Work To Do

Face to face with what one decade had wrought, I wasn't about to deny that the next one would be at least as momentous. I just didn't think anyone had more than an inkling of what shape the change would take. As L.A. Times computer columnist and 1994 Austin immigrant Gary Chapman put it to me, today's Websters are "ninety-niners," staking claims they'll figure out how to mine later— if all goes well. And it was obvious that in an economically unstable realm like indie rock, this vast unknown was a perfect place to invest hope. I was struck by how labor-intensive the Net advice was, like insisting baby bands spend two hours a day promoting themselves online. I noticed that if the rock audience had been boutiqued in the '80s, now the dream was to modem it— to subdivide it further, a lousy way to nurture a subculture. And I kept wondering where the money was supposed to be; nobody seemed to notice when Downtown Marketing's Susan Piver Brown observed that "the creation of demand" had to precede marketing itself. Megacorporatism clearly doesn't mean that indie rock has to wither away. But if alternative careerism is to thrive, it must attract a larger share of what a whole phalanx of leisure industries fondly refer to as the entertainment dollar. And as several Internet panelists pointed out, that attraction must ultimately take place on the ground, not in cyberspace.

This is a tall order. In the '70s I imagined that the cacophony of the New York Dolls constituted an effective negotiation with information overload. But the one thing I'm sure I've learned from the Internet is that there's no negotiating with it, only muddling through. So although I'm happy to have caught 25 acts in three nights even if it meant gonging the Gravel Pit, the Hi-Fives, and the well- rehearsed but flowless Ugly Duckling, among others, I'm resigned to having missed some 1365, at least one of which no doubt would have knocked my socks off. As it was, a dozen were enjoyable at worst. And while most of these were well past the chat-room stage— a tactic perhaps suitable for L.A. art-punks Tongue, who I see have just updated their Web page— it was fair to hope that all could bring in yet more entertainment dollars. But that's not to say many were exciting, or excited. For me the big bill was Grandaddy, whose record I love, with Mercury Rev and Sparklehorse, whose records I am open to. Or rather, was— as I'd feared, Mercury Rev proved themselves America's answer to Radiohead, while Sparklehorse fetishize the same leave-me-alone whisper-whine Mercury Rev make something of and Grandaddy is musical enough to transfigure. "Other people turn it up," they informed a rowdy. "We're not the band for that." This bill drew a big crowd. But short of an arena-rock revival, a distinct possibility that Mercury Rev could definitely exploit, it's hard to envision that crowd expanding much.

A smaller alt-rock show was one major exception: Imperial Teen, in an outlying tent space, very late Thursday. Received yet recombinant, they inhabited their Velvets strum-drone, poppy backup parts, fey affect, and instrument-switching amateurishness with such evident or well-feigned delight that the music kept lifting and lifting. They didn't whine, either— they're into crooning and smirking. Not that they're more marketable than Grandaddy, or Mercury Rev— or Joe Ely, who was what he was, a reliable if predictable product of value to listeners set in their ways, including some who don't know about him yet. It is such products, all the way to Sparklehorse, that were one thing and probably the main thing most SXSW'ers were there to learn how to put across. Still, it's hard to believe any subculture can happily or healthily subsist on staples alone. It's also hard not to note that unlike Joe Ely or Mercury Rev, Imperial Teen are very gay, and that this seems to inspire them.

Imperial Teen: Austin's big gay exception
Imperial Teen: Austin's big gay exception

The other exception was the Swing Team, a local breaking crew at the token hip hop showcase: half black and half Chicano in a white-and-Chicano town, sexually integrated too. They probably won't go anywhere you'll hear about, and their flyer listed no Internet address. But they were sure having fun, and they were sure busy being born. Most people's mami and jeez-louise last a lot longer than professional hipsters think. But does that mean they last a lifetime? You tell me.

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