As the Bard once said, a sinus infection is a terrible thing to waste. Thus, my weeklong excursion into the heart of Austin, taken over by a preponderance of that weird and introverted paler sex (the blogger, duh), was punctuated by that nagging feeling that one gets after having ingested opiates (I would assume…) or, in my case, heavy doses of Motrin. Being a SXSW virgin but relative festival veteran, I assumed that what I would be getting into would be just like every other experience, full of sweat, worn walking shoes and the wide-open, accessible atmosphere that makes music festivals so beautiful.
Right. Right. Wrong.
While it’s not as if SXSW was particularly withholding (seeing Rick Ross certainly has never been easier), there seemed to be an ever-present waking nag for something not particularly attainable. Didn’t have a badge? Good luck seeing the hotly anticipated Eve 6 reunion without sneaking in. Didn’t get there early enough? Grimes might just not play at all, anyway. And let’s just not even talk about the egregious lines for food. Waiting has always been a key component of the music experience – release dates, hyped first singles, day-of ticket lines – but SXSW really seemed to be more about the waiting, then recapping of something than the actual thing itself. Either by its own design or by the crushing number of drunken fraternity brothers descending on the town like it was a veritable pale Cancun, the action always seemed two steps ahead of the people around it. By the way, did you catch Jack White? I thought not.
When things become so complexly difficult to access, as many of the official/unofficial showcases/parties/shows/interviews/keynotes/presentations/circle jerks were, the more transcendent things to notice about an event as massive as SXSW are the things that are right on the surface. Blogger culture has ben engendered to dig out the unattainable, the places that nobody knows about and the shows nobody else goes to. SXSW is like this, but flipped on its head. Anything not ridiculously hyped is boring, a fact that SXSW shares with only one other type of mass social meeting: a trade show.
If nothing else, SXSW has turned into a trade show. This seems obvious, since the festival is cored by a giant convention center (which, by the way, is not the easiest thing to get into itself), but even outside, on 6th St. or Red River or Congress, Austin turns itself into its own Bizarro World to hawk products that would otherwise make the pierced, tattooed masses inhabiting the city cringe.
Taco Bell and PS3, meet Hype Machine. You guys will get along great. More than the bands themselves, SXSW is about the sponsors, the people who can and have paid the most money to be able to access that buzzy blogger cultures that’s so obsessed with cats and .gifs these days. It’s a profit world, didn’t you know?
This is by no means to say that the music wasn’t frequently terrific. Pre-natal punk-rock gods The Men, Cloud Nothings and Titus Andronicus played seemingly every venue, and the now decade old Doomtree made more of a media presence than they ever have. Even the last night, that worn Saturday in which everything seems a bit slower from eating Julio’s breakfast tacos for four days straight, brought a ribald crowd to Lucky Thirteen for a vicious Nashville rock n’ roll showcase headlined by a first-time-in-Texas The Weeks. Festival friendly world acts like Rubblebucket made you forget about the lines for another disappointing Zola Jesus performance at the Fader Fort, and Washed Out proved chillwave could be played outside.
But the real focus here was product. Push, sell, hand-out, whatever. Just get product to the masses. Moutain Dew co-opted a hush-hush lil Wayne performance for their DEWeezy van. A hardcore Christian church came to warn of hellfire while a block down scantily clad women pretended to like a human-sized Fleshlight. Camel Light bought a fucking garden for their secret party, while Marlboro was hitting the streets hard with one dollar cigarette packs in exchange for your email address. By the second or third round of walking around looking for exactly where the Spotify House was located, the reality of the drug dealer mentality – sell, sell, sell – at SXSW had fully set in.
In a way, SXSW resembles the internet. A cadre of bloggers scared to talk to one another but all to eager to talk at one another, constantly in search of something nobody else has heard of, all the while being bludgeoned to death by Brand Marketing 101.
The corporatizing of hipster culture is nothing worth fighting a battle against – the war has already been lost, and Bushmills is planting their flag on the rotting corpse of forums worldwide. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that SXSW would mirror the festival-goers attending it. This doesn’t make it any less jarring to watch product hype replace performance. For christ sakes, the new iPad came out during SXSW.
This curatorship stage of music journalism and hip signifiers is something to get used to, and in that way SXSW was a lovely way to cut ones teeth. In the midst of a ibuprofen-induced haze state I might have eaten one or two (or seventeen) Doritos Tacos Locos at the Hype Hotel. If I can’t access the internet, I need ads one way or another; why not eat them? Amidst all the beautiful music (and there was a ton of it, don’t worry), the stale taste of exclusivity and capitalism permeates. It’s a corporate world; SXSW knows it.