So this week was the annual insanity in Austin, TX known as South by Southwest (sxsw). The original idea of sxsw from many, many years ago was that it was an industry event where new and unsigned bands could come and play with the possibility of getting signed by a label.
I am not sure that has been the goal for at least about 20 years.
Sxsw now is simply a smorgasbord of free beer and douche-y badge-wearing hacks pushing their way around the town. Now the biggest acts around play super-secret private parties for VIP’s who have no interest in real music. I am not sure how many times I heard someone on the bus asking about where and when Snoop Lion was playing. And also whether or not Snoop Lion was his new name or just some sort of phase Calvin Broadus is going through.
Still, there is a lot to love at sxsw. And really, working people who take their ‘spring break’ (like myself) want and enjoy free beer as much as the next person. And what can sometimes be most interesting about sxsw is the intersection between these things.
Most of the bands playing (and by most I pretty much mean everyone outside the Snoop Lion/Justin Timberlake level) are working musicians or, and this is much more likely, are people that work day jobs and are trying to make their own music in their own way and make a living at it.
Keith Brown, from the great band Trails and Ways, said the whole thing reminds him of some sort of anarcho-capitalist experiment.
After an initial chuckle you start to get what he means. Sxsw is a place where some rad band from some far-flung small town plays in an alley festooned with giant Taco Bell banners and tubs of free Vitamin Water. It’s a place where a diy aesthetic is bought and paid for by the largest corporate giants on the planet. A place where money and free beer grease the skids for the working and barely working to see great music that is off the beaten path.
I have to imagine this was not the intention. And I don’t think it actually is.
Local Austinites have always had the option of buying a wristband to get into shows. These are only sold locally and in person and allow you access to the night showcases without paying but only AFTER every rich fool with a badge gets in. Sxsw is clear though: having a wristband guarantees nothing.
There is a strong impetus to oversell something that guarantees nothing as locals are only useful to fill out venues that are not already full. This is all well and good and not at all surprising if the price for these were not so high. Wristbands now run you close to $200 and for a guarantee of nothing, they have gotten pointless. The badges are where it’s at but those run over $500 so not many people I know are getting those.
Class lines are drawn with the middle class of wristbanders ever dwindling. All of them are pulled down to the level of the working people who by hook or by crook are getting to see the music they love.
It is clear here that the music invading your town is actually not for you.
That said, you can see a lot of great stuff…
This year I was especially interested in gender balance. The music scene in general and indie/punk/metal particular has for far too long been androcentric. This is a man’s game (or perhaps a man-child’s game).
The culture industries have long been a place of contestation. On one hand they are used by the mainstream to reproduce the ideology of the ruling class. However the contradiction between an unsubsidized music industry and the desire for pre-packaged pop stars opens up spaces for people to do interesting things. Or at the very least the space to cut against dominate ideas.
This year I was looking to see who inhabits these spaces and to see it specifically through the lens of gender.
Overall I think I did a good job of it. The best day I spent was the first one where I saw seven bands during the day and six were lead by women and all seven had women in the band.
Before I get into specifics I want to say that in a lot of ways things are getting better. They are not changing necessarily but overtly sexist practices are more and more being called out. This has been especially obvious in people pushing back against the way women musicians are written about in the music press. I am thinking specifically of the piece in the Seattle weekly, the Stranger, about Men Who Rock.
This is a good thing and a consequence of a renewed interest in feminism and gender equality in all spheres. And you could see this in the festival this year.
Not so much at the top but definitely at the grassroots of the fest.
So as not to disappoint readers who want to actually HEAR something in an article about a music fest, here are three of the great women-lead bands I saw this year.
First off is Chvrches. There is the great resurgence of a particular sort of pop music that was last popular some 20 years ago. It is something akin to twee or Scottish pop music of the likes of Heavenly and The Sundays.
Chvrches is definitely doing this music right. The band is a three piece, electronic band lead by Lauren Mayberry who has a voice that is somehow powerful and twee all at the same time. They do not even have a record out yet they packed the Hype Hotel where I saw them and seemed to get good press all week long.
Check out “The Mother We Share” to get a feel for their sound. It will also probably be in your head for a good long time after listening…
If you want something harder, I would recommend checking out White Lung. They play a classic brand of blistering punk rock lead by the strong and powerful screamer, Mish Way.
Way graduated from Simon Fraser University with a degree in Gender Studies and Communications and studied feminist philosophy at the Universiteit Utrecht in the Netherlands.
So, right there – bad ass! And as you can expect, it’s definitely a pro-woman punk rock. Check out the song “Glue” to get a good taste and then really get both of their records and scream along.
