Nostalgia! At the Music Festival

Aging emos descended on Vegas for the When We Were Young Festival

Hannah Seidlitz
When We Were Young

Monday, 0400h. Outside the desert air blew cold and tight and I felt sorry for myself. A man named William in a Hyundai Tucson picked me up from the tawdry STRAT Hotel, Casino & Skypod where I’d blown the last of my money. William had a wiry Merlin goatee and lived in Arizona, he told me, three hours south. His mother had moved to Vegas 43 years ago, after he’d graduated college, and so every few months he’d come up for a week or two to see her, and at night he would drive. I had a friend who always said the Jersey Shore was the most honest place in America, and here, on the Strip, I thought I finally understood what she meant. William said it was a friendly city because most folks who lived here full-time were hospitality shills trained in complaisance. He for one appreciated their plasticky solicitude. He had the slow and low growl of Sam Elliott, taking it easy for all us sinners. He said Vegas like it was a prize horse, wrangled the vowels wide-eyed.

A chopper whirred overhead. “Here we got helicopter tours flying over the Strip pretty much 20 hours a day. The real people live out there,” he gestured to the sprawl.

“Have you ever been in a helicopter?” I asked.

He grinned. “Shit, I’ve jumped out of airplanes,” he said. Then, “I’m prior service.”

The Luxor light, half-dimmed but still the brightest in the world, shot through the clouds like a valkyrie.

“But that was then,” he went on. “Now I just drive.”

He asked if I was in town for the music thing, and I told him I was. How was it? he asked.

I think I went into it expecting to feel embarrassed for other people. To report back dutifully the scores of adults in shirts that said PANIC! AT THE 20 YEAR HIGH SCHOOL REUNION, or METALCORE MOMMY. But on the highway to the Harry Reid International Airport a quarter past four in the morning I could only think of the crowds outside the fence in the red gloam of finale fireworks dancing to the song about a father and a son and a city and the unconquerable human spirit. Some of the exiled revelers had purchased tickets for Saturday’s canceled show, others just lived in the area and wanted to swill whatever dregs of wingdinging they could.


My ticket had been for Saturday, too. Minutes after the box office opened I got an email with the news — National Weather Service High Wind Warning. We have no choice. We are devastated. Press passes would transfer to Sunday. My boyfriend, a proletarian, wouldn’t reap the same perk, and wouldn’t recoup his order fees. The shock was accompanied by the grim relief of inevitability. The worst had happened. We walked by broods of crestfallen adult goths; a person with NyQuil-blue hair reached out to squeeze my shoulder as if we’d lost the same middle-distant cousin.

There had been nine months of doubt that the festival would take place at all, nine months of hysteria in Reddit threads, an entire boom-and-bust cycle of StubHub pricing, comparisons to Billy McFarland’s island farce. In January, in the wake of the fatal crowd crush at the Astroworld festival in Houston, Live Nation released the poster before informing many if not most of the bands, manifesting it into existence. The proposition was, as one of its biggest performers would call it later, “Warped Tour on crack,” or, according to Twitter, “nostalgia porn.” A single day, 62 loosely “emo” bands including, somewhat unimaginably on the same stage, Alex G, 3OH!3, and a ’90s nu-metal girl group, headlined by Paramore and My Chemical Romance. The some 60,000 tickets sold before buyers could even access the website. According to Forbes, presale sign-ups could’ve maxed the cap tenfold. They added a second day, and then a third. (Tough for those fastest on the trigger.)

I heard the frantic footfalls of the masses spilling through the gates, thousands of chains clinking in the wind.

