration of the scene, and then it all happens again.
But we can break this cycle if we refuse to let these incidents be swept under the rug, amplify the voices of those who yearn for progress and safety within our scene and, as a culture, come to terms with the power of events like Warped Tour and fight to make them safer spaces.
I would like to note that I am a white male, and thus not in the position to speak personally on the oppression of women within this scene.
As such, I would like to take this opportunity to amplify the voices of women who have spoken out about this situation and whose voices are more important than my own on this subject:
#BoycottWarpedTour: A Businessman Never Changes His Spots by Kelly Doherty
A Breakup Letter to Vans Warped Tour by Anna Acosta
Warped Tour’s Woman Problem by Megan Seling
Pop Punk and Feminism: Victim Blaming by Kayla St. Onge and Jono Diener