Everything you need to know about the evolution of the Vans Warped Tour — that mom-free bacchanal of bare midriffs, bad tattoos and fist-pumping power chords — could be found at Ramones World, a merch tent in the middle of Vinoy Park on Friday.
You read that right: Ramones World, dedicated to New York's infamous punk progenitors. Shirts, hats, watches, you name it. The Ramones — once so fun, so dangerous, so decidedly un-World-y — are now housed in a whimsical tribute to capitalism. Gabba gabba oy vey.
Fourteen thousand teens were expected to stuff the sun-scorched waterfront grounds for the 10-hour Warped experience, which, at 14 years strong, is the longest-running traveling music fest in the world. The tour remains phenomenally popular, and the talent of many of the 80-plus young bands was genuine.
But it's safe to say that Warped (brought to you by AT&T, among others) has changed over the years. Sure, you still have your screamo acts such as Alesana and Norma Jean, both of whom sounded like a wombat gnawing on your eardrum. But a majority of the bands — from the melodic Say Anything to Bradenton's chick-magnet We the Kings — are as popular on iTunes as they are in the skate shops. (Arguably the tour's biggest name, It Pop Star Katy Perry, whose song I Kissed a Girl is a monster hit, was a no-show for the local stop.)
The clog of cash-grabbing merch tents far outnumbered the smattering of stages scattered about. With the music biz in disarray, bands both upstart and established make most of their money through touring and T-shirt sales. So the fans can sing along all they want — just as long as they also spend along, too.
"The counterculture has become popular culture," said Cisco Adler, infamous Hollywood bad boy, not to mention son of music kingpin Lou Adler, the guy who produced Carole King's Tapestry. Cisco was here as a member of Shwayze, a breezy hip-pop outfit just looking to have fun "and get the girls bumping it."
Ten years ago, Shwayze never would have made this lineup. "I'm glad it's really diverse now," Adler added. "Nobody wants to hear 50 bands that all sound alike."
Elise Moehl, an 18-year-old We the Kings fan, agreed. "It's definitely getting more pop," said the bikinied Seminole resident, following the unofficial Warped dress code and wearing as little as possible. "Some people don't like that, but we do."
I remember going to a Warped show way back when, and it was refreshing to feel like you were about to get sucker-punched in the skull by an angry Mohawked guy at any second. Ah, memories.
But the vibe was much, much mellower (and much less Mohawked) in 2008, as tan, sweaty high schoolers amiably wandered the grounds, texting each other, spray-painting bellies. (I have no idea what the spray-painting was about.) Despite the size of the crowd and the heat of the sun, neither the police nor the medics on hand reported an unusual number of incidents.
For the most part, it felt fun, easy, safe. San Diego's Pierce the Veil put on an incendiary set, but the greatest crowd reaction was for their head-banging (but still rather earnest) cover of Michael Jackson's Beat It. On one of the two main stages, Orlando's From First to Last vowed to summon a satanic dance party. But heavily inked lead singer Matt Good ultimately showed decorum: "I'm not allowed to cuss here, so I can't say all my favorite words."
"I kind of wish it would go back to the old days," said singer Dallas Taylor, an Ocala native who now plays with metalcore mayhemists Maylene and the Sons of Disaster. "But that wouldn't sell the tickets like it does now."
In the end, one of the most rule-breaking, vaguely illegal sets was put on by none other than Cisco Adler and his rapping pal Shwayze. Mixing '90s-style fever-dream rap, Southern California rock hooks and a whole lot of naughty, the profane duo (plus a beat-making turntablist) encouraged the underage crowd to drink, smoke and fool around.
Earlier, I had asked the notoriously randy Adler, who's dated a who's-who of US Weekly poplets, what the girls were like at Warped. "They're 14," he told me. "That means I can't look." And yet, at one point during his 30-minute set, Adler peered into the grinding crowd and wolf-grinned. "Let's all go back to our bus together. Don't worry: It's pretty big."
Hmm. Maybe there's a little danger left in the Warped Tour after all.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.