Roughly a half decade ago, SXSW mutated from its indie-rock, pre-Internet roots into something resembling Mardi Gras for music nerds. Chalk it up to positive word of mouth, outreach toward the rap world, and the ostensibly sensible idea to spend a week inebriated in Austin. It's an industry meet and greet disguised as a celebration of music. And it comes at a price. Lines as long as all of Luxembourg. Geeks gone wild, watching bands bang out crude 45-minute sets while facing a full-frontal assault of tweets, Tumblring, and up-to-the-minute, hype-stoking blog posts.
The media maelstrom underscores SXSW's dirty secret: Due to Internet overexposure and saturation, the number of true breakout bands is few. And anyone who cared to read about it was already busy at the festival—waking up at the crack of noon to search for free BBQ. With the trail of SXSW tweets disintegrating into the fog of the workweek and Austin's blood pressure slowly lowering, here are a few highs and lows of the bacchanalia for the overblogged.
Best Sign That the Nineties Are Back
Shirts spotted included RuPaul and the famed 1993 Rolling Stone cover of a topless Janet Jackson.
Best Band to Make You Believe That Punk Rock Will Outlast Phyllis Diller: The Coathangers
Whether you believe that the glory days of all-female punk bands ended when the Bangles started walking like Egyptians or when Sleater-Kinney broke up, the Coathangers will change your mind. They are four beer- and bourbon-fueled instruments of aggression playing at high velocity with maximum volume. Formed in Atlanta, the band has spent the past four years recording a fair number of fantastic songs and gunning across the continent, converting fans with each raw but well-rehearsed exhibition.
Bob your head to "Killdozer" and find me a modern punk band with comparably savage and swaggering groove. The Coathangers could make an Urban Outfitters seem like an underground epicenter, which makes them the perfect band for SXSW. At the Suicide Squeeze showcase, they traded off instruments and vocals so fierce that they could make the Taco Bell-fed belly of the beast seem as grimy as the ODB.
Best Rapper to Make You Snatch SXSW Badges From Necks
The next-wave, Portishead-jacking gangsta rapper Schoolboy Q was ubiquitous in Austin. Frequently joined onstage by his fellow marijuana-addled marksmen—the Interscope-signed Black Hippy (Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul)—Q had crowds bouncing. Throughout the week, the L.A. Hoover Crip lived up to the goodwill he's accrued. His live show is rowdier than a rugby match.
Best Show You Were Glad to Miss
On Friday night, the Shady Records showcase featured a who's who of the music world. But the chief selling point was 50 Cent performing his seminal-but-steroidal 2003 album Get Rich or Die Trying in its entirety—with Eminem allegedly on deck for guest duty. The Slim Shady rumors proved prescient, but by all accounts 50's exercise in nostalgia was disastrous. He was ill-rehearsed, forgot the words of his songs, and taunted the crowd for their lack of enthusiasm. Though Eminem was galvanic during his brief time on stage, no one could save Formula 50 from going up in flames.
Best Show You Wanted to See But Didn't
Few made it into the bandbox-size Central Presbyterian Church on Thursday night to see the combination of highly touted electronic artists Grimes and Nicolas Jaar and R&B star The-Dream. Those who did supposedly walked out wearing W.W.J.D. bracelets (What Would Jaar Do?).
Best Overheard Snippet of Conversation
"No, you don't understand, TLC were huge back in the day."
Second-Best Overheard Snippet of Conversation
"Someone, like, asked me, 'Is this your first SXSW?' and I was like, 'Duh, no, this is my second, bitches.'"
Best Chanted Motto
To rap novices, Memphis' Juicy J is best known for the unruly gothic thump of Three Six Mafia—namely their short-lived MTV show and unforgettable celebration at the Oscars after winning Best Original Song for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." To the latest generation of college kids, he is known for being a lovable stoner affiliated with Wiz Khalifa's Taylor Gang. On Friday night, Juicy J magnetized a crowd of 700 people largely too young to rent a car. With Khalifa looming on stage, J had the crowd screaming along with his hook: "You say no to drugs. Juicy J can't."
Best Question Directed at No One
The girl with powder-blue hair staggering outside the Dickies party who asked the void: "Does anyone know how to get to the MTV Woodie Awards?"
WELCOME TO AUSTIN. PLEASE DON'T MOVE HERE. I HEAR DALLAS IS GREAT.
Best Backward-Reaching Band
The L.A.-based Allah-Las (above) draw extensively from the well-trod terrain of sixties surf, psychedelic, and garage rock but exude a meticulousness and a magnetism in their synthesis of the sounds that soundtracked the Summer of Love. Picture a classic British Invasion band being plucked to write a superb soundtrack for an Antonioni film.
Schlepping a full-scale ensemble including multiple guitarists, a live drummer, a trumpet player, and enough pedals and electronic gizmos to fuel a power plant, Michigan's Matthew Dear performed something akin to what Talking Heads would sound like if they came up today raised on the vintage IDM records released by Warp. Signed to Ghostly, Dear proved that though many in Austin took cues from older forms of sound, plenty still artfully charted new constellations.
Weirdest Retelling of a Phone Conversation
During an interview taping between the legendary rapper Nas and Hot 97 radio host Peter Rosenberg, Nas briefly alluded to a conversation that he once had with Michael Jackson. According to his hazy retelling, Nas had been briefed that Michael was a fan and would call him. Though he declined to share the details of the dialogue, Nas insisted that he "did good" in this meeting of the minds.
Best Celebrity Sighting
Bill Murray, who returned for his now-annual trip to Austin.
Best Metaphor for SXSW Circa 2012
Manifestations of musical joy were everywhere—if you looked hard enough. When you gather over 2,000 bands, DJs, and rappers, it's almost automatic that there will be dozens of good-to-great performances each night. But some of the most poignant outbursts included buskers and the barely established—those playing for the love and the vague premonition that someone else might care.
One of the most memorable moments arrived late on Friday night, smack in the clogged arteries of 6th Street. A six-person, all-black marching band in full regalia boomed down the boulevard, offering a glittering rain of bronze horns and percussion. An impromptu dance party suddenly broke out. Hundreds of people just started moving in the middle of the street, enlisted into the funk by the beat of the drum. Three people dressed in matching orange shirts lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, shaking in rhythm. The call of the music was too strong for them. All was well, at least until you looked up and saw the signs that they were holding. Swaying in greedy synchronicity with the music was a banner that blared: DEAL 4 PRINT: 1,000 BUSINESS CARDS, ONLY $99.
—Jeff Weiss, reporting from Austin. Jeff is editor of Passion of the Weiss and a regular contributor to LA Weekly, Spin, and Pitchfork. You can follow his esoteric fabrications on Twitter at @passionweiss