Warped Behavior: Sexual Violence On Tour
Will rape culture derail one of America’s most successful rock festivals?
The Vans Warped Tour has become an American institution. But like many American institutions, it has a problem. That problem is one of sexual violence.
Every summer for the past 21 years, the Vans Warped Tour, universally acknowledged as an itinerant “punk-rock summer camp,” has brought the best, most in-demand alternative music to fairgrounds, arenas, and racetracks all across the country. Artists like Blink-182 and Katy Perry have jump-started their careers on the tour, propelling themselves to TRL-level adulation. The tour also boasts a more diverse bill every year, expanding lately into hip-hop and EDM. Mostly, however, alternative-scene luminaries like NOFX, Every Time I Die, Alkaline Trio, Bad Religion, and The Bouncing Souls continue to anchor this Brobdingnagian tour package.
But over the past half-decade, a handful of alt-scene, so-called “Warped Tour” bands have found themselves accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Musicians have been convicted of crimes, and other bands have been condemned for their apparent advocacy of physical and sexual violence, especially toward women. Of course, the bands and the tour are separate entities, and Warped isn’t legally responsible (moral responsibility is another matter) for the actions of its acts. Nonetheless, it’s tempting to let these scandals color the general perception of the tour. More difficult is untangling the nuances of this new age of opprobrium.
“I’m gonna speak the truth til I die. We saw @botdfmusic Dahvie bring under age [sic] girls to his hotel rooms an [sic] do sexual things. 100% ILLEGAL,” tweeted Jeffree Star. The cotton candy-pink-haired Internet icon, makeup artist, and would-be diva was responding to a 2010 wave of allegations leveled at Dahvie Vanity, founder of the electropop group Blood on the Dance Floor (BOTDF). Vanity, also known as David Jesus Torres, had collaborated with Star on several BOTDF releases, but the two had had a recent falling out. That year, Blood on the Dance Floor played Warped Tour in its entirety.
For his part, Star appeared to be offering some damning testimony to buttress the widespread claims of sexual misconduct continuously made against Vanity over the previous six years. In October 2009, Vanity was arrested in Centennial, Colorado on a charge of first-degree sexual assault for apparently bedding a fifteen-year-old girl.
The charge would end up being retracted, though it was hardly the only allegation of sexual malfeasance to emerge over the past half-dozen years. Pages dedicated to telling the world of Vanity’s suspected criminal behavior abound online. A Tumblr page entitled “The Truth about Dahvie Vanity” has a so-called “allegation roundup” delineating an array of claims against the singer. The roundup is full of jarring screenshots purporting to show texts and tweets from Vanity to young girls. The exchanges are lurid, to say the least.
Then there was the blog post from Ashley Costello, singer of the band New Years Day. The band, also Warped Tour participants, had frequently toured with BOTDF until Costello decided to speak out against Vanity in a lengthy, now-deleted jeremiad, saying, in part: “I have never met a bigger bully in my life. I have never felt so uncomfortable. I have never been physically attached [sic] and abused, until now.”
Costello continued, “Ive [sic] seen girls cry because they have been taken advantage of and made to do things they didnt [sic] want to do. I have seen horrible and disgusting things done by a man on a throne that does not deserve to be there… Showing you [sic] ass to kids? Having kids grab your dick on stage? Telling 12 year olds your [sic] going to come on their faces? Making derogatory comments to me on stage. Hitting fans on the head with equipment? Telling my friends they are band whores ON STAGE because they wont [sic] say into the mic his cum tastes good? Watching the cops get called on tour because he was with someone under the age limit. That is just A TINY TINY TINY TINY portion of [what] I had to watch every night. Not to mention what was done to me and done to so many other girls. It is a fucking disgrace. Its [sic] disgusting.”
Another member of Blood on the Dance Floor, singer Jayy Von Monroe, has been chronicled taunting fans with threats of rape and rape “jokes.”
