This year’s SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas was amazingly overwhelming, a constant influx of sounds and sights, so much to intake and digest and process, a four-day continuous trial of discerning hype from authenticity. And this was just my Twitter feed.
For a decade since 2000, I have flown down to the music journalists’ version of Spring Break positively stoked on live music. I would spend weeks beforehand formulating my plan of attack picking out the bands I HAD TO SEE vs. the bands I had to see. I had A-list showcases, Plan B performances, and a stack of RSVP’s to after-parties, and an armful of wristbands for after-after-parties. And when I was there, walking down the the centrally located 6th St., I ran into friends and colleagues from all over the world, drank lotsa beer, and heard some truly inspiring stuff. Like, aural memories my ears will never forget. I can go into story after story about the bands I saw in impossibly small and intimate settings, like the time I caught the Yeah Yeah Yeahs when I was close enough to get spat on by Karen O, or the night I hung out in an awful bar for sets by Hot Chip, M.I.A., and LCD Soundsystem consecutively, or the weekend I saw Bloc Party five times over one weekend each time by accident.
But this isn’t a trip down the beer-soaked and urine-scented Memory Lane. This is about the year I didn’t go, and it seems, in 2011, sweet anticipation lost its virginity to bitter cynicism. I followed the festival closely because of my terrible case of FOMO – absorbing blog entries, “reliable” outlets (whatever that means), the Twitter feeds of my fellow journalists, live streams, and emails on message boards. Despite being ostensibly grounded by the wife (see: new baby, needy dog), I would try to be as close to the experience as one can be via technology. It’s a bit depressing, innit? Imagining some dude in his boxers sitting in a dark living room scouring for show reviews 140 characters at a time. But as the weekend progressed, and the more I read about the four day music marathon, the more I felt maybe I had been better off staying at home.
It started with New York Magazine’s Vulture pop music columnist Nitsuh Abebe’s nearly two posts about anxiety. First, anxiety about the festival as a whole, and then anxiety over the future of hip-hop. Abebe even referenced NPR’s Ann Power’s own anxiety and feelings of inadequacy in his first essay. “Chasing down new sounds, for a living or just as a fan, is mostly a huge joy,” she wrote, “because music feeds every part of the body and the soul. Yet this pursuit, like anything that defines us culturally, brings up issues of authority and inclusion that can confuse and alienate.”
Whoa. This thing is supposed to be fun, right? But my impression from most, like the sentiment shared by two of my favorite music journalists/ bloggers, is that this was the year when the festival’s cup overfloweth. Shows like Odd Future (hip-hop punk), DFA 1979 (hipster punk) and The Strokes (tofu punk) all gained buzz traction because of the riots these acts inspired. The surreally hyped rap collective Odd Future taking great pride in being the weekend’s nefarious upstarts was huge Internet fodder (never mind the controversial rape lyrics. We’ve forgotten about that, apparently), while DFA79’s Sebastian Grainger performing awkward stand-up/ stage banter while police tried to end their performance at the Beauty Bar due to rioting has given this has-been act the attention it so desperately wants (notice bassist’s Jesse Keeler’s joke in this video about beating up a horse? Later on, one of its fans threw a beer bottle at a police horse. “Cool.”). And what about the Strokes? It’s not like they’re excited about the prospect of playing together live–what would inspire the kind of desperation that warrants a group of kids to break down fences for a group of 30-something dudes rocking begrudgingly?
Controversy, small “c,” aside, what about the music? Aside from my pal Aaron Richter, who Twittered for our music magazine self-titled and took a pretty adventurous route, reviews came in like one of those mock Coachella posters. Some raved about the Meat Puppets, others got giddy about seeing Fishbone and Foo Fighters. Rolling Stone magazine even had Tracey Bonham perform at their showcase (remember her? No? How about now?). Then there were all-caps REVIEWS about Kanye’s and Diddy’s appearances, respectively. Yes, I said “Diddy.” Duran Duran, Moby, and TV on the Radio were also there. Everyone tried to get into those shows. Das Racist seemingly performed 17,000 times (hardest working dudes out there. Period), and I learned a thing or two about new metal bands (maybe because I follow this guy). Also, in the next few months, you’ll hear more about genuine discoveries like Cults, Austra, the Chain Gang of 1974, and Jamie Woon, but I also could have told you about them simply by reading, say, a Stereogum, and not necessarily from flying down to Tejas.
I would be remiss, though, if I did not admit that I still wanted to be there. Frustrations and lines aside (of which both were seemingly abundant), I think I would have felt less pressured to MUST. DISCOVER. BAND. at SXSW than I had years previous. Because of the proliferation of finely curated music blogs, frankly, I’m discovering some wonderful stuff all year round. I don’t think I would need one crammed four-day weekend to do it. And while it’s easy for me to say this now after the fact, after I wasn’t there, I’m eager to test out my newfound serenity in 2012 (right, honey?).
One major problem I do foresee, though, is that A) there’s a music blog launched every 0.3 seconds and B) a festival like SXSW thrives off our collective wont to GET INTO THAT EXCLUSIVE THING. Combine thousands upon thousands of first adapters and seekers with even more exclusive events and the two culminates into hostility, disgruntlement, angst, and, well, rioting. And as disappointing as it is that SXSW is basically turning into a skinny jeans Jugaloos gathering, it is also not surprising. We can only have throngs and throngs of people trying to squeeze into makeshift venues the size of a studio apartment for so long until it gets ugly. And on that note, SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!