In the words of my friend J.R. Nelson, a local punk writer, “Teenagers are geniuses. I think the teenage me, the infantile and deeply stupid suburban milk baby who resented the entire world and just wanted a pair of Air Revolutions because they were expensive, was the purest me to ever grace this rotating shit orb.”

Teenagers are also the most powerful audience in America, and this summer the Vans Warped Tour–which began June 25 in Houston and ends today, August 20, in Boston–celebrated ten years of unwavering devotion to this principle. At each stop anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 teenagers converged on a parking lot, a stadium, or an amphitheater, wading deep into the froth of pop-cultural commerce that they drive with their fickle tastes. In exchange for the $18 to $30 that a Warped ticket cost, depending on the venue–not bad at all for five dozen bands–the sunburned throngs got eight hours of accessible punk, hardcore, and hip-hop.

But I don’t think any impartial observer could conclude that Warped is first and foremost about the music. It’s about teenagers and their disposable income. Punk in its primal form is of course a deeply anticommercial genre, but Warped has turned money into the medium of cultural affiliation here, as it already was everywhere else. What’s being sold is an entree into punk, and most of the fans are too new to the music’s ideals to understand that they’re buying a version of fuck-all rebellion that’s been repackaged by businesspeople. Or maybe they do understand, and they come because they think it’s the only version left. Warped is a mammoth shopping and marketing experience, a towering conglomerated product of the Clear Channel Age, and though the music is the initial draw, purchases are the way the kids express themselves to themselves, to the bands, and to each other.

Look no further than the Casualties’ merch tent, with its 24 T-shirt designs, two styles of handkerchief, and three different hats. A day at Warped is about kids saying “I love you” to their favorite bands, with cash in hand–and on a scale that boggles the mind. We’re a long way from the Fireside Bowl, which is the kind of punk dive many Warped acts came up playing, sometimes to only 20 or 30 kids at a time. Selling a handful of seven-inches for gas money isn’t gonna cut it if you’re touring as part of an operation that requires a fleet of ten tractor-trailers, a hundred tour buses and vans, 11 sound systems, a full-time on-site doctor and massage therapist, and a catering service that can handle two hot meals a day for 650 to 800 people. On July 24, the day Warped stopped at the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park, the band Taking Back Sunday grossed $20,000 in T-shirt sales alone.

I spent a few weeks on the 2004 Warped Tour, doing research for a book and hanging out with my boyfriend, who was performing. I got to spend a lot of time among the genius teenagers–the fans’ average age seemed to be about 16. I remember 16 as a pretty grim year, but from the safe distance of a decade or so, 16-year-olds are completely fascinating. I was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of kids, a rushing tide of adolescent self-concept run riot, of bad tribal tattoos and rapturous infatuations and questionable hairstyles, all reeking of the pungent desire to simultaneously transgress and fit in perfectly.

This unself-conscious incoherence is a magnificent thing to behold. These kids all seemed to have a flawless idea of who they were–or who they wanted to seem to be, with their carefully arranged ensembles of brand names, slogans, and symbols–and absolutely no idea how they actually appeared. I saw boys milling around a San Diego sports pavilion parking lot, chewing on corn dogs and wearing mesh-back caps reading “My Balls Itch” at 11 AM on a Sunday. I saw a girl with the name of every act on the tour written in pen down the legs of her jeans–apparently signifying an impulse to identify with simply being at a “punk concert” more than loyalty to any of the actual bands. None of this, of course, was any less honest for being so obviously calculated–even when you’re a teenager faking it, approximating a borrowed notion of cool, you’re still bound to be more real, more transparent, and more vulnerable than any adult.

The second thing you notice at Warped–after the tens of thousands of kids–is the din. At any given moment there were at least four bands playing on the sprawling carnival midway of the concert campus. Most festivals make do with a single main stage and one or two distraction stages, but Warped was operating four main stages, four secondary stages, and a handful of stages-in-name-only–usually just a canopy in front of a van or a strip of grass between a set of PA speakers. The Brian Stage and the Teal Stage were for the headliners–and when a band on Brian finished its set, another band cranked up on Teal within three minutes. You could watch NOFX, the Alkaline Trio, the Sounds, and Yellowcard back-to-back simply by ping-ponging 100 feet to the left or right. Next year’s headliners apparent (Rufio, My Chemical Romance, the Casualties) played on the Maurice Stage and the Volcom-sponsored stage, also side by side. Shunted out into the general population, next to the merch booths, were smaller elevated stages sponsored by Smartpunk,, and Ernie Ball. The Hurley/Kevin Says stage, barely a stage at all, had a ground-level linoleum floor and yellow caution tape strung along the front.

