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March 18th, 2008
Whither SXSW?

Senior Correspondent

AUSTIN –- I don’t want to say that South by Southwest is losing its cachet, because how would I know? But I’ll probably end up saying it, anyway.

I lost track of contemporary music a good 15 years ago, only slightly because of age and mostly due to sheer boredom with each new wave of contemporary music. At that, I probably held onto contemporary music for about five years too long.

Furthermore, this year’s festival was out of the question last week due to that dreaded illness that turned me into a 95-year-old man. Every time I got out of bed last week, it was a mistake.

However, I felt well enough to get around a little bit by late last Saturday night and thought it might be good for the soul to see what’s up. So, I took the car downtown and absolutely couldn’t believe what I saw.

I saw a typical Saturday night. If there was a South by Southwest crowd, it wasn’t jamming Congress Avenue, it wasn’t filling the sidewalks in the warehouse district, and it wasn’t lining patrons outside the doors at the bars. I found a parking spot downtown with ease. It was like South by Southwest didn’t happen.

Now, my good friends who tend the bars and watch the doors downtown assured me that Friday night had been a complete madhouse, but that didn’t explain the deadness of Saturday night. One comes to expect that both nights during South by Southwest will be crowded and raucous.

I’ll grant that two elements were missing. In recent years, the final weekend of South by Southwest coincided with St. Patrick’s Day and the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This time, St. Patrick’s fell on Monday and the NCAA Tournament has pushed back its schedule. Knowing both of those events draw throngs to nightclubs, their absence still didn’t satisfy me about that quiet Saturday night.

I remain stumped. Not worried, but stumped. I’ve had my fun with South by Southwest. But I never especially look forward to it, for a couple reasons.

First off, there hasn’t been a single formal development in popular music in the last 20 years. Everything since then is a re-elaborated reproduction of old forms, basically kids re-inventing the wheel and turning endless cycles of mallternative puff pop and hip-hop.

It’s always the young generation’s job to invent its own music. In the 1950s, they came up with doo-wop and four-by-four shuffle rock ‘n roll in the Chuck Berry vein. In the 1960s, they came up with soul music, psychedelic power blues, garage rock and, of course, the inimitable work of The Beatles. In the 1970s, they came with disco, funk, heavy metal, punk, the new wave and rap. In the mid-1980s, they cooked up grunge and hip-hop.

Since then, nothing. The last 20 years of 20-year-olds have produced, between them, not a single new popular music form.

Us older folks ought to not be proud that we’ve socialized subsequent generations utterly lacking musical creativity, though it should be added that cultural forces of postmodernism larger than us have something to do with it. I’m not saying the musicians of the last 20 years don’t make good music. I’m only saying the good music they make was already made 20 years ago.

Maybe rock ‘n roll is just spent, with no room to expand, and it’s not anyone’s fault. An old friend declared long ago that rock ‘n roll is a good way to kill time before you die. Perhaps, at this point, rock ‘n roll is killing its own time before it dies. Thus, South by Southwest isn’t going to show you anything that new.

Additionally, looking forward to South by Southwest is futile because it opens the possibility of too much fun. You start dreading that you’ll drink way too much, stay out too late and wear yourself into putty. It’s better to walk into South by Southwest as less than a full participant and just follow the wind. You’ll end up seeing a couple good shows and hitting a good party by accident.

Even my venture into Saturday night gave me some of that, but only because Antone’s had a pretty good little show for the occasion. As I walked past Antone’s, the door man horse-collared me inside, a couple old pals on the staff hugged me and poured me drinks, and I hung around to watch some of the Antone’s war horses (and I mean that as a deep compliment). On stage were Sue Foley, Cindy Cashdollar and a couple other women playing some hard, filthy, take-you-there dreamweaving.

I stood there feeling the right kind of chills, remembering my big, true beef with so much of what passes for art anymore, and this goes generally (with exceptions) for music, imaginative literature and film. Everyone’s trying to manipulate the audience into feeling something, and it can’t work that way.

True artistry calls on the performer to take the audience on a long journey from the causes to the emotion. But so many artists thrown in front of us either don’t want to do the work, or don’t know how to do it. So, instead they just mimic the emotion, pander to sentimentality and, sadly, audiences don’t complain.

But then you run into a dead Saturday night at South by Southwest, and maybe the audiences are speaking in absentia. South by Southwest is about a dying music. Maybe South by Southwest is dying because of it. I could be wrong, but I already said I was stumped.

Senior correspondent BILL PETERSON is editor of where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership with

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