The corporate presence at this year’s SXSW felt oppressive, contaminating the festival’s hallowed musical ecosystem of sharing and discovery. Bemoaners have bemoaned that SXSW has slowly lost its soul over the course of 26 years, but this go-round was exponentially yuckier than last spring’s. Nearly every musical transaction felt sticky with Mountain Dew.
The city itself looked different. Each day at sundown, Red River Street transformed into a dystopian Usher video. Sponsors mounted laser canons on nightclub rooftops and blasted the skyline with jittery green spokes of light. Smoke machines vomited fog onto the sidewalk. Spandexed women in pickup truck beds chucked energy bars at pedestrians who weren’t hungry.
Some of SXSW’s biggest acts came to Texas only in the name of commerce. Lil Wayne was here to celebrate a Mountain Dew endorsement deal by performing an exclusive concert and releasing a new mixtape titled — not kidding — “DEWeezy.” The only thing more embarrassing would have been to give that concert on a five-story stage built to look like a giant Doritos vending machine
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which Snoop Dogg did Thursday.
If companies want to keep their fangs lodged in America’s hipness jugular each March at SXSW, they will need to ease up on this stuff. The pact between artists and fans is sacred; the relationship between brands and consumers is not. If we all fly home from Texas able to name more flavors of Neuro energy drink than bands we fell in love with, meaninglessness wins.
Of course, there was still plenty of magic to be excavated in Austin this year: Piano man Robert Glasper delivered riveting techno-spiritual jazz; Los Angeles quartet Bleached tapped into rock-and-roll’s eternally scrappy charms; and U.K. producer SBTRKT rendered his mysterious dance tracks in arresting high-definition.
They were just three of more than 2,000 acts performing. Attendance and financial figures are still being tallied, but in 2011, SXSW added a record $167 million to the Austin economy.
This year, music penetrated the city’s every cranny. The Men, a buzzed-about Brooklyn rock troupe, could be found Friday afternoon thrashing away at a high-end bicycle shop. A Bianchi fixed gear hung from the ceiling like the Sword of Damocles.
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In the information age, artists no longer come to SXSW to create buzz onstage, they come to justify the buzz they’ve already generated online. Grimes, a Canadian micro-sensation whose music descends from Kate Bush through Bjork and spills out onto the 21st-century dance floor, had everything to prove at Clive Bar on Friday night. Bedraggled by a glitchy and feeble sound system, she howled in agony when the power gave out but soldiered on like a pro.