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26 October 2022

Notes from When We Were Young festival, the home of millennial emo nostalgia

Last weekend, I and other ageing emos made a pilgrimage to our lost youth, flying thousands of miles to see My Chemical Romance and Avril Lavigne play in one place.

By Lauren O'Neill

When Liz Truss resigned as the prime minister on 20 October, I didn’t find out until a day later because at the time I was trundling around a Las Vegas casino called New York New York – which has its own Statue of Liberty, an Irish pub (actually constructed in and shipped over from Ireland), a Hershey’s World of Chocolate, a Coyote Ugly-themed bar and an indoor rollercoaster – clutching a frozen margarita roughly the size and weight of an adult head.

When you’re on holiday, you often lose touch with events at home thanks to the physical distance, time difference, and the act of mentally switching off. But on this occasion, there was probably something a little more intentional and active about my lack of knowledge about the UK’s headline news. 

Let me back-track for a moment. In January of this year, a music festival called When We Were Young was announced: taking place on a festival site just off Vegas’s main strip, it would feature a headline set from the newly reformed My Chemical Romance, plus almost every other act shoved under the wide umbrella descriptor that “emo” – once a niche term describing Washington DC hardcore bands of the mid-1980s – became in the 2000s and early 2010s.

The news sent ripples of shock and delight around my specific corner of the internet, populated as it is by ageing emos (that is, people who largely spent their teenage years dyeing their hair black, Blu-Tacking dog-eared posters ripped out of Kerrang! magazine up on their bedroom walls, and generally worrying their parents). My friends and I, aged roughly 28-33, saw red. The moshers within us – who would still do anything to watch Paramore, Avril Lavigne, Bright Eyes, Alkaline Trio, Thursday, Manchester Orchestra and, obviously, My Chemical Romance in one day – took over. And this time round, we had the adult incomes to do so. Thanks to Covid, it would be our first group holiday in years. Unaware of the cost-of-living crisis that would hit in the autumn, we somehow managed to cough up the cash when tickets went on sale at the start of the year. And so, last week I travelled more than 5,000 miles from London to Las Vegas for a flying visit to the year 2006, and a brief escape from the UK’s many current crises. It was a pilgrimage to my youth.

It makes a specific kind of sense that this festival happened in Las Vegas. The place is a kind of Neverland, where your responsibilities melt away under the blue twinkle of Playboy-themed fruit machines and the glare of all-caps signs advertising endless opportunities to play something called CRAPS. An event called “When We Were Young”, which explicitly invites you to regress, slots right in.

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Our visit was stupidly indulgent in the way only a holiday in Vegas – which exists to cater to whims you didn’t even know you wanted to satisfy – can be. We drank margaritas served in blenders, tipsily wandered around Caesars Palace taking photos of the statues’ bums, made a show-stopping visit to an all-you-can-eat buffet, and inevitably screamed our throats raw at karaoke. The Saturday of the festival was cancelled due to Nevada desert wind speeds – leading to the unlikely sight of thousands of elder emos in full-fringed, skinny-jeaned, black nail-polished regalia wandering, bereft, around the nearest casino, mournfully slurping from drinks in 2-foot-long, fishnet-clad leg-shaped plastic cups. So it was, after around 72 hours of cavorting around this adult Disneyland, that we finally arrived at the festival site for the main event on Sunday 23 October.

Under the festival’s chequerboard-patterned entrance – a nod to the signature Vans slip-on skate shoes and matching belts beloved by emos everywhere – arched like a McDonald’s sign, or perhaps the gates of heaven, I marvelled at the fact that it was actually happening. I was surrounded by thousands of people in traditional emo dress: the place looked like a late-2000s MySpace meet-up, only aged up by a decade and a half. In keeping with emo’s important aesthetic element, the queues for official festival merchandise were hundreds-strong all day.

The sheer number of bands on the line-up meant short sets, spread out over four stages. Many feared a logistical nightmare, but in reality transitting from one stage to another was seamless. I stood in the sun and watched, transfixed, as a set by the emo goths AFI melded into one by the legendary pop-punk band Jimmy Eat World, which was in turn followed by the mic-swinging theatrics of Taking Back Sunday. The relentlessness only added to the overwhelming sense of nostalgia – it was like putting your iPod Mini on shuffle, or attending a show at a Barfly venue in the mid-2000s.

By the time Avril Lavigne appeared at 7.30pm, opening with “Girlfriend” then reeling through hits including “I’m with You”, “Complicated”, “My Happy Ending”, “Sk8r Boi” and a version of Blink-182’s “All the Small Things” with the band All Time Low, I was in the type of delirious, almost religious rapture that any fan who has relived the moments when they fell in love with music will be familiar with. And that was before Paramore or My Chemical Romance took to the stage.

My Chemical Romance – dressed especially for the occasion in the outfits from the music video for their 2004 single “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”, the unofficial anthem of anyone who has ever shoplifted eyeliner or XXL Live hair dye – clearly embraced the festival’s throwback theme. So, too, did most of the bands on stage, who talked about how exciting it was to celebrate 2000s emo. The festival was a self-conscious glorification of the subculture, from the stage names (Pink, Black, Checker and Neon, naturally) to the official water sponsor of the day (a brand called Liquid Death) and the grass, which was spray-painted pink. 

Despite a revival of sorts (thanks to new acts such as Willow, Huddy and Machine Gun Kelly, and the reformation of bands like My Chemical Romance and Blink-182, the latter of whom will headline next year’s already sold-out When We Were Young), mainstream emo was a decidedly millennial phenomenon that no longer really exists in quite the same way. When We Were Young, however, is proof that older emos have aged into a nostalgia market like any other, and, like other millennial demographics with the means to afford it, will pay handsomely (next year’s festival day tickets cost $249.99) for experiences that allow them to express those identities, or experience a kind of immersive cultural escapism.

The day after the festival, I woke up in our hotel room. After flicking through the terrible videos I’d taken of the bands the previous night, I scrolled Twitter and learned that the UK was to welcome its second unelected prime minister of the year, Rishi Sunak.

Usually this would be the kind of thing I’d text people about, or maybe even post about myself. This time I just sighed. Then I sat up in bed, asked my friends when we were going for a pancake breakfast, and watched my footage of Jimmy Eat World playing “The Middle” instead.

[See also: The battle of the Bob Dylan fans]

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