While the accusations against Dahvie Vanity are a well-publicized example of bad behavior on the tour, they’re but one instance in Warped’s history of showcasing bands that have engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior toward minors. This past January, 23-year-old Jake Mcelfresh, who performs under the moniker Front Porch Step, came under fire when several young women began posting screenshots of text message conversations they had with the singer-songwriter.
“In the last two weeks, a growing number of accusations have surfaced online against Mr. Mcelfresh, 23, asserting that he engaged in inappropriate text message and social media relationships involving at least half a dozen teenage girls, including, in some cases, the exchange of sexually explicit pictures,” the New York Times reported in January. Days before that article was published, Mcelfresh dropped off Warped Tour—thanks in part to a Change.org petition—and announced he was suspending his 2015 tour schedule.
However, the most extreme case of sexual degeneracy with a connection to Warped Tour makes those of Front Porch Step and Blood on the Dance Floor look tame by comparison. In 2012, British rockers Lostprophets spent the full summer on the tour. Several months later, singer Ian Watkins was arrested and charged with a spate of crimes. In November 2013, he pleaded guilty to attempted rape and sexual assault of a child under thirteen.
“Watkins also admitted conspiring to rape a child, three counts of sexual assault involving children, seven involving taking, making or possessing indecent images of children, and one of possessing an extreme pornographic image involving a sex act on an animal,” the BBC said. The singer had, on two different occasions, filmed himself having sex with sixteen-year-old girls. Worse, he had attempted to rape an eleven-month-old baby, which he described as being “mega lolz.” Information regarding the allegations about Watkins might have ostensibly been available, as his ex-girlfriend told police she had attempted to “raise the alarm” on several occasions dating back to 2008.
In addition to these suspicions and proven crimes, Warped Tour has seen its bands come under fire for espousing violence toward women.
“Some bands are so breathtakingly stupid they tumble forward into a kind of genius,” writes Alternative Press’s Phil Freeman, reviewing About That Life, the fifth studio album from “Atlanta deathcore knuckle-walkers Attila.” Sounding like somewhat of an apologist, Freeman writes, “There’s an undercurrent of misogyny that pops up from time to time and threatens to spoil the fun. But if/once you get past lines like ‘punch that bitch,’ you’ll be hoisting beers and throwing fists in the air in no time.”
Atilla’s Warped tour mates, Emmure, also have their own special brand of misogyny, which they sell to fans from behind their merch table every summer. “What self-respecting girl would respond positively to a guy wearing a shirt like this?” writes Robert Pasbani of Metal Injection. Pasbani is talking about Emmure’s and Atilla’s selection of t-shirts, some of which read things like “Keep Calm and Ask Your Girl What My Dick Tastes Like,” and “I Will Find Your Fucking Bitch And Fuck Her Right In Front Of You.”
They’re just t-shirts, you might say. And of course, it’s anybody’s right to sing about domestic assault if they so choose. But why should the women who attend or work on the tour have to contend with such immediate violence and hatred?
“I can assure you none of these matters have been taken lightly,” says Kevin Lyman. “All are dug into thoroughly once they are brought to my attention, which is usually after I book someone, so that should dispel the reason I put them on is because they are controversial.”
If Warped Tour is a giant, punk-rock summer camp, Lyman is the camp’s director. Under his purview are hundreds of musicians, administrators, volunteers, audio engineers, stage managers, roadies, and drivers, all of whom make Warped Tour what it is. Lyman has worked for over two decades to transform Warped Tour from a traveling circus into a cultural movement.
Lately, he’s had to protect the tour in the face of these accusations and aggressive litigation. When Lyman, looking to keep fans from injury and stave off lawsuits, announced in 2013 that bands were no longer allowed to prompt crowds to mosh, form circle pits, or stage the dreaded “wall of death,” he received pushback from fans. “That’s half the fun, the bands encouraging craziness,” a fan tweeted at him. “But in America that leads to many lawsuits, ever sat in one I have been through many, no fun and costly,” Lyman responded.
