Tue March 15, 2011
The Record

Open Your Hearts, Music Nerds: SXSW Advice From Ann Powers

Originally published on Thu November 8, 2012 2:10 pm

Ann Powers will be in Austin, Texas, all this week for the South by Southwest music conference. Beginning Wednesday morning at 9:00 a.m. ET, click above to hear Ann's conversation with Morning Edition host Linda Wertheimer about the artists she's most excited to see. And head to NPR Music's SXSW page for our live webcast schedule, photos and Twitter updates.

I'm in 24-hour countdown mode until I leave for Austin. My stomach has contracted into an irritated fist. Maybe I caught that nausea bug going around my neighborhood. But I think it might be another affliction: South by Southwest anxiety.

It's everywhere: overflowing on Twitter, showing up on personal blogs, and lurking quietly in the opening paragraphs of those survival guides that all seem to center on one thing your grade school camp counselor could have told you: WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES. (My favorite, by my pal Jacob London, advises kindness.) Those of us lucky enough to attend this mother of all American music fests thrill at the prospect of gorging on music, Southwestern chow and schmoozy conversation. But every one of us also worries: Will we do the festival right?

South by Southwest anxiety encapsulates the feelings of inadequacy and failure that form the underside of the music-mad life. Chasing down new sounds, for a living or just as a fan, is mostly a huge joy, because music feeds every part of the body and the soul. Yet this pursuit, like anything that defines us culturally, brings up issues of authority and inclusion that can confuse and alienate.

After more than a decade of heading to Austin every spring, I still never know if I'm hip enough to know which shows I have to see, or important enough to get through the lines and guest lists that might keep me from Witnessing History. I'll know at some point in the next few days, when I feel like an idiot. Many points, probably. But then, I've felt like that so many times over the years.

It's common to say that South by Southwest encapsulates music culture now, as pop continues to go through the revolution that the Web has wrought. The explosion of choices in Austin, from the official showcases to unofficial parties to surprise appearances that feel like living Internet leaks, recreates the debris-filled deep space of the Internet, where anything you click on might save your life or waste your valuable time. What I'm also realizing is that South by Southwest's massive cluster-flow offers a window into the emotional crisis music fanatics face, now more than ever.

As the esteemed critic Robert Christgau has frequently lamented, the monoculture is dead. There's little agreement about what in pop will last, or what defines our times. Yet at South by Southwest, the vestigial urge to define what's cool collides with the new reality: everything is cool, for fifteen seconds, at exactly the same time. Add in the overwhelming pressure to claim virtual ownership of a Historic Moment – or a Next Big Thing – and disappointment seems inevitable.

Remember, though, one thing, whether you're in Austin this week or just at home going through your blogroll: Every music lover sometimes feels like a loser. Certain people fight harder than others to cultivate a sense of legitimacy. Nick Hornby's novels about compulsive, mostly male rock and soul fans expose the hilarious extreme of a painful reality: Music, which should and does unite us, can also be used as a tool to build forts only inhabitable by those with the magic password. Nerds wield their best-of lists like hammers of the gods, showing off in ways that can really make the uninformed feel bad.

At South by Southwest it's mostly love and good times, but an undercurrent of exclusion can arise and overwhelm without warning. When that happens – and it happens a lot to me, since in my heart I'm still that loudmouthed New Wave girl trying to talk to the cool rock boys in the kitchen at the party, the one who likes Kate Bush better than Black Flag – the important thing to do is step back.

Remember that today's once-in-a-lifetime thing is tomorrow's hangover-damaged memory. And that somewhere in the crowd surging from club to club (or website to website, if you're staying home), there's somebody younger, older, more unfashionable or less organized than you. That person feels even worse than you do in your darkest moment of doubt. He might not even know The Strokes are so 2001.

