Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Work to Do

A decade ago, I replaced a late-canceling Elvis Costello as the keynote speaker at SXSW 89, the Austin music conference whose status in its third year can be gauged by its willingness to settle for me. Back then New York's New Music Seminar was the wonder of the biz, somehow evolved from postpunk gripefest into essential schmoozarama, with CMJ flanking it on the left. Yet after NMS collapsed it was SXSW that filled the breach, because for all its roots corniness Austin had become the capital of Amerindie. As I told my captive audience in '89: "In a time of increasing economic pressure in this society, the South by Southwest happens to be an increasingly good place to be a bohemian. It's relatively warm, relatively cheap, relatively relaxed--a good or at least better place to continue your adolescence and, as the saying goes, express yourself." But hemmed in by economics myself, I never went back--until this year.

No one claims SXSW packs the old excitement, and that was why I was there. With indie/alt rock's next-big-thing phase a sick joke and its innovative impulses drained by professionalism, neotraditionalism, and the lines around its eyes, I wanted to measure its mood. Excited it wasn't, except insofar as excitement is a way of life in rock and roll of the old-fashioned sort, typified for me by the non-Hispanic woman who cried out at one hot Cesar Rosas number: "Ma-mi! Jeeze, Louise!" But the 6800 conventioneers were up about 600 from 1998 (not to mention 5000 from my last visit), and Austin's musical demographics remained impressive. At SXSW 89 I stressed how unprecedented indie rock was--there hadn't been nearly so many bands in the halcyon '60s. Well, crossover prospects be damned, there are now way more, and nowhere else in the world are they consumed so voraciously. On a seven-block stretch running across Sixth Street and up Red River were clustered 16 SXSW venues, most of which dwarfed comparable Manhattan spots (two boasted two stages, a third four), with even bigger joints like Antone's, Liberty Lunch, and La Zona Rosa a few blocks west. Civilians outnumbered conventioneers at most gigs even with the university on spring break. No wonder musicians keep moving to Austin.

Yet the rock generated in this guitar-hooked white-and-Chicano town, where the flagship Antone's label specializes in blues and the commitment of alt-country began with Willie Nelson, has pretty much been a bust nationally. That's why the auteurs of 1998's "The Way" were honored with their own panel: "The Fastball Story"--a prerequisite, The Austin Chronicle noted, for next year's "What Ever Happened to Fastball?" SXSW 99 featured discussions of megacorp consolidation and a&r meddling and radio gatekeeping and soundtrack politics and Bowie Bonds; philosophical explorations of how lyrics mean and what is jazz and the legends of Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, and the MC5; showcases for Mercury Rev, Beth Orton, and dimmer chart hopefuls. But with too many old indie rockers unemployed and plenty of young ones looking for work, the mood that prevailed was the kind of nuts-and-bolts careerism that aims to pay the bills, not conquer the world: "Challenges Facing Regional Coverage," "Creative Marketing in a Saturated Market," "Managing in the Red," "Get a Job (By Creating Your Own)," lotsa Net stuff, and nine demo-listening sessions divided by genre, three of them for rock.

Remarkably, most of the talk was interesting, too. Arriving Thursday afternoon and signed up to hold forth on lyrics and Sinatra Friday, I ended up visiting only seven other panels; I found it easier to walk out on bands than to leave Jeff Salamon's dance-music or Jason Gross's Internet parley. This is partly because SXSW, which was conceived at the Chronicle, has always relied on journalists like netziner Gross and old Voice stalwart Salamon, and journalists like coherence. But the main reason there was so little self-indulgence or spacing out from rostrum or floor is that everyone believed there was work to be done. Very few in this very cross-generational gathering of white people could be described as big wheels. For almost all of them, moaning about the UniGram behemoth was subsumed in an unbowed determination to make music and a living simultaneously.

There would be times when some of these people would be out to get each other. But here they understood that it was in everyone's interest for the substratum and infrastructure they shared to be as big and strong as possible. This is a healthy attitude--a spontaneous collective decision by a subculture of eternal adolescents to remain a collectivity after they could no longer delay adulthood, with star dreams on hold even as they induced the biz to keep putting money in. But it's not especially conducive to excitement--to that busy-being-born feeling that wants to make the world a better place.