The mysterious commodification of emo nostalgia. Everyone was talking about it but no one was really saying anything. “Emo nostalgia is so funny cause it’s like ‘throwback to the most depressed I’ve ever been in my whole life,’” someone tweeted. Cavalier as it sounded, it was true: somehow I felt protected by those years when I’d experienced everything the most vividly, excruciatingly — with rookie desperation — when I set lyrics about divorce or suicide as my AIM away statuses and it was all as urgent as it would ever be and all I knew about irony I’d learned from David Sedaris, maybe because in retrospect the amount that I wanted to die when I was in high school seems unserious ten years later. There was something cozy about it — the naïvété and floundering, the ability to say whatever I wanted about my misery and to feel it completely and without consequence. To believe everything was the end of the world and for the world to not end. Harness this and you could sell out any anniversary tour or line of luxury kitsch T-shirts.

It was derided as Disney World for ex-Myspace whiners, but what that meant, really, was that it was an immersive simulation, one in which guests could, like at Disney, play-act a more helpless time. Reproduced sights and sounds, an excuse for spiked choker fishnet pageantry. But no one dies jousting at Medieval Times. We didn’t really have to go back.

After the tragic announcement, bands schemed consolation gigs in ballrooms, B-tier fast casual restaurants, the Plaza hotel (no relation), et al. Canadian screamo band Silverstein let 50 fans into their suite at Caesars Palace (“I have a pretty big suite,” the frontman told me) for a matinee acoustic set. The wonderful Wonder Years from Philadelphia pulled together a last-minute show at a knock-off Hard Rock on a driving range next to the airport. The venue aired the Phillies game while La Dispute sang about suicide and heaven and about two hundred too many people crowded between the Michelob-ripe walls, decorated with “Women Who Rock!” posters of Lady Gaga and Siouxsie Sioux. “Do you have any idea how stoked 14-year-old me would be about playing this show right now?” Eric from Mom Jeans said during his opening set. “No, seriously. I’d get a tattoo about it.”


The next day, after the unlucky flew home aggrieved, we happy few all moved in the same direction toward the designated corner of Las Vegas Blvd and Circus Circus Dr like some budget funeral procession.

Having been escorted an hour ahead of the grand opening past the interminable lines and to the press desk and then through security by a man I knew was important because he had a clipboard, the grounds were empty when I passed through the gates. The lot, dotted with shivering palms and signposts of cartoonish skulls, had the eerie stillness of a municipal diorama, a model of a place not yet haunted. Over a pink carpet, an arch suitable for Zumiez guarded the entrance, checkerboard like the Vans, screaming in Sharpie scrawl: WHEN WE WERE YOUNG. The only people roving about the upholstered promenade were cadres of workers in reflective vests and members of the cleaning crew whose orange shirts would appear in flashes throughout the day as they swept up cups or swag-bag detritus before disappearing as quickly back into the fold. Ahead of the paying crowds and alone among the hallowed tour buses and card-carrying parties with roles and import and “access,” I was struck with the distinct sense — a mélange of satisfaction and guilt — of getting away with something.

In the distance, I heard the frantic footfalls of the masses spilling through the gates, thousands of chains clinking in the wind.

Around noon, while echoes of Red Jumpsuit Apparatus playing their Billboard-hit rebuke of domestic violence “Face Down” drifted across the cement expanse, drawing an eclipse of blackclad millennials, I approached what appeared to be a miniature Texan distillery — burnished copper, industrial Edison-bulb chandelier, overcast-sky siding, perplexing simulacra of indecipherable equipment: tin cans, inutile gears, a Rube Goldberg of pipes and pressure gauges — the tent labeled for the premier booze sponsor, Tito’s. A man in a Tito’s camp shirt and Tito’s sunglasses declared like an exuberant surf instructor to every pair or so of visitors that it was 25 years exactly since Tito Beveridge (Bert “Tito” Beveridge, real name, multi-billionaire, doubled his net worth when the plague hit) founded the company in Austin, which meant each person in line heard the spiel at least five or six times, and it wasn’t until my third go-round, when my ear caught on “1997,” that I realized I was exactly as old as Tito’s Handmade Vodka.

