The Whole Foods produce section in Austin, Texas, is a pristine work of art. An esthetic masterpiece only decades of peacetime could dream up. It’s the extension of the ecclesiastical conclusion that there is nothing new under the sun, and so, lacking any employment in the institutions that served our parents’ generation, our flocks of over-educated 20-somethings started to tweak things here and there. The garbage bag gets drawstrings; the hand dryers get jet engines; and here we are buying carrots neatly stacked as if just carted in from the yard in a red wheelbarrow.
There is perhaps no time when this little grocery art exhibition is better attended than during Austin’s South by Southwest music festival. The wine-tasting cups abound, the un-pasturized juice flows unbridled into the little white ketchup samplers.
The skinny jeans of the early-30s fitter-inners comment to their sunglasses-sporting girlfriends while the more adventurous 22-year-olds, in tie-dyed flood pants, inspect bok choy. The veggie art on the walls is borderline pornographic, and just as well-lit, well-misted, as the talent putting in their bids. The lucky buyers escape with a Thai chicken salad doting a best-before date somewhere around the length of how long the band they’re about to go see will be cool.
"Who is this for?" my bandmate asks me as we parade predictably up Brazos Street. We’ve come down from Canada for a fourth time, which in SXSW years is getting a bit old to play, and the younger athletes are beginning to make us self-conscious. The tendency to attempt to distinguish yourself on these streets is beyond tempting, it’s unavoidable. Parades of hipsters all canonizing their hipster status by casting the term on others — and I’m one of them.
These are streets that will strip you naked. Your asymmetrical haircut has nothing to say. The V-neck that separated you from the crew in your hometown is just a cookie-cutter tan line, and there you are, nude. The red splotches outside your skin’s negative space as flush and embarrassed as your mind for spending that one second thinking you were different.
These are streets where trying to be special makes you the same, where the levels of meta have lost track of how many times they’ve looked directly into the camera, where cool has been turned on its head so often you can’t tell where earnestness ends and winking begins. Streets where irony has tripped over authenticity into some sort of tangled mess that would make a stay-at-home dad wearing a wolf sweater a really confusing reference.
"Who is this for?"
I try to think of an acceptable answer. Could it be the artists? A spot to go measure up; the yearly drive to Texas to mark your height on the wall by the door frame of North America and compare yourself with your eager brothers and sisters?
I walk by a man in a clothing store in his 40s singing old-time country with a band while sitting on a live mule. Our curiosity brings us in the door, where a hopeful store owner offers us wine to guilt us into a more solid attendance. My bandmates are asked to pose for a picture in front of a paused YouTube video of Jimmy Kimmel on a big flat-screen TV. He’s giving the famous rock ’n’ roll devil horns and we are to do the same. An older woman, likely the shop owner’s mother, is pleased with how the picture looks on her iPad. With only a quick glance, an uninterested audience member might mistake Jimmy Kimmel for actually being behind them. I’m informed I’m next.
Maybe this is what it’s for. A place for Americans to hustle, and hustle hard. Somewhere to test out if that American Dream has anything left. A Steinbeck-style pilgrimage with equal hopes and dreams, only to find yourself actually still sitting on a mule. A mule that looks really tired.
Not everyone on this pilgrimage has fared as poorly, however. The American Dream has done just fine for Doritos, and the chips are not shy to flex their muscles. Being from Canada, I’m used to a certain bashfulness surrounding this sort of thing, but here, I walk by as bands play in the mouth of a four-storey vending machine. Anything to co-opt what may have been at one time underground, or unknown, or of quality. It’s the endless cycle of gentrification that it seems everything must now endure. This festival is no exception; its humble showcase beginnings are now the Kurt Cobain graphic tee they sell at Bluenotes. Last year, we played a showcase sponsored by freecreditscore.com. Maybe that’s what this is for.
As we walk down 6th Street, I’m not sure it’s working. The music bleeds from every club into the street, making a haze of indecipherable noise so thick even the brands can’t buy their way into a slot of silence.
It seems annoyance with over-branding and "sponsoritis" has had its news cycle, and with even Naomi Klein distancing herself from No Logo, I think for the most part we’ve just come to accept that the Pepsi Centres and Phones 4u Arenas are not going away.
So who is this for?
In the evening, we play the IFC fairground stage. IFC has certainly succeeded in associating itself positively with relevance. Though the scale of their work and the giant pile of official sponsor Subway sandwiches in the corner of the green room raise the question of what exactly the "I" stands for at this point. No one seems really worried about it. A couple of bands after our set, the crowd is really filling up. A band is playing some of the parts they wrote while a laptop churns out a perfect backing track. Is this for them?
On Saturday morning, our time in Austin has come to a close and we embark on the 22-hour drive back to Canada. It’s a rough trip for our van, and as an offering of condolences to our prized beast, we stop in Sioux City for a oil change.
"You guys a band or what?" the mechanic asks.
"Niiice!" he exclaims without a hint of irony.
He lets us know the shop is still on dial-up, and the Wi-Fi is spotty.
"We have our own little Wi-Fi device" we explain.
"I can play the keyboard on Rock Band," he says.
Looks like our asymmetrical haircuts are back online.
Matt Schellenberg performs keyboards and vocals with Royal Canoe, a six-piece ensemble from Winnipeg. They recently returned from SXSW, an annual music festival in Austin, Texas.