Barryfest at South By Southwest, Part 2: SXSW Is Shallow and Pedantic

Here is part 2 of 2 of Barryfest’s report on the 2011 South By Southwest Festival.  Part 1 can be found here: Barryfest at South By Southwest, Part 1: SXSW Is Decadent and Depraved.

I’m generally not the kind of guy that notices, asks for, or even cares about American politics at rock shows. In fact, there was a time, somewhere between Rage Against the Machine’s second album Evil Empire and, not ironically, when Bono started begging George W. Bush for money on behalf of all 3rd World countries, that I wanted every nineties band to just shut the fuck up. I was naively, doggedly opposed to the joining of music and politics: the stage on which the likes of Zach de la Rocha, Bono, and Wyclef Jean stood was for art and entertainment; the politics should be left to the politicians.

Within the context of 2011’s South by Southwest Festival however, my mindset was exactly the opposite (and probably will be for the rest of my life), as I noticed a grave sense of political disaffectedness that consumed the entire city of Austin from the minute I arrived until I awoke Sunday morning to find out that the U.S. was bombing Libya. During our stay in downtown Austin, we – though a captive audience of listeners and observers – were treated to little more than the so-called “Green Zone Powered by Nokia”, a tented parking lot meagerly riddled with potted plants, that few – if any – of us stepped foot in during the course of the weekend for fear of getting hounded by the numerous entry-level corporate schwocks hawking Rolling Stone t-shirts disguised as Rolling Stones t-shirts.

Not a single band I saw at this festival, not even those bands I’d follow to the ends of the Earth – …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Obits, the Screaming Females – mentioned the earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear crisis in Japan. Admittedly, at a festival like SXSW, where speed takes substantial precedence over content, sets are short and bands sometimes have just enough time to play a handful of songs before getting offstage. However, most of the acts I saw were certainly not short on inter-song banter, and there always seemed to be enough time for a spokesperson MC to come on stage and shill for some corporate sponsorship.

I’m not altogether naive: I realize that gigantic portable outdoor stages don’t erect themselves and that massive amounts of free drinks, trinkets, t-shirts and other swag certainly don’t pay for themselves. For an array of reasons, many of which I wholeheartedly understand, corporate sponsorship is not only inevitable, but necessary. Nevertheless, this weekend the concept not only lingered over every venue I visited in downtown Austin, but often seemed to take precedence over everything.

Instead of even more apolitical statements like “keep the people of Japan in your thoughts” or “hey, just letting you all know that we’re bombing Lybia, which is pretty serious”, what I got from OFF! frontman Keith Morris at the all-day Mess With Texas party was a boilerplate “Did you know?” segment involving the fact that the Bushes and the Bin Ladens were flying on a plane together immediately after 9-11.  I felt thoroughly patronized by what I saw as little more than the aural version of Nic Offer’s crotch thrusting: I am well aware – just as I was 10 years ago – that the unimaginably wealthy elite of this Earth fly in planes together.

It’s entirely possible that I mistook OFF!’s live format – a repeating pattern of minute-long politically-fueled monologues followed by fifty-second songs of gritty, head-pounding hardcore punk – as a sign that the politics of its members had evolved with the times and that topics like the exponentially widening poverty gap or the BP oil spill’s political implications would be more of a priority than decade-old political hearsay. Nevertheless, something led me to believe that OFF! – a band featuring members of Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and Burning Brides – would simply have more to say.

Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All, a group of 17 to 20-year-old Los Angeles rappers, ironically provided no different a vibe than the punk rock bands that preceded them. I’ve heard OFWKTA regularly referred to as the “punk rock of hip-hop”, and I suppose that in terms of running around the stage like nuts, climbing up the scaffolding, jumping into the crowd from twenty-five feet in the air and continually crowd surfing, they certainly meet that standard. But in terms of content, I could hear little more than Cypress Hill hanging out with the lyricist from Lords of Acid.

All of the sudden I was starved for legitimate political grandstanding, the likes of which only Bono or Sinead O’Connor could satisfy, which is ironic because I happen to despise both of those singers’ music. “But at least those goons have something to say, some sort of purpose,” I thought while watching OFWGKTA. “You’ve got a stage, and we are your captive audience at a festival known for breaking bands and rocket-fueling careers: use it.”

It’s possible that I’m fixated on the memory of some sort of unrealistic punk rock paradigm, one in which the hardest, most aggressive and dirtiest noise one can possibly hear comes from calm, articulate, worldly musicians; and one that the acts I saw this weekend could seemingly never satisfy.

Maybe they never should. Maybe no one ever has.  Maybe the consistent changing of the musical guard, an already seismic event that is put into even sharper focus at the critical mass buzzfest that is SXSW, provides perfect fodder for the over-elegiazing of my favorite bands of yore, projecting a dynamism upon them that they may have never actually possessed.  Although I’d swear I’ve seen, listened to, or conversed with bands that reach the high standard to which I held the performers at the 2011 SWSX Festival, I honestly can’t name a single one.  Maybe the standard is unprecedented.  Maybe it’s downright unrealistic.

And maybe it’s better off that any standard a guy like Bono could arguably typify gets left in the realm of overly-optimistic, fuzzily inaccurate memories of the bands that shaped my adolescence.  With America now engaged in three wars and the international community still reeling from a truly monumental disaster in Japan, we are living in strange times – times when politics and music are indeed best left in different arenas.

That being said, if Bono had been around and wanted to weigh in on the news of the day, I’d probably have listened.

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