Life After Mall Punk

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

The first time I heard Asking Alexandria was in my best friend’s room on her CD-playing boombox. We were fourteen, close to entering high school. Her walls were decorated with her own handwriting, and she burned incense while we lay on her bed and listened. It was Asking Alexandria’s 2009 debut, Stand up and Scream. Having been obsessed with pretty much only Taylor Swift for the last four years, the album posed a new, strange sound. The guttural harsh screams, over-amplified guitars and drums, with the still somewhat-melodic hooks – it was all new to me. But I was into it.

From that day forward, I started consuming a variety of post-hardcore and pop-punk that I didn’t even know was termed post-hardcore and pop-punk. I defined my newfound love of a genre within a single bracket: “screamo.” I explored, finding new songs and bands by dovetailing into YouTube wormholes, clicking related video after related video. I went to LimeWire, choosing random songs on the basis of a good title, downloading before I even knew if I liked it. I checked out CDs at the local library, grabbing anything that even looked “alt.” (That’s how I found Good Charlotte and Yellowcard.)

But during one of my dives into YouTube, I saw Pierce the Veil’s “Caraphernelia” video for the first time, which was perhaps the true beginning of my obsession. I loved the lyrics, the voice, the visuals, everything. Most importantly, I loved that no one had directed me to Pierce the Veil. It wasn’t a friend giving me a CD and it wasn’t a boyfriend forcing his favorite band onto my ears. I found Pierce the Veil and I fell in love with them.

When Selfish Machines came out, I bought it that weekend (and yes, I bought it at Hot Topic). I consumed Fuentes’ lyrics like I once consumed Taylor Swift’s. I read the liner notes over and over. I copied the words into journals. I downloaded the songs onto my mp3, laid on my bed, and listened. Fuentes’ lyrics were poetic in a way that I had yet to witness in this new-to-me genre (“We bleed like watercolors and drunken pastels down the stairways/ And I ask myself, why do I still pray”). Fuentes consistently evoked sensory details and colors, paired often with strange, near-gothic imagery, while also still achieving universal themes of love and pain (“Cause I don't wanna leave without you buried by my side/ I'd rather kill the one responsible for falling stars at night”).

My connection with Pierce the Veil carried me throughout high school. Once, my mom even drove me to Mall of America to see them as they signed copies of Collide with the Sky in a Tilly’s. After graduation, I finally saw them live at a club in Minneapolis with my best friend. But as I moved through college, I quickly fell away from Pierce the Veil and grew disillusioned with the entire genre, a scene that can be broadly and aptly defined as mall punk.

Yes, I went to Warped Tour and yes, I found it amazing. At the time. But there was something missing that I couldn’t quite define in the moment. As much as the music moved me and as much as I bought into the seemingly progressive and alternative messages, looking back, it wasn’t as progressive as it should have been.

I was once asked, as a young teen, who my role model was. I wanted it to be a woman, of course. And I wanted it to be a rock musician. So, on a whim, I said Taylor Momsen, even though I didn’t even listen to The Pretty Reckless. I had seen her in a magazine (probably Seventeen). The only thing I knew about her was that she dressed in a grunge and pretty way, looked defiant and confident in her photoshoot, and held a guitar. (Avril Lavinge wasn’t a “cool” answer and Hayley Williams seemed “cliché" - not that I believe those statements anymore.) Beyond these women, I didn’t really know of any other female-fronted band or female alternative artist, much less a female guitarist or drummer.

My town was small. We didn’t have a cool music scene (at the time). We didn’t have venues that weren’t also bars. I didn’t know what zines were. My means of discovery were limited. So, my mp3 was full of bands consisting almost solely of men, largely white and straight. The space for women in mall punk, outside of Paramore, seemed invisible. The only space allotted for women was in the crowd, and even that was narrow and quickly closing in.

Warped Tour inarguably single-handedly curated the playlists, CD collections, and wardrobes of an entire generation. For 24 years, the traveling festival bounced across the United States every summer, seeking to create an accessible, alternative home for young music fans.

But the tour proved to be even more successful in commercializing a variety of genres under its wide umbrella, including hardcore, punk, and ska. By commodifying the underground, Warped became an “easily digested candy-coated version of rebellion,” as Jenn Pelly wrote in The Guardian. And as a teen, I happily consumed Warped’s rainbow-packaged diet-punk. I didn’t know about the underground Warped was commodifying.

In 2018, Warped Tour embarked on its “final” cross-country installment. But the line-up was less than inclusive. Pelly reported that only 7% of the bands included women musicians. Founder Kevin Lyman, who has chosen the bands from the beginning, credits the disparity due to the final run of Warped being a “nostalgia tour.” But if so, then that only amplifies how Warped has a history of being gender-exclusive.

I wasn’t aware of bands like Warpaint or Veronica Falls—and why would I have been? Warped was the lighthouse of rebellion, a beacon for the angst-y and misunderstood, the leader of a movement. I followed blindly, not aware that Warped’s light was blocking out entire genders, sexualities, and racial identities.

I’m post-mall punk now. For all its destructive tendencies, Warped was also a gateway. When my continual disappointment bubbled up into full anger, I sought out women musicians with a raging ferocity. I’m listening to Camp Cope and Diet Cig now, and Lucy Dacus and Soccer Mommy. I’m playing catch-up, too, going all the way back to Bikini Kill.

Pierce the Veil still holds a place on a single, nostalgic playlist of mine: “Old Loves and Bullshit.” It’s a history of what introduced me to entire genres and sub-genres, of what altered my musical tastes, and what eventually disillusioned me.