With so many bands playing at once, not even the most dedicated fan could see everything. Like a shopping mall or a giant punk-rock supermarket, the concert campus was designed to keep customers circulating, to induce them to check out every tent and booth at least once. Warped has even developed an ingenious strategy to bring the kids in early and keep them all day–the lineup of set times was different at every stop. Though technically a headliner, Bad Religion might have been playing at noon rather than taking the day’s last slot at 7:30 PM. Thursday might have been slated for 1 PM or 5:15 PM, and you couldn’t know till you got past the gate. So you’d show up at 11 in the morning and find out that your two favorite bands were going on at noon and 6 PM. What to do with the hours in between? There were band booths and label booths. There were good-cause booths: PETA, the Syrentha Savio Endowment (breast cancer awareness), Take Action! (progressive activism and “personal empowerment”). And then there were booths for the likes of Slim Jims (free wristbands and meat sticks!), Cingular Wireless (plastic gems and band stickers to decorate your cell phone!), and Dodge (custom racing cars in a showroom tent!). You could get your merch, purse, or person autographed, sign up for 100 different mailing lists, try out a bass or guitar, get your hair shaved into a Mohawk for free, or chew some complimentary Wrigley’s Winterfresh gum. You could also buy stuff: sneakers, a skateboard deck, a hot dog, a hemp necklace, lemonade, band stickers or pins, spiked leather wristbands, thong underwear, a furry neon belt, sunglasses, a pizza from Domino’s, a shirt that said “I’m sick and tired of white girls.”

The hip-hop tent, dubbed the Code of the Cutz Stage, offered the only respite from the ever-present feeling of being marketed to. The dozen or so acts in the rotating daily lineup often left the stage, rubbing elbows with the crowd, or ventured outside the tent, mike in hand–I saw Connecticut rapper ADM (from the duo Glue) holding forth from atop the nearby picnic tables. It’s not like there was no selling going on here, but it wasn’t the faceless, focus-grouped variety: the Code of the Cutz performers frequently hawked their own CDs and shirts outside the tent after their sets. They were also pushing some of the most aggressive political agendas on the tour. NOFX, masterminds of Rock Against Bush, may pause between songs to wish Dick Cheney a heart attack, and Yellowcard may beg kids to get off their asses and vote, but those gestures seem rote next to Non-Phixion freestyling on the human impact of unfair drug-sentencing laws or Immortal Technique calling Condi Rice “the new age Sally Hemings.”

On July 20 in Milwaukee, I hung out with a friend who ran the Alternative Press autograph booth while he got ready for a Taking Back Sunday signing. (The band’s sets were always so mobbed that I never managed to see them from less than three-quarters of a mile away, but I did hear that TBS’s kickball team with Thursday–aptly named Taking Back Thursday–was the one to beat on this year’s tour.) My friend set up stools, laid out fresh Sharpies, stacked posters into huge piles, and shooed too-eager fans back into the quarter-mile line. In front was a boy in a homemade Taking Back Sunday T-shirt: with colored markers he’d written the date, the band’s name, some lyrics, and the name of the venue in careful capitals, and along the bottom edge in alternating colors was a repeated rickrack ribbon of “Taking Back Sunday * Vans Warped Tour * Taking Back Sunday * Vans Warped Tour.” The homemade Warped Commemorative Shirt, Pants, or Hat was common enough to be a phenomenon on the tour. That public display of affection, that preemptive sentimentality pivoting on this exact moment, is what emo has instilled in the culture of punk fandom: advance nostalgia for the peak experience.

