AUSTIN, TEXAS – On Thursday night at Stubb’s BBQ, Lady Gaga was carried onstage like a roasted pig and barfed on by a fellow performer, all in the name of art — and Doritos, too. A day later, she had the gall to talk about how the music business can save itself.
“The truest way for us to maintain the music industry is to put all of the power back into the hands of the artists,” the pop provocateur said Friday, stepping up as keynote speaker at the downward-spiraling South by Southwest Music Conference.
Gaga’s “speech” — actually a Q&A with softball-pitching ex-MTV VJ John Norris — represented the greed and hypocrisy that barfed all over SXSW more than ever this year. The 28th annual Austin takeover, which wrapped up Sunday after five troubled days, also included a concert by Gaga where all the tickets were given away as a promotion for Doritos.
Behind the scenes, Lady Gaga’s keynote came close to unplugging a showcase by National Public Radio, one of the best promoters of artistic, independent music in the industry today. The Public Radio Rocks live broadcast — coproduced by Minnesota outlet 89.3 the Current with such acts as Blur’s Damon Albarn and Jeremy Messersmith — was scheduled at the same time and place as the late-addition keynote and was in threat of being bumped. At least in that case, the little guys won, and Gaga was moved to the Hilton Austin.
Other lesser-known artists wouldn’t be so lucky in Austin last week.
iTunes, the music-download giant, ate up the best venue in town (the “Austin City Limits” TV studio) to put on its own festival within a festival, promoting its brand on the backs of Coldplay, Keith Urban and Imagine Dragons — rather than promoting future MP3-selling artists who can’t already fill arenas.
Samsung followed up last year’s Prince concert by booking Jay Z and Kanye West to play its 2014 SXSW party, filling up mainstream media’s hip-hop quota rather than lending the spotlight to such exciting new rappers as Schoolboy Q, Chance the Rapper, Sage the Gemini and Lizzo (from Minneapolis, and seriously on par with those dudes).
In many cases, the media who keep SXSW from being something more than a landlocked spring break were surprisingly hampered in their efforts to cover the bigger going-ons. The private event sponsors doled out tickets sparingly and barred outside photographers — you know, the camera-wielders who might not automatically get the Doritos logo into the frame at Lady Gaga’s show.
Enough, I say. SXSW is a lot like Disney World, except with a lot more bratty children (Tyler the Creator, I’m looking at you). You can wait in line for the big rides and see and experience a lot fewer attractions, or you can avoid the crowds and have a sweet little time elsewhere.
Perhaps antithetical to my newsgathering duties, I made a point of ignoring the morass of asinine corporate gigs and big-name mania last week. I’m still a huge fan of Kanye, for instance, but covering his show with Mr. Carter would’ve meant missing four or five lesser-known acts on Wednesday. I grew up on Soundgarden, but I skipped its iTunes showcase Thursday to catch: a psychedelic Japanese noise-rock band (Bo Ningen); some Big Star-flavored New Jersey rockers (Saint Rich); a giddy San Francisco coed hippie-pop band (the Mowglis); the aforementioned Lizzo, and one of the fest’s many hotly hyped British newcomers (Charli XCX).
Turned out, the Japanese quartet — which jumped around in a back-yard tent behind the divey east-side bar Hotel Vegas — was one of the most electrifying performances in a chaotic, ear-destroying sort of way. The Jersey and San Fran rockers were charming in an earnest and classic way. Lizzo absolutely did her hometown proud. Only the buzzing British pop-punker was disappointing in a whatever-happened-to-Avril-Lavigne way. But even that one bad set felt more rewarding or at least more exciting than another mighty Soundgarden show.
Not just for newcomers, SXSW also serves as a place where established artists can reinvent themselves. Albarn, for instance, stepped out from behind Blur and Gorillaz with slow-grooving, oddly tuned (and ultimately pretty boring) songs from a new solo album. R&B starlet Kelis returned from a four-year hiatus and made a much more enticing new impression, brandishing a moodier, Sade-like brand of sexy grooves on stage outside Stubb’s BBQ on Wednesday.
Just an hour later and one block away from where Kelis played Wednesday, SXSW suffered the one and only major tragedy in its history, the much-publicized car rampage that killed three people and hospitalized 20 more.
It’s hard to equate one nut-job’s murderous act with what’s wrong with SXSW on the whole, but there’s no question the street scene surrounding the conference has also gone crazy. More than ever, Austin’s fabled Sixth Street was uncomfortably — I’d say dangerously — swarming with 100,000-plus rowdy spring breakers and young hangers-on who have as much to do with the music business as Doritos has to do with art.
You can partly blame those overcrowded masses on companies such as Doritos and Samsung, too, for bringing in big names such as Gaga and Kanye — and offering lots of free booze to go with them. I doubt all those party crashers came to Austin hoping to see Bo Ningen and Saint Rich. I’m still glad I did, but it takes a concerted effort to let SXSW still serve its original, noble purpose.
Photo galleries and daily reviews from SXSW were posted at startribune.com/sxsw.