And finally, remember that on some level, all music is worth experiencing. Even if you hate it, beats meeting melody stimulate emotion and subtly rearrange your DNA. Plus, it's a great stress reliever. I plan to dance, scream, shout, sigh and cover my ears with my hands at South by Southwest. And by Sunday, I'll bet I don't have a worry in the world.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



This week, Austin, Texas, hosts the 25th South by Southwest Music Conference. Over the years, the five-day festival has been a way for bands to break out of Internet stardom and into the mainstream. It's also helped establish bands to capitalize on the music industry's captive audience in Austin, and revitalize their careers.

One of those bands is Duran Duran, which has a new album, called "All You Need Is Now."

DURAN DURAN (Band): (Singing) It's all up to you now. Find yourself in the moment...

WERTHEIMER: Duran Duran will be headlining the festival tonight.

Here to preview this festival is NPR music critic Ann Powers.


ANN POWERS: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So South by Southwest used to be about roots music, vintage rock and roll. Of course, vintage is a moving target. What's vintage these days?

POWERS: I know, it's funny, isn't it? To the kids, the '80s is ancient history, and I think we've seen that in recent years at South by Southwest. In the mid-'90s, you'd see artists like Johnny Cash or the late, great soul legend Arthur Alexander having great comeback moments. But now, it can be somebody like Duran Duran.

WERTHEIMER: Are the fans in Austin really interested in these old guys, these once-popular groups? Or is it really - I always think of it as being all about the new and the unknown and the first look.

POWERS: Well, discovery is still a huge part of South by Southwest. And this year, you have artists like the hip-hop collective Odd Future, and the New York duo Cult that there is a lot of excitement about. This is their big chance to make a national splash.

WERTHEIMER: Well, tell us about some of the acts that you are looking forward to.

POWERS: Well, there's a great, new, Brooklyn-based rapper-slash-funkster named Theophilus London, who's - apparently has kind of a Prince-like show although that's always, you know, quite an ambition to fulfill.

This track, which I think is pretty funky, is called "Why Even Try?"

(Soundbite of song, "Why Even Try?")

Mr. THEOPHILUS LONDON (Rapper): (Rapping) You stole my heart like a thief in the night. You stopped in your tracks in the middle of a fight to make it right let the brimstones burn. I'll let you live yours, now let me have my turn...

WERTHEIMER: I like that. That sounds good.

POWERS: It's got that little Prince-like feel, doesn't it? I mean, it's funny because it even has an almost Duran Duran-like feel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: And Theophilus London is someone - he's influenced by R&B and also by rock. So a lot of young artists are like that today. They are taking from all over the place. And that's one of the cool things about having older acts at South by Southwest - is that you can see the connection between the old artists in the newer ones.

WERTHEIMER: Now, as I understand it, you also picked something that is completely different for us.

POWERS: One of the really cool trends of recent years is that technology allows people to make music in their homes, in their bedrooms. And I think it's really been helpful for young female singers-songwriters who maybe couldn't catch a break in earlier eras. So this is an artist named Jenny O, who is making music out of L.A. And she's got kind of a rough but really sweet, girl-group sound.

This Jenny O song, I just can't get it out of my head. It's called "Well OK Honey."

(Soundbite of song, ("Well OK Honey")

Ms. JENNY O (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) You are my lover, and I do like you. But what's the limit? Tell me what to do. I'm not your kind. And you're not mine....

WERTHEIMER: I have to say, that kind of takes me back.

POWERS: Takes you back to the '60s, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Yes. Well, now you've been going to this festival for how many years now?

POWERS: Oh, my goodness, since the mid-'90s. I started going back when it was just a big barbecue party for everybody in the music industry.

WERTHEIMER: I understand that now, it's become much more the fans who are running the show.

POWERS: Yeah, there's just a festival feeling. It's almost like a carnival. There'll be people in the street eating breakfast burritos, wandering around at all hours; people playing music on the street, sounds pouring out of the clubs. And it's really fun, if overwhelming.

WERTHEIMER: NPR music critic Ann Powers - she will be at the festival this week.

Thanks very much, Ann.

POWERS: Thanks for talking.

WERTHEIMER: Check out NPR's full coverage of South by Southwest at NPRMusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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