This week, the announcement of a music festival headlined by longtime pop-punk favorites like My Chemical Romance, Paramore, and Avril Lavigne sent fans screaming (online) in excitement—and disbelief. As enticing as the lineup for When We Were Young Festival, scheduled for Oct. 22 and 23 in Las Vegas, looks at first, the finer details are provoking comments, concerns, and jokes from emo kids of past and present. The event has now sold out completely. In the days since the initial reveal, music fans have compared the tour poster to their high school notebooks and poked fun at what seems to be little more than a very expensive reincarnation of beloved punk fest Warped Tour; the tag #whenwewereyoungfest has 18 million views and counting on TikTok; and it sparked some shady tweets from a well-established—and now possible rival—festival. All of the banter, hilarious as it is, points to a larger theme: the sneaking suspicion that When We Were Young Festival could turn out to be capitalistic nostalgia bait at its lowest.
This is, in fact, the second iteration of the When We Were Young Festival; the first took place in California in April 2017. Yet that edition did not inspire the same level of viral memes and collective doubts, as fans of the bands represented have already found much to bemoan. There’s the inevitable set time clashes that could prevent fans from seeing as many of their favorite artists as they’d like to, since the festival—which so far promises performances from 65 bands across multiple stages—was initially scheduled for only one day; a second day was added after the presale period for tickets started last Friday, featuring the exact same lineup. [Update, Jan. 25, 2022, at 12:40 p.m.: The festival organizers have since added a third date—to be held one week later than the initial two, again with the same lineup.]
All of this means that emo stalwarts like Taking Back Sunday, The Used, AFI, and Dashboard Confessional are performing at the same festival, two weeks in a row—seemingly unthinkable to fans who remember when all of these groups could command huge headlining spots on their own. It’s no surprise that tickets sold out in a matter of hours; there is a waitlist open to anyone who still wants in. (We have reached out to the When We Were Young Festival’s organizers about additional ticketing and overall festival details and will update if we hear back.)
The lineup is what is most tantalizing about this festival, sparking thousands of Twitter users to post excited—and suspicious—responses as soon as the festival revealed its poster on Tuesday afternoon. Co-headliners My Chemical Romance and Paramore command huge attention and hefty ticket prices on their own, without acts like Bright Eyes, Jimmy Eat World, and so on thrown into the buzzy mix. The set of 65 bands is broad enough to include several huge names from multiple eras and subgenres of rock music: There’s pop-punk, emo, metalcore, hardcore, and post-hardcore bands. There are bands who first blew up on Myspace, Tumblr, and TikTok. Bands that formed in the 1990s are sharing a bill with artists who weren’t yet born when they put out their first few records. While several of the bigger acts—Avril Lavigne and the All-American Rejects, for example—enjoyed radio play in the aughts, many others have had less of a lasting mainstream impact and have been less active in recent years, which could either be a bust or a boon for ticket sales. And some bands, like Wolf Alice and TV Girl, belong to an entirely different corner of rock music altogether. (Not to mention that the name of the festival seems to be a nod to a song by the Killers, an arena rock band that is not playing the festival.)
Deep as this lineup goes, there are also some big gaps that the organizers neglected to fill. Up-and-coming emo and scene bands are missing from the bill, which is a notable absence when the festival is seemingly meant to represent the genre at its most appealing. It does, however, speak to the festival’s heavy nostalgia bent, a feeling that makes it seem that it’s supposed to be marketed to “former emos,” rather than the current alternative music fandom community. More disappointing is the lack of diversity among the confirmed performers. Over the past few years, there’s been an ongoing conversation about inclusion in pop-punk and rock, in which acts like Meet Me at the Altar and the Linda Lindas were trumpeted as encouraging steps forward. But many other artists centered in that conversation, including Pinkshift, KennyHoopla, and Willow, are noticeably absent from the festival lineup. Out of the 65 bands, only 11 have women in them and even fewer have members of color—horrifyingly low numbers for such a stacked bill. That several of the acts on this bill have faced abuse or assault allegations makes that stat sting even more.
For all its nostalgic star power and impressive range, When We Were Young Festival has already led observers to ask: Whom is this festival actually for? Millennial pop-punk lovers? Elder emos? Gen Z kids who stumbled on pop-punk on their TikTok FYP going to support their favorite creator, who’s on the bill? People who have listened to alternative music their entire lives? The answer, it seems, is E—all of the above. Because of how varied the lineup is, the target demographic for this festival seems to be anyone who has ever identified as emo over the past 30 years. Which may not be bad, unless you are a fan in one of these groups who feels strongly about the authenticity—or lack thereof—of the other groups.
Yet festivals are designed to make money by offering an enticing, buzzy set of bands. And When We Were Young’s wide-ranging bill comes at a high price. General admission tickets for one day started at $224.99, with a $19.99 down payment in order to access presale. GA+ ($399.99) includes access to air-conditioned restrooms, while VIP tickets ($499.99) come with access to charging stations. There was a VIP cabana package on sale for $12,500, with each package including 10 VIP tickets. Tickets for the comparable Warped Tour, the beloved traveling punk festival that ended its 25-year reign with a brief anniversary run in 2019, cost under $100. Slam Dunk Festival, a daylong pop-punk festival that’s held in two dates and locations in the U.K. and shares several acts with this one, costs under $150, while a three-day general admission pass for the Chicago-based Riot Fest comes in at over $200.
Air-conditioned bathrooms and charging stations are bizarre things to keep behind hefty price walls—it all screams of late-stage capitalist dystopia more than “hope you have a good time at the show.” And it’s these hefty prices—combined with that wildly stacked bill—that are inspiring the biggest laughs and boldest question marks. Coupled with the dubious stability of the high-wattage lineup, the ongoing pandemic with changing guidelines, and the “all sales are final” policy, which isn’t uncommon for festivals of this size, it’s hard to blame anyone getting flashbacks to a festival that overpromised and ultimately underdelivered: Fyre Fest. When We Were Young has already been anointed “emo fyre fest” by Twitter and TikTok users, because it’s hard to read about $12,000 cabanas and not think of the infamous luxury music festival. Advertised with the help of some influencers and attended by a predominantly young, white crowd of rich people, Fyre Fest ended up as an expensively catastrophic bust back in 2017, the scale of the disaster forever emblazoned into our memories.
For those of us fans who never stopped loving this music and appreciate how it’s continued to evolve since the days of neon skinny jeans and teased, dyed-black hair, When We Were Young engenders a painful mix of desire and frustration. We want to see all of our favorite bands, of course! But we can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that this is just a pricey packaging deal, selling nostalgia to people who have ironically returned to emo music, rather than celebrating a subculture or a specific type of music. The biggest questions remain: Can the Las Vegas Festival Grounds handle this many emos of all ages? Will all of the bands actually be able to make it? How many songs will Knocked Loose actually get to play? Is this Warped Tour 2.0 or Emo Fyre Fest? It may be that the festival taps into an even more recent nostalgia: a failed music festival from 2017, which we can always relive via a documentary.