Winding past the Pabst Blue Ribbon Lounge, the Netflix & Chills house of horrors, something called an “Eargasm Experience,” and the Google Pixel Mini-Mart, a kiosk run by two Kappa Beta Phi-looking dudes in threatening aviators whose shelves advertised such provisions as beef stew, lottery tickets, and a bowl of oranges but which I think was actually just a place to buy a new phone, stopping to catch the flash mob roistering of “I HAD A DREAM LAST NIGHT, WE DROVE OUT TO SEE LAS VEGAS” from Mayday Parade, I went in search of the Media Tent.

When we sat down, Bert McCracken from the Used, wearing neon green Cobainish sunglasses indoors and a muscle tee that said “GAY OR STRAIGHT WE ALL MASTURBATE,” asked me about my thigh tattoos. I asked him if he knew who David Berman was and he said he didn’t, so I spent the first of our allotted 10-to-12 minute conversation trying to explain who the Silver Jews were (“Did they get canceled for their name?”), and their relation to Stephen Malkmus from Pavement, a band he did know, and that the tattoo wasn’t actually song lyrics but instead from Berman’s book of poetry, but by this point I’d lost McCracken to the middle distance.

“The press requests we’re getting for this thing, the radio stations involved… like, MTV is in there,” Bayside frontman Anthony Raneri said, “So many of these people wouldn’t speak to any of us like three months ago.” (Inside, the producer from MTV was interviewing a person I didn’t recognize but who looked like the eidos of a rockstar — ripped tights, self-consciously mussed hair, moue of contempt.) “Everyone’s grown up,” added Chris Guglielmo, the neck-tattooed drummer, heartthrobby in a Pacific northwest kind of way. “Our whole world is becoming classic rock.” When they left, I watched Ritter from the All-American Rejects roll around on the floor in a onesie while a photographer balanced on a stool overhead.

On a loveseat shaped like a pair of lips, Kellin Quinn, Sleeping with Sirens’ spray-tanned Odysseus, told me he had a surprise in store with Vic Fuentes of Pierce the Veil (back in the day, they were shipped as “Kellic” and pheromonically worshiped like that photo of Pete Wentz kissing the singer from Cobra Starship). For the 10th anniversary of their single, “King for a Day,” Quinn had decided to reprise its viral video’s costumes. “I texted him like, ‘Dude I’m in Zara, what size suit jacket are you?’ We’re going to make the internet break.” Between 2011 and 2014 Kellin Quinn was, to a select but irrepressible subset of the online population, the most worthy bachelor alive (despite becoming, in those years, both a father and a husband). But sitting in the unforgiving salmonish light of the tent he was just a guy telling me that for a long time he’d allowed ego and alcohol to threaten his family, like so many guys before him. His eyes were soft and penitent. He’d gotten lost in the character, he said.

McCracken interrupted Quinn for a tender moment of brotherly love, and in the brief caesura, a kid approached me with a kind of amphetamine enthusiasm to determine whether I was the person he was looking for — maybe Celeste? — I was not, and assumed he must have been “jxdn” because it was one of the only names I didn’t recognize on the bill. It wasn’t until much later, when I saw a photo of him on a newsstand and texted my little brother asking who “Lil Huddy” was that I learned he’s a basically A-list TikTok celebrity who founded something called the “Hype House,” which sounded familiar until I realized I was conflating it with potentially canceled Youtuber Jake Paul’s “Team 10.” Suddenly Tito’s vodka seemed like an aged spirit.

While I apologized for not being the woman of Huddy’s seeking, my knees brushed those of the kind man whose Alternative Press cover decorated the wall of my high school bedroom, thinking of all the girls on Tumblr I’d envied and how they would envy me, and then how when I’d get home, I’d have to explain who he was and what it meant to just about everyone I told. Fame is weird that way.

“Our whole world is becoming classic rock.”

