A Level Field


“When you fly out of Las Vegas to, say, Milwaukee, the absences imposed by repression are like holes in your vision.” I feel this line of Dave Hickey’s from Air Guitar because I’ve lived in both places, sorta—the latter for too goddamned long, and Austin, which bests Vegas during South by Southwest, the 20-year-running music conference. The bands at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, supposedly the world’s largest music festival, tend toward the dinosaur; the oppressively whitebread crowd sits through disparate acts on the Miller stage more out of love for the Miller. SXSW, however, remains staunchly for the up-and-coming, a category wide enough to include both the Arctic Monkeys and bands that only play for bartenders. So those with eclectic tastes can pig out. SXSW dissolves genre distinctions with an illusion of the totality of popular music.

Of course, a similar dissolution of class distinctions is supposed to follow. Up-and-comers attend SXSW to find out how they could subsist on and perhaps dominate in art and democracy. So dozens of panels, one-to-one mentoring sessions, and trade exhibits pull back the curtain on the system. And the 1,500 bands in 40-minute spurts on 65 stages put all that theory into practice.

So SXSW is a level playing field in a town overrun by tech lords who left their hearts (such as they are) on Wall Street and refuse to let local politics ruin their nightlife fun. Undoubtedly, for some Austinites SXSW replicates a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Precious few locals get to flash the coveted badge that allows mostly out-of-towners to whisk past the second-class wristband wearers and proceed into their show of choice. And the bands remain overwhelmingly white. But when faced with even a representation of a totality, some restrictions necessarily apply.

And those 1,500 bands weren’t the only representation on hand. My favorite panel was the sober PowerPoint presentation “Quantum Music Analysis (QMA) of Hit Songs” presented by Mike McCready of Platinum Blue Music Intelligence. By comparing every song in Billboard‘s Top 30 to the rest of the musical universe, the “scientists” at Platinum Blue have discovered that 85 percent of all hit songs conform to certain “hit clusters” based on mathematical patterns. Then at the trade show, the well-named “music discovery service” (created by the Music Genome Project) mapped out every musical “gene” possible to help you find more music you’ll like, based on bands you already love.

This emphasis on conformity and similarity (not to mention the genetic-engineering discourse) begs for the wisdom of Poly Styrene. But on one level, both devices were merely attempts to wrestle with the totality. Unsurprisingly, the best of the 1,500 were just approaching the mat.

Electro geeks Hot Chip already know they’re sexier than Depeche Mode at a similar stage of development. So they peeled off their shirts and made their squirrelly tunes sweat like tribal house. You could just see frontman Alexis Taylor all drugged up and rockerish 20 years hence à la Dave Gahan. Likewise, witnessing Art Brut’s lead haranguer Eddie Argos natter on in front of the mixed-gender-and-age band he’s formed gave his smarty-pants lyrics a corny one-world aspect missing in a haranguing godfather like Mark E. Smith. Brainy and corny—two great tastes you almost never get in the same candy bar—put Argos’s sex appeal (and potential career longevity) through the roof.

Ariel Pink’s dumbfoundingly gorgeous ghost rock imagines the sound of remembering songs, but live he threw up his hands when he couldn’t access that haunted quality with his box of echo effects. Ass Pony Chuck Cleaver, rediscovering himself with new band Wussy and riding the catchiest record of his career, seemed content with that achievement as well as his John Popper–like frame. But whither Gil Mantera’s Party Dream, the best act I caught this year—two velvet-hip-huggered brothers from Youngstown, Ohio, who roughhouse each other onstage? Their jokey new wave is cut with guitaristics occasionally invoking the billowy tufts of (can this be?) Manuel Gottsching. Id/superego, brand new/you’re retro antagonized one another in syntheses that vaguely recalled Andrew W.K.

And for every official show, there were countless unofficial ones like Seattle’s United State of Electronica. Easily the most party-hearty live act in the country, they played two unofficial venues an hour apart on opposite sides of I-35. And poor Leah Archibald of Wide Right flew in from Brooklyn to find her unofficial show canceled due to rain. For Archibald, Austin wasn’t a playground or even a level playing field. It was an airport where you had to wait before you could face the next totality.