Last Friday morning, huge crowds of people descended on the BB&T Pavilion in Camden to bid goodbye to a beloved summer tradition: the Vans Warped Tour. On its last leg, the Warped Tour drew fans of all kinds. Some, who had faithfully attended year after year, were decked out in fishnets and 10-year-old band T-shirts soaked in nostalgia. Others, much younger and there for the first time, stood out in colorful cropped tops and body glitter. There were even a few families sprinkled in there, wearing matching death metal T-shirts.
The Warped Tour is stopping its cross-country tours after this summer. Known for bringing such bands as Blink-182 and Fall Out Boy to thousands for 23 years, it started as a skate punk and third-wave ska tour in 1995 before blowing up into a huge annual event that gave many up-and-coming punk and rock bands a chance to curate their fan bases. Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman has cited declining ticket sales, fewer bands, and exhaustion as reasons for ending the punk rock festival.
As I stood in line for my first Warped Tour experience, I thought about how, in middle school, I was always envious of my classmates who were allowed to attend and brought back stacks of CDs that supplied them with a year's worth of songs for angst-filled mixes. I was convinced that attending the Warped Tour was a sweaty rite of passage people had to go through in order to call themselves punk kids. I wanted to be a part of this crowd that was definitely too cool for a girl without any piercings and who read books during school lunches. I wanted to feel the bass thudding in my chest during an All Time Low set.
But now that I was finally here after 10 years, it became clear that, in some ways, I had outgrown the punk movement. When I went home a few weeks ago, I couldn't even find the ratty pair of Vans that I wore to school every day.
It seemed as if even as I grew up, the punk scene stayed largely the same, even as fan bases aged out and band members started having children of their own. There were groups of youngsters vaping in denim cutoffs and cropped tops, and groups of twentysomethings eyeing them skeptically. Puffs of pot smoke floated above the lines and bands passed out CDs — a throwback in the age of Spotify — for a few bucks apiece. But they weren't getting very much interest; it's much easier to look up a band on a streaming service these days. After getting past security, groups of friends purchased schedules for $2 apiece and huddled over them with highlighters, negotiating for the bands they wanted to see.
Tiphani Taylor, a 21-year-old lifeguard from Trenton, told me that although she had grown up listening to such bands as Sleeping with Sirens and Mayday Parade, her parents never allowed her to come to the Warped Tour.
"When I heard that this was the last one, I knew I definitely needed to come," Taylor said. "I asked a friend to secretly buy a ticket for me."
She told me that she was looking forward to seeing We the Kings, the band behind "Check Yes Juliet," one of my personal middle school anthems, and Simple Plan. As Taylor was talking to me, a group of high school girls in crochet tops walked by. She looked at them with a mixture of incredulity and wariness.
"Who are they even here to see?" Taylor asked me. "This isn't Coachella. Warped is like the day that people who are dead inside get together. They're not even wearing any black!"
For many, attending the last Warped Tour ever was a badge of honor. Mary Stepp, a 57-year-old from Kensington, was there for the first time with her 37-year-old daughter, Sarah Carlin, and her 13-year-old grandson.
"It's pretty sophisticated now," Stepp, who was wearing a Ramones T-shirt, marveled as she watched crew members set up for a set. "I came because I needed the street cred, and even though I don't know a lot of the bands that play now, I like a lot of what this movement is."
Carlin, who grew up listening to rock and punk because of her mom, went to her first Warped Tour in 1996 and came back every year for 12 years, until she became too busy to carve out that time each summer.
"Back then it really was just a couple of skate ramps and a stage," she said. "But it's grown so much. I'm so glad I was able to bring my son to see it before it goes away for good."
The fans weren't the only ones feeling nostalgic about Warped Tour. Many of the bands took time to acknowledge how big of a role the tour had played in allowing them to continue their careers as musicians for as long as they had. It gave them the opportunity to connect with fans again and again each year in a really direct way, as they released new albums.
"There is nothing else in the world like the Warped Tour," Derek Sanders, the frontman of Mayday Parade, said during their set. "When I heard this was the last one, I thought to myself, 'How amazing would it be if Blink-182 played the last Warped Tour?' But that didn't happen." (Unsurprising, because many of the bands that had made the Warped Tour what it was have since grown out of it or broken up.)
As I spent the day drifting between stages and dancing to the bands I loved 10 years ago, I was surprised that I remembered the lyrics to songs I hadn't heard in ages. I learned that the start of a mosh pit at a punk show looks terrifyingly like the start of a huge fight. I watched teenagers light cigarettes that they had smuggled into the venue in their bras and laughed when ambitious crowd surfers were captured by security guards. I realized that I'll always feel at home with my fellow punk rock fans, no matter how old I get.
As the day ended, it was with a bittersweetness that these people bid goodbye to the Warped Tour, where so many coming-of-ages happened in the form of learning that there is strength in being a little different.