Pierce the Veil’s set elicited convulsive fanfare. People waved Mexican flags while I tried to determine whether the lyrics to “A Match in the Water,” a song after which I renamed my soft grunge blog in 2012, aged well: “I kissed the scars on her skin / I still think you’re beautiful / and I don’t ever want to lose my best friend.” (It turns out the song isn’t about self-harm, despite its misappropriation on the teen girl internet; according to Fuentes, he wrote it about an ex-girlfriend who’d survived breast cancer.) For the grand finale, he and Quinn reappeared in their Zara finery. The woman in front of me started crying. The last time I’d seen either of them perform was right after the song premiered, ten years earlier at Warped Tour in the Nassau Coliseum parking lot. I was 14 and had begged my mom to bleach my hair and colored it Manic Panic Cotton Candy Pink and Atomic Turquoise and I spent all night drawing a portrait of Quinn to give him, which, instead of keeping, he signed and returned to me.

Next was Taking Back Sunday and Adam Lazzara pranced around like a fruity Bret Michaels, hair bleached, cuffed black sleeves throttling his biceps. “Well shit, I just saw Jimmy Eat World play and now we get to play,” he drawled, before inviting his collaborator — Steve Aoki — onstage. Well-intentioned but vaguely threatening, Lazzara encouraged everyone to get comfortable with those around them, like an alcoholic youth pastor. “You can touch, it’ll feel alright,” he said. The group behind me argued for at least half the set about his accent. Taking Back Sunday formed on Long Island, so the sassy ranch hand shtick must have been affected. But maybe Lazzara was actually southern? And didn’t he join after Jesse Lacey left? This voice didn’t sound like the records. The argument went on and on. Privately, I was sure it was a put-on. Later I looked it up. Lazzara was born in Sheffield, Alabama. He lives in Charlotte.

As night fell, a darker energy snaked through the crowd — two sets were stopped to call in medics, Avril Lavigne brought out Alex Gaskarth and Jack Barakat from All Time Low, which prompted the girl next to me to say, to no one in particular, “Didn’t he…”

“I think they filed a libel countersuit against the allegations,” someone else said.

Bright Eyes took the stage next, and the supermodel-tall Nordic-complected guy at the barricade with his equally supermodelesque Aryan girlfriend said, “Who is this?” It soon dawned on me, and apparently Conor Oberst, that perhaps a significant majority of the audience had no idea who he was, or the role his music might have played in the development of the very scene they were celebrating. (A YouTube commenter would weigh in: “All the Hot Topic emos looked like they’d never seen a fucking trumpet before.”)

It seemed to me that “Neely O’Hara,” which he sang gravely, twitching around the stage and kicking over the mic stand (a third time, after Mike Mogis and a stage tech each righted it for him) — “in the morning when you throw up water / and your skin turns a pale, pale yellow… you don’t recognize the behavior / or the spelling of your name” — was exponentially more emo than the band who followed him, Bring Me the Horizon, whose sexy but toothless frontman-cum-alt-fashion magnate sang melodramatic shibboleths in his Yorkshire brogue: “I’ve died inside a thousand times / but still I’d kill myself for you / ’cause the truth of it, you could slit my wrists / and I’d write your name in a heart with the hemorrhage.” (The song is called “DiE4u,” stylization his.) “It’s so nice to play a show in an amusement park for drunk adults,” Oberst said, and there was scattered laughter, but it wasn’t really that funny.

Hayley Williams gave her by-now widely shared polemic on exclusion in “the scene.” “I’ll spare you the history lesson,” she said, fiery hair fanning seraphically as she swung her feet over the lip of the stage. “No I won’t. Why would I do that,” she said, to some cheers. Later she rattled off a litany of digital bygones like fallen soldiers: LiveJournal, DeadJournal (“for the goths”), Napster, KaZaA (“I was part of the downfall,” she said, and those who understood raised their drinks).