That’s not to say that Warped can’t offer genuine peak experiences, even to a 27-year-old like me. In San Diego, I cried watching Patty Schemel play drums. She’s a strong hitter with perfect placement, but more than that she plays with such joy that I could feel it myself. Schemel used to drum for Hole, but she’s now with Juliette & the Licks, a new band fronted by Juliette Lewis–yes, that Juliette Lewis.

The audience at Warped, unlike the sausage party you get at a typical ground-level punk show, is half-female, maybe more. But in San Diego there were only seven women performing, spread across three bands. The Licks drew a screaming, girl-heavy crowd every time they played, though this was their first tour and they didn’t even have a CD out yet. Between songs Lewis fell into a put-on honky-tonk drawl, yelling bons mots like “Aaawright!” and “This one is for the ladies!” and introducing the band at the top of her lungs. (“This is my drummah, Patty Schemel!”) When I saw her she was wearing a couture T-shirt, a bikini, knee pads, and fingerless gloves, and her makeup was running with sweat. She grabbed her crotch, humped the monitors, threw the horned hand at the crowd, and assumed several different yoga positions. She’s like Andrew W.K.’s spirit in Joan Jett’s clothes. She’s lithe and tough, a real performer–judging by how she moves, she’s spent at least a third of her waking life with people staring at her.

In Los Angeles I watched the Mean Reds deliver what would turn out to be the rawest set I’d see on the tour. The Mean Reds are from Tucson and barely a year out of high school. It was only the sixth day of the tour, and they were already on “probation” for running their mouths onstage about what a sold-out capitalist-pig enterprise Warped is, how it isn’t really punk, et cetera. Warped founder and figurehead Kevin Lyman in turn advised the boys to do their homework before letting fly with the rhetoric: Did they think for a minute that he’d invited all those sponsors along for the ride for any other reason than to defray the tour’s enormous expenses and keep ticket prices sane? (You might assume a band would give these questions some thought before committing to a couple months on the tour.)

The Mean Reds are off the Richter, bionically crazy, oblivious and obnoxious and out of control. They have all the fire of Nation of Ulysses, but instead of suits and manifestos, they have other people’s Klonopin prescriptions and women’s thrift-store blouses a la Bob Stinson. They look like scumbags who sleep in the desert. I’m not sure they have any idea what they’re doing or how great it is. Halfway through their apocalyptic 25-minute set, I told the guy who runs their label that Anthony Anzalone, the singer, reminded me of Darby Crash. The label guy said, “He has no idea who Darby Crash is.” He also told me that the band had gotten into music by listening to Nirvana–and that they were recently the subject of a seven-label bidding war but refused all offers.

By the time Warped reached Minneapolis, a little more than three weeks later, the Mean Reds had been kicked off the tour. Their labelmates the Rolling Blackouts had gotten the boot after their singer pissed next to a stage while another band was playing, and Anzalone pissed his pants during a Mean Reds set in solidarity. The Mean Reds are more like the Warped audience than they know–confused, idealistic, angry, and furiously trying to slap the world awake and tell it who they think they are.

When I saw the band in LA, Anzalone was filthy, his sweat making bright stripes in the layer of dirt caked to his skin–he’d made a vow that he wouldn’t shower until the band was off the tour, which at the time was still supposed to mean another month and a half. He was shirtless, covered in cuts, and wearing swim trunks, boat shoes, and a wrinkled women’s vest with gold anchors on it. He rolled in the grass in front of the stage, right under the yellow caution-tape barrier and into the crowd. The security staff watched with alarm as this yawping kid, pink faced and exploding, writhed at our feet, humping the grass, grabbing ankles, and screaming, “Holla! Playa! Holla! Playa!”

Between songs he contended with the Winterfresh gum camper van 30 feet away, staffed by a chipper woman who leapt into the brief lulls in the Mean Reds’ set to announce, via her large vehicle-mounted PA, that “Fresh breath and fresh music go together!” Anzalone glanced hatefully at the truck and passed the mike, interviewing the girls in the front row: “What does punk rock mean to you? What is punk rock about for you?”

A Latina no older than 15 with red-streaked hair and matching red bands on her braces answered, “Punk rock is about being who you are and doing what you want.” The rest of the small audience, mostly older punks and industry folks, clapped.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jessica Hopper, Aaron Settipane, Dan Monick.