Warped Tour, Gender Inequality and Upholding a Narrative of Onstage Redemption
Last week, the annual nomadic Vans Warped Tour made headlines after one of its artists who is accused of sexual misconduct with several underage girls played a set at the tour’s Nashville stop on Wednesday (July 1) -- a decision that’s another example of public permissiveness for harassment and violence toward women and the gender inequality that persists within the music industry.
The musician is Jake Mcelfresh, who performs under the stage name Front Porch Step. The 23 year-old singer-songwriter – originally from Ohio but now based out of Nashville – played a 20-minute set as part of a “rehabilitation process” despite a significant petition to have him removed from the lineup and a suggestion by Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman that Mcelfresh had been removed due to the allegations.
When we reached out to Lyman for comment, he clarified that Mcelfresh -- who was previously scheduled to tour for the entire duration of Warped Tour’s summer travels -- was taken off the lineup. However, Lyman permitted the singer to perform a single set in Nashville last week at the behest of Mcelfresh’s counselor and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ MusiCares foundation.
According to Lyman, the festival didn’t announce Mcelfresh’s appearance until he had arrived on the grounds. But once fellow Warped acts and attendees caught wind of his apparent reinstatement, many took to social media in protest.
“Instead of watching @Frontporchstep, check out the zine distro at @LeeCoreyOswald’s tent. Discussions on important and relevant issues,” urged a tweet posted to Michgian-based emo outfit Citizen’s official account.
Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams -- whose band is not playing this year’s Warped Tour but has been a staple in past years -- tweeted, “I still believe in you, scene. Demand better bc you deserve better. No more excuses for boys just ‘being boys.’”
But that seemingly was the message Lyman proffered.
“The kid got himself in a little trouble,” Lyman told Billboard. “No charges, no court appearance, no restraining orders, nothing, it was a ‘stupidity of the road’ kind of thing. We stepped in and got him into counseling right away in Nashville.”
In another statement, Lyman told Nashville Scene, “I’ve been trying to encourage some of these girls that accused him to please file charges and not one person would. Now will he be on the whole Warped Tour? No. But it’s a process of his rehabilitation and he came in and played his 20 minutes and left.”
In a matter of a few words, Lyman achieves two-fold: First, he’s shifted blame to the victims. This is language that is heard again and again in these cases, often tread out in the public domain: What action did the victim take to warrant this “bad behavior” from the culprit? It’s a problematic response, one that can often lead victims to not file charges. In this particular case, Lyman inadvertently makes the following implication: What action did the victim fail to take to prevent Mcelfresh’s appearance at Nashville’s Warped Tour?
Lyman swiftly tells the public responsibility was out of his hands, and instead resides with the victims. But remember: These girls were at the time or still are teenagers. They are not adults. Mcelfresh is an adult. Lyman is an adult. And the festival Lyman's responsibility, not theirs. He should be assuming accountability. But instead, he has joined a chorus of voices that punts responsibility rather than collectively taking it on as a society.
Mcelfresh should assimilate back into his music as a part of his therapy, but does that necessitate the Warped Tour stage?
In his statement, Lyman also offers Mcelfresh a kind of redemption -- another all-too-frequent scene in these narratives. As blame is shifted to the victim, the culprit or the accused is given the chance at what even Lyman refers to as a “second chance.” And in the entertainment industry, that redemption often comes in the form of a massive, public stage.
According to Lyman, Mcelfresh’s counseling “was designed by some of the best therapists in the country that work with us, and MusiCares was aware and helped guide this thing a little bit. They felt that assimilating him back into music after eight months of therapy would be a good thing” (via Billboard).
It begs the question of whether or not Mcelfresh was essentially rewarded for his “misdeeds.” Mcelfresh should assimilate back into his music as a part of his therapy, but does that necessitate the Warped Tour stage and the exposure it affords the festival’s artists? An exposure that places Warped acts like Mcelfresh in front of crowds filled with young, underage female fans?
Mcelfresh is certainly not the first instance of this redemption-by-stage, and he likely won’t be the last.
In 2009, Chris Brown was charged for assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna, and a year later he was performing a teary-eyed “Man in the Mirror” at the BET Awards. Everyone in the audience and at home recognized this wasn’t just an emotional tribute to the late Michael Jackson; it doubled as an opportunity for a public apology in front of millions of viewers. Later that summer, he enjoyed the success of a chart-topping single, “Deuces.”
