In this column, Shawna Potter of War on Women documents their run on the Vans Warped Tour.
Activist burnout is real. Sometimes we forget why we started doing the work in the first place. You can feel defeated, like your small, singular contribution isn't doing enough, so why not just quit? Why keep going? And, as armchair activists and trolls alike tend to wonder in ALL CAPS at you, why do it at all? Why are you even there? If you hate the festival/job/city/country you're in, why don't you just leave?
To critique something, to me, implies a love for it; a desire for it to improve shows an investment. Sure, complaining seems to come easily to everyone, but I don't think the women and girls and young trans folks that approach us every day on Vans Warped Tour are complaining when they say they wish more bands took a stand on issues that matter to them; when they thank us for being a voice for marginalized groups; for shouting out trans rights, shining a light on rape culture, and calling out sexual harassers; for mentioning that the "77 cents on the dollar" gender wage gap figure that we're all familiar with is incomplete because it does not include women of color, who make even less. Those conversations help to keep us moving forward. But it does get hard. When you've had a bad show or small, unreceptive audience, or when people you think should "get it" just don't, or when entire sections of the internet cry "free speech!" as a way to silence yours.
So why are we here? Why do we show up? Well, I asked some artists and fans on the Warped Tour why, with all the criticism of festivals like Warped Tour, they continue show up. Here's what they had to say…
"I think we show up because, if we didn't show up, then that would just be us being like, 'Oh yeah, we're defeated. Clearly we can't make a stand in this industry.' I think it would be shit if we were like, 'No, let's not turn up.' We all need to group together and make a stand for women in punk, women in any genre of music. If we back down, then it's never gonna get any better, the gender gap is never gonna close. So I think that's the main reason why we show up. We need to keep showing up, we need to keep fighting these fires rather than just letting them grow."
—Hannah Greenwood, Creeper
"It's really powerful to have someone on a stage say the word 'abortion' over and over again, with how much stigma there is. I honestly almost cried, it meant a lot. This is my first Warped Tour in ten years and I can't imagine what it would have meant to me and my friends to have that kind of thing, to have feminism introduced to me that early [at a festival] that's considered so cool. It's really fucking rad!"
—Jessica, attendee in Pittsburgh
"Going forward, I'd like for all festivals to be as inclusive as possible, and to see a lot more representation of different races and gender—male, female, transgender people being completely welcome. At the moment, I don't know if that's true. When you have a big rock festival in the UK, if you take away all the bands that are all male and all white, it's just a blank poster. I don't know, it's complicated. I'm Pakistani, and in my school, Pakistani girls weren't allowed to be in a band. At the same time, as a Pakistani woman, when I play these kinds of festivals, I never feel threatened, but I do look around and go, 'Where is everybody else?' Why is that? I honestly don't have the answer to that, why it is, but I know it's a combination of a few things that are being addressed by bands like War On Women, and our band Sonic Boom Six, Bad Cop/Bad Cop. We're all talking about it, but for me race is a big thing as well. At festivals, it's mostly white middle class men. I think talking about it is the way forward, letting people know they're welcome, educating people. It's a big conversation, a complicated conversation, where people need to be prepared to listen, and take on board other people's opinions, because everyone is different. And I don't know if we'll ever get there, unfortunately, but as as long as people keep talking about it, keep writing lyrics, and keep representing women/trans/gay/different races, that's all we can do."
—Laila Khan, Sonic Boom Six
"We played Warped Tour years back, we've known Kevin [Lyman, Warped Tour founder] since the 80s. Everything I've seen him do and try to build with this tour early on, I always thought was amazing. It was a lot of bands helping other bands, bands intermingling and getting to know bands you never met before. Those things are important, you know? Even now, they are.
The first day I was here on this tour, I saw this band walk by, they had makeup and all this stuff and I was kinda like, 'Ugh'… and they're the nicest people I've met on this whole tour and I like their band! So for me, it teaches me not to prejudge because there's a lot going on that I don't know about as an older punk rock guy. So, there's been a lot of eye-opening stuff this year for me. That's one of them, and I like Kevin's sense of community on that.
