My Chemical Romance had just finished the first song of its set--the catchy, sneering anthem of angst "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)"--when limp bodies started floating to the front of the crowd and collapsing into the arms of security guards.
"OK, OK, everybody, take three steps back," lead singer Gerard Way said, trying to maintain his calm as security scrambled to catch the fans, trembling and red-faced and gasping for breath. As they kept coming, Way changed his mind. "Actually, take four steps back. I know I'm fucking hot," he joked, "but you need to back up."
It was 5 p.m., and the cocktail of sweat-soaked bodies and Texas heat had created a pocket of suffocation inside the massive crowd. "You just couldn't breathe in there," one woman told me later while fanning herself. We met after the security guard set her down in the photo pit, and she fell right on top of me, choking and too weak to walk. Heat radiated from her body, the kind of hot air that bursts from a dishwasher when it's first cracked open.
Close to You
Eventually, Way recovered with the aplomb of someone newly settled by sobriety or, more likely, who's been through this before. After a tongue-in-cheek cover of the Carpenters' "Close to You," the band soldiered on with a polished, energetic set--but a summer on the Vans Warped Tour would school anyone in the perils of megaheat and crowd control. Once a smaller niche festival for skater punks and tattooed freaks, Warped has ballooned into the summer ticket for teenagers both Mohawked and tank-topped.
There is nothing particularly punk about Spin cover boys My Chemical Romance--a rock band that wears makeup, worships anime and performs gothic songs about love and self-hatred--but as emo and hardcore bands continue to capture the under-18 crowd, punk's presence in the Vans Warped Tour dwindles. (Most embarrassing evidence of Warped's non-punk status: The Punk Rock Museum, a hut of art photography and "authentic zines" where kids can learn about the Boomtown Rats and Patti Smith, although when I visited, the only people inside were two shirtless bozos in need of sunblock.)
But the hectic scene at MCR was a bit of a shock. Earlier in the day, as I watched kids crowd-surf through a manic, foot-stomping Dropkick Murphys set, I had written in my notebook that Vans Warped Tour could be the most entertaining, cathartic and safest mass youth destination since Wet 'N Wild. The ticket is cheap (under $30), the sets are brief (30 minutes) and the bands are many (more than 75). The fest even touts local talent on side stages.
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Young Plano pop-punkers Minority made an appearance just after noon, and at 2 p.m., The Feds commanded a modest but enthusiastic audience with their unapologetic, cock-slinging rock. Their songs are neither complex nor particularly intelligent--"That song's about being broke and not being able to pay your bills," lead singer Matt Slider said. "Fuck your bills. Have fun with your life!"--but they have a raw immediacy that could appeal to any pissed-off kid with an attitude and a secret stash of smokes. Slider has rock-star posturing to burn--falling to his knees, jumping into the crowd and strutting around the stage with pants so low you could practically smell his crotch. Oh, and the dude has serious pipes.
Not all the Vans shows were so entertaining. Opiate for the Masses front man Ron Underwood was like Billy Idol without the talent or class. "Do y'all love Dallas?" he asked the crowd, before launching into a rant about screwing people he met on MySpace. The Phoenix band's set was all high-kicks and headbanging, no style or substance. Not long after, during a noisy set from Boston's The Unseen, I scribbled in my notebook: "Screaming, jumping. Jumping, screaming. Blah, blah, blah." Later, at the "rapper's tent," where MCs competed against each other in freestyle competitions, I had the great misfortune of witnessing a rhyme whose title was, I believe, "Your Pussy's So Hairy."
Crass, definitely, but Vans Warped Tour has never been known for sophistication. Complaining about the lack of depth here is a little like critiquing the character arcs of The O.C. And despite all the drama of that My Chemical Romance scene, it's not like anybody got seriously hurt.
"Good hustle, people," Gerard Way told audience members as they backed up and helped all the heatstroke victims to safety. "Thanks for bringing that to my attention." So there's no need to worry after all. No matter what the song says, they are OK (I promise).