There was John Mayer’s infamous and repulsive 2010 Playboy interview, in which (when discussing his dating habits) he said, “My d--k is sort of like a white supremacist.” He then disappeared on a soul-searching sabbatical, returned, told Ellen DeGeneres he had merely “lost my head for a little while” and his next album charted at number one upon its release.
Robin Thicke co-wrote “Blurred Lines,” a song that reappropriated the same language that is often heard during sexual assaults as a pseudo alluring come-on, and it became the unofficial song of summer 2013, a chart-topping, best-selling force to be reckoned with. And as a result, it played in the ears of victims everywhere as a constant, triggering reminder: “I know you want it.”
And those are only a few examples from recent memory. Rock is riddled with a troubling history of sexual violence, with many of the guilty going on to lead successful careers (think: Jimmy Page, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ted Nugent). What’s more, Medium even previously documented several artists who have played Warped Tour over the years -- including Mcelfresh -- and have been accused or found guilty of sexual misconduct.
The public’s inordinate ability to forgive and sometimes just plain forget is embedded into our culture. Warped Tour’s role in Mcelfresh’s rehabilitation is yet another example indicative of a greater, enduring problem within the music industry.
When we spoke to Lyman about the recent events, he was admittedly leery, but also forthcoming and largely unfiltered. He emphasized his decision was made based on the recommendation of professional counselors. “They came to me and said, ‘We feel, as an incentive to get him on track with his therapies, you [should] bring him down and do this 20-minute set under complete supervision,’” said Lyman. “I’m on the board of MusiCares. We are an organization of trying to make people better, and I agreed to do that. I have to make a lot of decisions every day out here. Some are not popular, some are not right, but I’m willing to make them.”
The public’s inordinate ability to forgive and sometimes just plain forget is embedded into our culture.
When we asked MusicCares senior director Erica Krusen if Warped Tour, its national platform and the particular demographics of its audience was the right place for Mcelfresh’s rehabilitation, she offered more insight via email.
“It was a decision that was made carefully by both his professional and clinical team to allow Jake to play ONE show on the Warped Tour in an effort to give him a chance to reconnect with his fans,” she writes. “All were in agreement that because Jake had continued meeting weekly goals set by the team, he was ready to perform. His clinical team was confident that no one at that performance would be in danger.”
Lyman said he estimates that 70 percent of this year’s ticket sales went to women, which he said is the highest the festival has ever seen. He also projects that the majority of those festivalgoers are 16 to 19.
In terms of the audience Warped Tour attracts, not much has changed over the years. I, too, was once one of those young Warped Tour festivalgoers. At the height of emo’s mainstream takeover in the early aughts, I was at Warped Tour in Detroit multiple years in a row with two other female friends, all in our early teens. We pushed our way to the front of the stage and listened to largely all-male bands sing one song after another about the crushing injustices of the Eve-like female caricatures that dominated their music. In many ways, I was the girl Jessica Hopper was writing for with her powerful essay, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.”
Despite the significant number of female festivalgoers, Warped Tour’s lineup heavily favors largely white, all-male bands. Last year, Lyman discussed this very matter with Wondering Sound’s Megan Seling, saying he believes it’s “absolutely okay” that Warped’s roster includes what he estimates to be one in every six bands including one or more women. During our conversation, he reiterates the same sentiments (also noting that the majority of his production team is made up by women). “There are a lot of women on [the lineup], but I’m not an affirmative action program,” he says. “I want to put the best talent forward.”
The male-dominated lineups at Warped Tour and summer festivals at large, those artists’ music and their sometimes insufficient and oft-damaging portrayal of women and the language and responses that are continually employed when addressing sexual misconduct and violence reinforced my own perception of women’s place in the music industry and as music consumers when I was of Warped Tour age. In the past decade, those reminders persist and are systemic.
Thankfully, both the channels of communication and the discourse surrounding these gender issues have improved during the past decade. In addition to the Warped acts who spoke out about Mcelfresh’s performance and its implications, artists like Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, the women of Sleater-Kinney, Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry -- the list goes on and on -- they have all admirably risen to the occasion time and time again in addressing complex gender issues that continue to face the music world.
That is essential. With a greater number of voices recognizing and addressing these problematic ways in which we speak about and respond to gender inequality and sexual violence in music, the more likely we will actually be able to cause change.