The best time I had the whole week though had to have been seeing Icona Pop in the Urban Outfitters parking lot (see the corporate intersection here?).
Icona Pop are a Swedish all electronic dance duo who can play dance party music in a totally honest non-self conscious way that gets everybody into it.
There was a big crowd out to see them, with the backlot at capacity and a surprising amount of people watching from behind the fence. I’ll be honest here – the only track from Icona Pop I’ve ever really heard is “I Love It,” so I figured I would politely wait until they inevitably played that song at the end of their set.
Instead, they brought it on the first track and kept it going throughout their set. I was dancing to songs I’d never heard before like they were my jam. Even my friends, who were mainly there to see White Lung and sticking it out for my benefit, were dancing and having a great time. For their part, Icona Pop looked to be having just as good a time as their fans, running around the stage and dancing throughout their set.
Of course, they closed with “I Love It” and everyone did, of course, love it. Check it out and then dance in your bedroom while you scream into your hairbrush about crashing your car into a bridge. So much fun!
Lastly, no socialist worthy of the name could be at sxsw this week and not make a point to see Billy Bragg.
I have been a Bragg fan since the early 90’s and have never been disappointed by Bragg’s live show. He tends to talk a lot between songs and tell very political stories and funny anecdotes about whatever strikes him. In fact, it’s a lot of the reason that fans come back to see him again and again. And the two times I saw him play were no exception.
Both times he did three old songs and three or four new songs. He has a new record coming out soon and while I was not originally that excited about it, after hearing the new stuff (and a Woody Guthrie cover!) I am definitely going to check it out. A friend of mine who got an advanced copy has said it is the best Bragg in more than a decade.
This is good news but also not surprising. If you are a socialist songwriter going through the worst world economic crisis in our lifetime you sure as hell better have something to say about it.
But again a lot of the high point came during his banter. He told a brief story about kicking the BNP out of Barking. A story i think many in the audience thought might have something to do with dogs.
He also talked about us being in a time where our so-called leaders and elected officials have no solutions to the problems facing people. (I disagree as I think they do have solutions, they are just not OUR solutions)
This got me thinking about how interesting Bragg’s politics are and how we don’t really have an equivalent here in the US.
Bragg is a classic European social democrat. He believes in a specific brand of working class politics that found its voice in the historical ‘socialism’ of the Labor Party. And while the British Labor Party is most closely associated with the Democratic party here, their histories are quite different.
Bragg believes in the political elaboration of working class politics in the electoral realm via the Labor Party. In the US class has been erased from our politics in favor of ‘special interests’.
It leads to someone like Bragg making real class based demands but at the same time lamenting the fact that his own political leaders have sold him out. There has very rarely been an expectation among socialists (or social democrats) of anything class-based to come out of the Democratic party.
It’s why his critiques can be so spot on but his solutions so mushy. And while similar to the disconnect among American liberals, it’s not quite the same. And at any rate, old school social democrats are a dying breed. And I am sad to see them go. It does no one on the left any good to lose any of the somewhat class conscious.
But Bragg’s wit and humor is just as powerful today as it was when he started. He ended his set with a reprise of The Great Leap Forward. If you are a Bragg fan already and especially if you have seen him play, you know he often changes the lyrics to this song to speak on modern conditions and this was the best version of the hundreds I have heard of this song.
It had everything. A shout out to occupy Wall Street demanding a voice in how business is conducted in “the twilight of the capitalist system.” As well as an ending line about how “some people say women should stay quiet but I say FREE PUSSY RIOT!” that got the crowded cheering.
The set was aired live on KEXP (a Seattle radio station) and the set will be up on their website at some point. I know I will go back and listen to it once it is up.
And of course, it wouldn’t be complete without a picture! And I am happy I was wearing my Labor Notes shirt that day and Bragg commented that he liked it (I had also thought about asking him what he thought about the crisis in the SWP (UK) but I got stage fright and just grinned stupidly at him for a few seconds before wandering off…).
Overall sxsw is a ton of fun. There is all sorts of terrible corporate sponsored bullshit everywhere and the requisite bikini clad women passing out redbulls to bleary eyed industry goofuses but there are spaces where you can glimpse a sweeter, alternate reality.
And if you do it right, you can catch the beautiful messiness of artistic creation busting through demanding to be heard. It is a place where you can see only what they want you to see or a place where you can feel a part of a genuine, worldwide community of fans and musicians and unlike any other music festival ever, it is a place where the line between fan and performer is most blurred.
Often you are standing in front of a stage watching an amazing performer who, 30 minutes before, was standing next to you at a different show in front of another stage watching a bad ass performer. It is what music can and should be: By the fans, for the fans.
It’s good that for how long sxsw has been going on that this is even still possible.