Now, there was a period of years that we weren't involved in Warped Tour, the last seven or eight years we haven't done anything, and I think that's when a lot of the bad press he was getting was coming around, so a lot of it I don't know about other than what I've read. [Abusive or harassing behavior/sexism] is a bad thing to happen out here. I've been reading your articles and the fact that [War On Women] came on with the Safer Scenes thing, and to try and open people's eyes to that, and that Kevin wants that there, to me… I think he gets a bad rap from people that think that he doesn't care about anything like that. I think he does. I think Kevin's got a big heart and does care about stuff like that. And that's a way he can go about trying to change that.
The Dickies thing… To see how our age group, our punk community, responded to that? I wanted to turn in my punk card, you know what I mean? It was disheartening. The whole thing of 'punk rock's never been safe,' that's bullshit, first of all. Second of all, the punk rock I got into in LA, it was all artists, it wasn't like thugs when we first started out. And I always feel bad because all these suburban kids kinda came in with us, and they all got pushed out. Then it was bands that didn't say anything. If there's a fight when we're playing, we stop. I don't want that to happen, but a lot of bands just go, 'Hey, I'm not the police for punk rock.' I think bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi with Ian, with what was happening over on the East Coast, people were saying, 'Hey, we can make a difference and we can change things.' It's sad that that had to happen to open our eyes to certain things, but in a way I think it's good that it opened a dialogue for people to talk about it, except it just showed most of our generation to be way off the mark on it."
—Steve Soto, The Adolescents
"It's been called punk rock summer camp, and it totally is! It's like a world's fair of people that are working really hard to make whatever music they're making right now. It's like a slice of the earth. It's cool to meet these people, 'cause we don't even know each other exists! To work with people that are professionals in the business, to get the opportunity to move to a bigger pot, you'll just be a stronger plant. It's great exposure, too. Most of the line at our merch tent is people saying 'I've never heard of you guys,' which is exactly what we want to hear!
We had done [Warped Tour] two years ago and we were like, 'What is this? Who are we in this universe?' and we were irrelevant. But there's been a serious interest from Kevin and his team's side to integrate older music, more analog music, with what younger people like. It's awesome. It's like a gift, and it is really hard, but it's totally worth it."
—Jenny Cotterill, Bad Cop/Bad Cop
"I think that, for a long time, Warped Tour's been a bit of a boys club perhaps, and things have been changing slightly on this tour. We've got lots of women on this tour. And so it's no surprise to me that this thing with the Dickies has happened because this year we've got people telling 'em to fuck off when someone is being a misogynist asshole. This is the first year with this many women [performing], so many female punks on the tour, I think it's a good thing. You'll always have that backlash with any sort of fight like this. It's a part of what you're doing, you'll have someone attacking straight back. So it's really important to show up."
—William Gould, Creeper
And when I asked Chris #2 and Justin Sane of Anti-Flag, a quick answer turned into a full conversation…
Chris #2: Anti-Flag, I see, as a band of optimists. So we look at every situation that we enter as: What is the good that can come out of it? We don't walk into situations saying, "Here's the pile of shit, it's only a pile of shit." We've done 11 Warped Tours and consistently people come up to us and say, "Hey, I saw you at that show, and it had xyz impact on me" and we can go through the list, we can talk about kids that work for the ACLU now, kids that have become lawyers, [ turns to Justin Sane] who's that dude in Milwaukee? He's a federal judge now. And these are people that come up to us at Warped Tour, and not only do they say that, in the same breath they say, "And the last time I saw you was the last time you were on Warped Tour." And you have this conversation with them, "Well, sir, we were in your town in January, where were you?" [ Laughs] and there's all these things that keep them from that show, but [for Warped] "the cost is right, there's enough bands, so it got me out of the house and I saw you and I was a part of it." That's an interaction that maybe War On Women doesn't get because this is your first ever Warped Tour, but because we've banged our heads against the wall as many times as we have, we've seen the cracks in it and there's light on the other side and we're like, "this works."
