After attending the EarthLink/Pringles Summer Slam Jam—I mean, SXSW—for the second year, I realized that everything that’s wrong with SXSW is everything that’s wrong with this culture. There’s too much of everything, we’re paralyzed by too many over-hyped choices, we’re sucked dry of our energy, the more connected we are the more isolated we feel. And no one knows what the hell is going on.
Like cell phone plans and cable TV channels, there are way too many bands at SXSW. Over 1,700 of them “officially” crowded our collective headspace last week, and that’s not counting the shit-ton hustling at all those day parties. (Only 170 or so acts played the first year, in 1987.) Rather than making you giddy, though, too much choice can lead to paralysis, not unlike standing glassy-eyed in front of a supermarket aisle bulging with hundreds of flavors of cereal.
With little time or energy for calculated risk, you end up curating your own festival along party lines: I knew I wanted to see Die! Die! Die!, MGMT and The Blow, but that meant not making it to Motorhead or R.E.M., and not standing a chance of catching the NPR day party.
It also meant not always having time to stop and smell the obscure. Why was R.E.M. even playing at all? Is SXSW a promotion vehicle for artists who’ve misplaced their buzz? Or for fans to cram in every possible performance by any band that might be remotely good? Either way, we’re reduced to being little mice in a maze chasing the indie rock cheese, and that means seeing more of what you know you like, and less of what you might like.
Sure, young unsigned bands abound, but thanks to the hype machine, only one earns the dubious title of Hottest Buzziest Wankers of the Minute, and sorry folks, but that already went to Vampire Weekend—before they’d even unpacked their cardigans. I never even caught a VW show, because I was too busy not seeing the bands that didn’t play on time. (The only thing worse than Rock on a Schedule is Rock That Doesn’t Follow the Posted Schedule.)
We can only take so much. Yeah, we all want to float home on a magical carpet of weird time signatures and non-standard tunings. But too much choice begets paralysis, and paralysis begets despondence, despondence begets irritation, irritation begets exhaustion, and exhaustion makes your mono flare up. And people such as myself are impatient. They also have the attention span of a gnat.
Also, people are gross. Camille Paglia once wrote that romanticism always leads to decadence. Is that why anytime you put a bunch of people together and give them music and booze and a little walking-around money, they will inevitably mutate into Spring Break meets Mardi Gras meets Carnival? If Wednesday and Thursday were a fun college mixer, Friday and Saturday were a fratty, shirtless human pyramid of double-fisted Miller High Lifes, cargo shorts, gold lamé skirts and clear heels. God help us all—we were just trying to catch five minutes of Jay Reatard.
But I sound cynical. Spending four days awash in label reps, industry gadflies and hideously primped poseurs will do that to you. Exhausted and hot, suddenly your judgments become relative, and what stands out are the fire-breathing gut-buster shows, the thrillingly intense performances that make everybody else look like they’re playing a senior citizens center. Sea Wolf put on a great set, but their quieter numbers, such as “Middle Distance Runner,” were all but dwarfed by the roar of chattering networkers at the Filter day party, some of whom actually wore visors. (I know, they keep out the sun. They also belong on golf courses.) So it couldn’t hold a candle to Crystal Castles’ hyper set of dark, glitchy 8-bit schizophrenia that stabbed into your brain.But ironically, the best show I saw came not from a Next Big Thing, but from an artist who has been coming off his peak for 15 years. It was a plugged-in acoustic set by Dinosaur Jr. guitar god J. Mascis. Hunched over his guitar and pedals under a swinging bright light, he looped the strummy riffs and mangled and screeched through the brilliant solo on “Little Fury Things,” among other songs off Green Mind and You’re Living All Over Me. It was electric and brain-frying, both strangely quiet and ear-splittingly loud. A line of folks stood outside, on the unfortunate side of the chain-link fence that ran alongside the club. It was laced with green plastic strips to give cover from the street. These were the folks without wristbands, without badges and without a hope in hell of getting in. So they slid the plastic down the way you would poke your fingers through window blinds, and gazed toward Mascis in rapt attention, and for a moment, it felt like an honest-to-God regular show. Hardly any buzz, and no signs of the dreaded networking. Just a bunch of people drinking beers and quietly singing along to songs nearly 20 years old and all but forgotten.