Tom Waits was the hot ticket at SXSW 99, and I intended no disrespect to the veteran quasi-avantist by opting instead for another long-absent struggler, albeit one with a prettier, bigger voice: Kelly Willis, who except for Joe Ely in the park was the only one of the 25 acts I caught that I'd seen before. Clearly, however, Waits isn't the future--he's a precursor of alternative careerism. There was, however, one unmistakable next-big-thing buzz at SXSW 99, and it sure wasn't hip hop, which was barely mentioned from any stage. It was the Internet. In Austin, this theme rocks; 750 new new-technology companies have transformed the city's government-student-slacker economy. But starry-eyed technofuturism was everywhere: from creative marketers advising artists to "sit in chat rooms," "put your stuff on the search engines," "if they try to stop you, back-door it"; Factory Records founder turned Interactive City guru Anthony Wilson urging every kid with a PC and a dream to take on Rolling Stone; sane scribes from Illinois and Idaho convinced that MP3s or their speedier grandchildren would soon change the biz utterly. Face to face with what one decade had wrought, I wasn't about to deny that the next one would be at least as momentous. I just didn't think anyone had more than an inkling of what shape the change would take. As L.A. Times computer columnist and 1994 Austin immigrant Gary Chapman put it to me, today's Websters are "ninety-niners," staking claims they'll figure out how to mine later--if all goes well. And it was obvious that in an economically unstable realm like indie rock, this vast unknown was a perfect place to invest hope. I was struck by how labor-intensive the Net advice was, like insisting baby bands spend two hours a day promoting themselves online. I noticed that if the rock audience had been boutiqued in the '80s, now the dream was to modem it--to subdivide it further, a lousy way to nurture a subculture. And I kept wondering where the money was supposed to be; nobody seemed to notice when Downtown Marketing's Susan Piver Brown observed that "the creation of demand" had to precede marketing itself. Megacorporatism clearly doesn't mean that indie rock has to wither away. But if alternative careerism is to thrive, it must attract a larger share of what a whole phalanx of leisure industries fondly refer to as the entertainment dollar. And as several Internet panelists pointed out, that attraction must ultimately take place on the ground, not in cyberspace.

This is a tall order. In the '70s I imagined that the cacophony of the New York Dolls constituted an effective negotiation with information overload. But the one thing I'm sure I've learned from the Internet is that there's no negotiating with it, only muddling through. So although I'm happy to have caught 25 acts in three nights even if it meant gonging the Gravel Pit, the Hi-Fives, and the well-rehearsed but flowless Ugly Duckling, among others, I'm resigned to having missed some 1365, at least one of which no doubt would have knocked my socks off. As it was, a dozen were enjoyable at worst. And while most of these were well past the chat-room stage--a tactic perhaps suitable for L.A. art-punks Tongue, who I see have just updated their Web page--it was fair to hope that all could bring in yet more entertainment dollars. But that's not to say many were exciting, or excited. For me the big bill was Grandaddy, whose record I love, with Mercury Rev and Sparklehorse, whose records I am open to. Or rather, was--as I'd feared, Mercury Rev proved themselves America's answer to Radiohead, while Sparklehorse fetishize the same leave-me-alone whisper-whine Mercury Rev make something of and Grandaddy is musical enough to transfigure. "Other people turn it up," they informed a rowdy. "We're not the band for that." This bill drew a big crowd. But short of an arena-rock revival, a distinct possibility that Mercury Rev could definitely exploit, it's hard to envision that crowd expanding much.

A smaller alt-rock show was one major exception: Imperial Teen, in an outlying tent space, very late Thursday. Received yet recombinant, they inhabited their Velvets strum-drone, poppy backup parts, fey affect, and instrument-switching amateurishness with such evident or well-feigned delight that the music kept lifting and lifting. They didn't whine, either--they're into crooning and smirking. Not that they're more marketable than Grandaddy, or Mercury Rev--or Joe Ely, who was what he was, a reliable if predictable product of value to listeners set in their ways, including some who don't know about him yet. It is such products, all the way to Sparklehorse, that were one thing and probably the main thing most SXSW'ers were there to learn how to put across. Still, it's hard to believe any subculture can happily or healthily subsist on staples alone. It's also hard not to note that unlike Joe Ely or Mercury Rev, Imperial Teen are very gay, and that this seems to inspire them.

The other exception was the Swing Team, a local breaking crew at the token hip hop showcase: half black and half Chicano in a white-and-Chicano town, sexually integrated too. They probably won't go anywhere you'll hear about, and their flyer listed no Internet address. But they were sure having fun, and they were sure busy being born. Most people's mami and jeez-louise last a lot longer than professional hipsters think. But does that mean they last a lifetime? You tell me.

Village Voice, Apr. 6, 1999