A few months ago, I called the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib. “What makes the genre so seductive,” he said, deftly philosophizing pop-punk, “is that the window of nostalgia is actually not that big. We’re not saying, ‘Let’s revisit this thing from before you were born,’ or even when you were a child, it’s like, ‘Let’s revisit this thing from when you were just a little more carefree than you are right now.’” He was exactly right, but there was more to it, too. It had less to do with our remembered joy, I felt, but instead our remembered suffering. It wasn’t quite nostalgia — we didn’t want to go back — but gratitude. The fact that we were remembering meant we survived.

I’d decided to leave after My Chemical Romance’s first few songs, being escorted politely from the photo pit after humiliating myself with a FujiFilm disposable camera I’d bought at Walgreens, to beat the crowds and because I could hear Gerard Way from anywhere within a mile radius, and anyway had seen the full set at Barclay’s a month earlier. Cutting a strangled loop around the seemingly unnavigable designated exits — the splitting guitars dopplering in and out of range — the further I trekked from the front entrance in the direction of my hotel, the closer I returned to the back side of the main stage. Before I could discern clearly the melodies drifting out from the neon-lit enclosure, I heard the harmonies of passersby. Maybe 80 strangers clustered against the tall white fence spanning Las Vegas Blvd screaming the words we all knew but too often pretended to be embarrassed to admit we knew. A circle of friends in winter hats (it was 47 degrees) wrapped around each other and swayed like carolers. Applause swept the thoroughfare. In the distance, stage fireworks shot skyward and exploded over a colossal purple billboard that said, “If you don’t feel Imperial, it’s time to change your Medicare plan.”

Quiet, and then, the air pierced by piano — one opening stroke, G5. I couldn’t match pitch to save a high school chorale teacher’s life but I could still conjure the bars convincingly for you now, and did, aloud to myself as I wrote this, just to count the notes. It’s 11. You know them. There were scattered screams, and people huddled against the fence, those who were walking away turned on their heels. Two men in Patagonia and Carhartt grabbed each other and sang, and on the sidewalk, hundreds of yards from the action, hundreds sang with them. Everyone exiting the festival, even random bystanders on bikes, hotel tenants on their balconies. When I was a young boy, my father took me into the city to see a marching band. You probably know the rest, too. For all my cynicism and attempts at maintaining a journalistically requisite resistance of sentimentality, for everything I wanted this story to be and not to be, I saw clearly that the point was and had always been that this music had saved our lives, some of us, or at least it had felt that way at the time, and they had been gods to us, stood in place of God, the theatre-geek quartet of then-twentysomethings in red eyeshadow and marching band uniforms (now fortysomethings dressed cheekily as geriatrics), and it was okay if we continued to let them save us.

A woman who’d flown out alone from Seattle but hadn’t been able to exchange her voided ticket from the day before told me she’d lost a friend to an overdose the year Three Cheers came out and that in absence of other resources, it was the only healing thing. Wasn’t it magic, she asked, looking around the ad hoc parade, this music? Magic, she said again. A few months after that Warped Tour off the Hempstead Turnpike exactly a decade ago — when I’d last seen Sleeping with Sirens and Pierce the Veil and Taking Back Sunday and A Day to Remember and Bayside and all the other bands on the back of the T-shirt I bought at the Vegas merch table — I turned 15 and two days after that my mom was killed in a car accident and for a while I did want to die, I guess as much as any other basically privileged 15-year-old in the suburbs. I didn’t die, but I did soon shear the lengths of color from my hair, and I wore it neat above my shoulders and straightened it for parties and field hockey games and tied it with ribbons and I didn’t dye it again, not pink or blue or any other color, until a few months ago. It had faded to green the day of the festival in Vegas, a rinsed sewer green, the same color of the dead inches I’d cut off ten years before.

I turned to tell the Seattle girl I understood, but when I looked up she’d been subsumed in the lachrymose mass of celebrants. Half a mile away Gerard was singing about grief with his brother and his two best friends and all of us, singing, all of us alive.

Hannah Seidlitz is an editorial staffer at The New Yorker.