And of course there was endless chatter about appearances from Justin Timberlake and Prince, two maestros who, despite the gulf between their talents, make the most Herculean pop songs look effortless.
But SXSW is all about effort. It’s a place where unknown underdogs sign up for dozens of gigs, rolling their boulders up all kinds of hills, hoping we’ll fall in love with what we hear. It’s a courtship ritual, and the presence of icons who already own our hearts just mucks it up. So back to Mount Olympus, you jerks. Beat it.
Down in the trenches, even rookies making high-sheen pop had to spill some sweat, including British singer Charli XCX. Performing in the Thursday afternoon sunshine, she dressed like an exiled Spice Girl (baggy trousers, fluorescent sports bra), sang like a child of Madonna (small voice, XXL attitude) and danced as if she fully intended to leave Austin a superstar.
Her competition didn’t hold up as well. Sky Ferreira, perhaps the most promising new pop singer in town, allegedly got sick, lost her voice and nixed her remaining gigs. Hyped Brooklyn indie band DIIV tweeted their disenchantment with SXSW, calling it “a glorified corporate networking party.” And by Saturday afternoon, many young acts seemed utterly exhausted. New York rapper Angel Haze struggled to translate the gripping intensity of her recordings to the stage, while Merchandise, a band of punky Floridians, soldiered through with the check-engine light flashing. “This is show number 10 for us,” frontman Carson Cox announced at the outset. “We’re all out of pretty songs.”
As for big songs, they were everywhere. The three guys with the two biggest hits on the current Billboard singles chart were in Austin for the week — Bauuer of “Harlem Shake” fame, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis of “Thrift Shop” infamy — delivering heaps of performances, perhaps to convince the world they are actual humans and not online memes.
A Tribe Called Red, a visionary trio of DJs from Ottawa, made the dance floor feel like the most ripe setting for discovery in Austin, stacking Native American pow-wow chants over bruising hip-hop beats and sternum-punching bass lines. There wasn’t anything else like it at SXSW. There probably isn’t anything else like it on Earth.