Walking into Australia’s first ever Download Festival feels like being hurtled back in time. It’s an emo playground: an inflatable church is staging goth weddings, some poor bastard in a dog costume poses for snaps with punters, there’s a VIP section called The Crypt, and market stalls spruik band memorabilia, hats, sunnies and ‘bohemian’ clothing.
Even the festival’s name is a time capsule, bringing back memories of waiting six hours for a single AFI song to download on Kazaa and hoping it was the real deal, not a recording of Bill Clinton’s voice. The earnestness of it all is overwhelming, whether it’s people reliving their angsty teen years, or dreadlocked Limp Bizkit fans who still think Fred Durst is the closest thing we’ll ever get to a second coming.
In some ways Download feels deeply inclusive: everyone’s smiling, I don’t see any dudes being creepy and I hear grown adults raving about their favourite bands in ways that recall the fervour of adolescence. It feels like a community, like all the outcasts from high school have teamed up to create something kind of beautiful: a weird oasis where the only currency is weed and the only necessary form of communication is throwing up the horns.
But there’s something else underneath it all, too. It’s impossible to talk about emo, punk and metal in 2018 without talking about their many problems. In the past few months, each scene has had to deal with its own particular reckoning. Third-wave emo was hit hardest, long time fans finally airing their issues with its deeply rooted misogyny and treatment of young women, especially considering its fanbase largely consists of this very demographic.
For the most part Download feels like a welcoming space, but this troubling undercurrent is always there, from the odd punter in sexist clothing, to Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland appearing on stage in literal blackface, to the fact that only five bands on the lineup (out of 28) have non-male members. Only one band is made up entirely of women. It’s fun to don a Social Distortion t-shirt and relive my punk/emo adolescence, but viewing it all through the eyes of my feminist adult self pinpoints just how fucked the things I once loved actually are.
The only all-woman band, California’s Bad Cop/Bad Cop, is easily one of the best of the day, their short, sharp songs recalling the early 2000s pop punk bands like Halo Friendlies with their perfectly synced harmonies. Bassist Linh Le is wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words GENDER IS OVER as her proud mother snaps photos from side of stage, and the band dedicates a song to “anyone who’s ever felt marginalised for their gender or sexual orientation – fuck that shit”. Watching the band, I think about how life-changing seeing a fellow Vietnamese woman on stage singing these words would have been to my I’m-not-like-other-girls teenage self. The nostalgia crowd is in full force all throughout the day and Good Charlotte knows it, playing mostly from their 2002 record The Young and the Hopeless. As I clutch an overpriced Smirnoff Double Black in homage to my youth (spoiler: they’re still bad) and sing along to “Little Things”, I remember buying Good Charlotte’s first album in Year 7 for $19.99 at Kmart and hiding under the blankets alone with a Discman. My heart swells a little as I shout the same words now, only this time I’m surrounded by thousands of other people.
But hearing them play songs like “My Bloody Valentine”, a ‘romantic’ (read: creepy) song about a jealous dude killing a woman’s boyfriend to be with her, is discomfiting. Even as I sing along to lyrics I’ve known for sixteen years, I feel a strange discord between my past and present. I can see the issues in this music now; how haven’t these forty-year-old men moved past this toxic sadboy garbage yet?
It’s reassuring that some teenage favourites still hold up. Prophets of Rage are a supergroup comprising members of Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy, but they basically play a Rage covers set, and that’s quite alright with the crowd. We need protest bands more than ever, and the music holds up: “Testify,” “Take the Power Back,” “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing In the Name” all hold as much power now as they did in the nineties, with B-Real and Chuck D’s vocals adding further fire. When Tom Morello turns his guitar around to reveal an Indigenous flag, I remember what it was about Rage that felt so revolutionary to me as a teenager –– their ability to express anger, and demand change from a broken world. I feel good knowing what they’re still doing for teens today, in all their different forms. Rage might sound better than ever, but NOFX definitely don’t: their sex jokes and obnoxious banter sound tired now. After a singalong to “Linoleum,” we amble out, listening to Korn singing “Freak on a Leash” in the background.
Download might be a fun throwback to Soundwave and emo's glory days, but it's also a stark portrait of the glaring problems that still exist within heavy music. I grew up in this scene; it’ll always be a part of me, but as much as Download is a trip down memory lane, it’s also a concrete reminder that these scenes still have a long way to go.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a writer from Melbourne. Follow her on Twitter.