The case for corporate rock

Is the Warped Tour necessary? Surprisingly so.

Mute Math rides the <span style="">new</span> new wave.

Mute Math rides the new new wave.

Vans Warped Tour, noon on Thursday, $29.75, all ages. Sleep Train Amphitheatre, www.warpedtour.com.

Stanford-educated rapper MC Lars decries mall-punk culture on his current single, “Hot Topic is Not Punk Rock,” railing against the chain’s “contrived identification with youth subcultures to manufacture an antiauthoritarian identity and make millions.” He’s right, of course, but his sanctimonious, punker-than-thou tone makes you want to punch him in the face.

It’s too easy to criticize Hot Topic. It’s a cipher for everything we—the cynical, the jaded, the over 21—hate about pop culture. Ditto the touring emo-punk festival, the Vans Warped Tour. With its big-business backing, overpriced bottled water, $40 hoodies and bevy of bands striking their best pouty poses, the tour has come to symbolize all that is faux punk.

Still, there is one thing we forget when we criticize the Warped Tour: what it’s like to be a teenager. Teenagers own the summer, and the Warped Tour is summer. The world is warm. There is sun, and there are bodies, and there is music. There is money from parents and summer jobs to be spent, and there are bands to get excited about. Say all you want about crass consumer culture; the Warped Tour is a chance for thousands of kids across the country to do what really matters when you’re young—to feel a part of something big, important and cool, and maybe even beautiful.

You can get all cult studs on the Warped Tour if you want, waxing neo-Marxist on the pileup of capitalism and damn-the-man ideology, but this thing is ultimately about, you know, rock music.

NOFX embodies the grace of grass skirts and tube socks.

The pop-punk stalwarts represent, natch: NOFX, Less Than Jake, Bouncing Souls and Anti-Flag. (Isn’t it time to let younger siblings enjoy them too?) There’s also a history lesson from headliners Joan Jett and the Blackhearts to enlighten the kids who weren’t even born when she wrote “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” and from Helmet, the missing link between ’90s metal and ’00s post-hardcore. It’s like indie-rock summer school.

The new school isn’t only emo sad sacks; though there are some, unavoidably. Mute Math, a New Orleans band that sounds like a more earnest, energetic version of the Police, plays with a breathless urgency. Adorable Orange County power-pop band Narwhal has sugary synth hooks and real-life melodies and harmonies to counterbalance the screamo. Australian punkabilly favorites the Living End still aren’t a household name in the United States, but their righteous indignation feels fresher (and catchier) than Green Day’s political angst. And that’s just a few of the genuinely good bands taking the stage at the Sleep Train Amphitheatre today; there are 85 acts in all—85! Every kid can walk away from the festival with a new favorite band.

Plus, between the sponsors’ tents, there are more than 20 progressive nonprofits tabling, and some Saves the Day fans will go home with pamphlets from Anti-Racist Action or Amnesty International between their new records. It’s a tiny step, but the optimistic among us—including these activists taking their time to preach to middle-class teens—must believe that the seeds of a better tomorrow can be sown in the fertile soil of leather-braceleted youth.

Granted, a “rebellious” punk-rock tour brought to you by a footwear company (don’t real punks wear Dr. Martens?) with the support of Cingular Wireless (Sex Pistols ring tones?) and Samsung (flat-screen TVs for watching a Stooges DVD?) is, on its face, a dubious thing. But the sponsors do make it possible for concertgoers to pay a mere $29.75 per ticket—less than 40 cents per band—which cannot be said of any other tour of comparable size and ambition in recent history.

The Bouncing Souls stay grounded.

“Spending Mommy’s money” at the Warped Tour may not be punk rock, MC Lars, but frankly, who cares? It’s downright American. It is the inalienable right of teenagers. Maybe it’s a sign of corporate encroachment that kids can download the day’s show schedules straight to their phones from Cingular, but maybe not. Phones are to this generation what star charts and sextants were to the conquistadors. At the Warped Tour, this sunburned day, new worlds are being discovered.