Is it the move Propagandhi would do? I don't think so, but at the same time, we can't live in an existence where it's like, "Oh, the way you do it is the right way, the way you do it is the wrong way." This thing has a lot of fluid to it. We're using art to change people's minds. It's not like Chuck Berry had a plan, you know? He just wanted to play rock 'n' roll music, and at some point we're just a fucking rock band and we wanna play rock 'n' roll music and there's people here and we're gonna tell them what we think. And sometimes they're waiting to see Attila, and they gotta hear us first. That's a good day for us.
Justin Sane: If you're not here, your voice isn't here. We're a band that has always looked at the opportunities that were presented in front of us and said to ourselves, "What can we do with this opportunity? Can we do something that we feel is worthwhile in this space that makes it worth entering this space?" Sometimes that choice we make as a result of that leaves people thinking, "Wow, they did something really cool!" And other times it leaves people feeling critical towards us. But I know that after the invasion of Iraq, we were one of the only bands here saying this war isn't about liberation, this war is not about weapons of mass destruction, this war is about corporations enriching themselves off of the blood of American soldiers and Iraqis. And at that time, we were like a voice in the fucking wilderness out here.
Chris #2: There wasn't even fucking American Idiot yet! [Laughs]
Justin Sane: But I know that as time passes by, we've had people that come to us and say, "That was the first time I heard that point of view, that was the first time anyone made me think about that idea," and as it turns out, revisionist history, everybody's like, "Oh, that's what I thought" but that's not how it was at the time.
Chris #2: And it certainly didn't feel like that when we were hanging an upside-down American flag in 2002 on Warped Tour, which was the first Warped Tour post September 11th, and there were people putting in mouth guards who were there to fight [us] every day. You can talk to some of the security folks about what they had to deal with because those same guys are here [working], and that's the same guy that drives around with an American flag [on his] truck! He's our dude, he loves America, but at the same time when shit was going down, he was right there with us. So I think there's a lot of moments where you can be like, "OK, today we lost. Today, the shit won." You're out there just like, "Well, this one is really hard." But again, it's an opportunity for us to be in front of people who we wouldn't be in front of. We've always taken that opportunity.
Justin Sane: And I think it's so easy for people to stay on the sidelines and criticize a band or an artist who tries to go on Warped Tour and use it as an opportunity to say something. So few of those people are doing fuck all. All they're doing is getting on some social media platform and talking shit on you. I know through our experience, this is a place we've had an opportunity to reach out to some people and make them think about some things that they'd never thought about before in their lives. I'm not saying that we change the world here, I think there are a lot of flaws in the Warped Tour, but I feel like it's been an opportunity to bring some good into the world. So for that reason, I feel good about the times that we've been here. I feel like it's like everything else we've exploited for good in our lives: we've taken a shitty thing and done the best that we could with it to do something good.
And as for War On Women, why do we do it? For the young trans boy figuring out who he is, who tells us he finds affirmation in our support of trans rights; for the people who have had abortions and are glad to hear the word said out loud; for the woman who just left an abusive relationship and said she finds strength in our lyrics; and for the nervous, crying woman who says we're the reason she's majoring in Women and Gender Studies in college. Without Vans Warped Tour, these folks might not have ever heard of us, and we might never have had the honor of meeting them.
The voice of the oppressor is not the only voice out there. At a festival where they are not relying on us for ticket sales, we have nothing to lose by standing firm in our belief of anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-transphobia and anti-homophobia, and letting folks know they have choices. They don't have to support bands that don't support them. There are other bands out here that have your back and that fight for you, whether you know it or not. Either way, we'll keep fighting.
(Lead photo via Sedition.)