Kevin Lyman seems beleaguered, always on guard. “If someone wrote some misinformation regarding this I think I might not take it so lightly,” he says. “I read how many false things are thrown at me on a weekly basis.” It may not be fair that Lyman has to face down critics more focused on the bad behavior of bands than on the good Warped Tour strives to do. The tour plays host to non-profit organizations, blood drives, food drives, and environmental initiatives. On off-days, Lyman prompts his staff and artists to volunteer. He’s been awarded for his philanthropy and was cited as Humanitarian of the Year by Billboard in 2009.
“Warped stands for what it always has and does not tolerate artists who do wrong,” he says. “They will be dealt with when there is proof but I cannot judge by the court of the Internet.” It’s well known that Lyman hosts a personnel meeting at the beginning of every touring season where he cautions his staff and bands against any inappropriate interactions with underage fans. Noting a decrease in the age of the average Warped attendee, Lyman has also taken the step of allowing parents into the tour free of charge.
But is Lyman doing enough to discourage the culture of violence threatening to metastasize within the Warped community?
One Warped Tour staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, doesn’t think so. “I think Kevin understands there are a lot of artists on that tour that don’t align with its core beliefs,” she says. “Where does Warped draw the line?” She says she feels “like Warped Tour has educated a lot of people about community and standing up for what you believe in,” but wonders, “when is Warped going to stand up and say, ‘we’re going to educate you [about violence]?’ Just because you’re in a situation with someone you admire doesn’t mean you’re safe.”
This Warped vet understands the responsibility for fans’ safety falls on the artists they’re paying to see, but equivocates when it comes to parsing out matters of intent. She acknowledges that people like Dahvie Vanity and Ian Watkins are sexual predators but insists, “There’s a difference between de facto pedophilia, where [artists are] going after attractive people who happen to be underage, and pedophilia [proper], where they’re preying on children because they’re children. If you’re 20 and you’re into a girl who’s 16,” she asks, “are you into [her] because she’s 16? Is it her youth that attracts you? I don’t think so.”
These bands may not necessarily be attracted to these young girls because of their age, but if these girls weren’t 15 or 16, would they be engaging in the sort of idolatry that forms a mutual attraction between fan and artist? Probably not. And any argument about intent is semantic. Pursuing and engaging in sexual activity with a person who legally isn’t old enough to consent is objectively criminal.
Perhaps Warped Tour’s issue with violence is a problem of community. “Where is #PMA?” the Warped Tour staff member interviewed for this piece wonders. She’s talking about “Positive Mental Attitude,” a hashtag/platitude that pervaded the alternative scene half a decade ago. “I feel like I don’t experience it in the Warped world anymore. The message that was part of Warped Tour has, little by little, been eroded and there is no message anymore.”
“People aren’t coming together to have a conversation about the world around them and how it’s perceived by people living and experiencing an alternative lifestyle. The community is so split up by the violence inside and outside the music. How can the alternative community come together in order to combat violence? The question isn’t whether there’s a problem. Yes, there’s a problem, but the question is, why isn’t anybody addressing it?”
To be clear, the swelling tide of physical and sexual violence in the music industry is not exclusive to Warped (think R. Kelly, Chris Brown, and Ted Nugent). And it’s not Warped Tour’s fault, but it is Warped Tour’s problem. At some point, more aggressive measures against the presence of physical or sexual violence may need to be enacted. At some point, someone’s going to have to take a stand.
Is a pattern of untoward band behavior a reason not to buy a ticket to Warped? No. Is this a problem with most or even a large portion of bands on the tour? Absolutely not. But it’s something to think about next time you’re having difficulty deciding what merch you’re going to spend your money on. If you’re a young girl, maybe you’ll think twice about crowd-surfing or accepting an invitation onto a tour bus.
For now, rock’s biggest circus is still kicking, and every true believer out there, every fan who’s ever walked through a set of festival-ground gates on a hot summer morning, ready to see a collection of his or her favorite bands, clutching a fistful of cash to spend on merch—they’re all rooting for Kevin Lyman and Warped Tour. Warped isn’t too big to fail, but to the rock scene, it’s too damn important.
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