Creative mecca, South by Southwest (SXSW) kicks off every spring break for the crowd that would rather have their minds blown by the freshest technology, film, and music instead of altered by beer bongs and keg stands on a beach. The first half of the 10-day festival is a marketing frenzy for budding startups as well as huge corporations, while the second half focuses on emerging music artists as well as a few surprise big-name acts; my favorite portion.
Before my boyfriend, Albert, and I were in a relationship, we would drag each other to shows, exposing the other to new music. We were so young and felt the music so deeply. We’ve danced, laughed, and cried to music together since we were 15. It’s what initially bonded us. So every year I make an itinerary of the best free events SXSW has to offer, we slip on our comfiest shoes and EXPLORE.
Interactive Day 1: Expect Nothing, Appreciate Everything
First stop: a music and art pop-up on Congress. The flyer boasts free Tito’s Vodka, so it’s a no-brainer. A young girl with a guitar sets her glasses down on her tweed amp, out of which classic rock riffs begin spewing. As we make our way through the gallery, I hear her fading voice telling a story about hanging out in blues bars in New York City. Art hangs from every wall by Latin American artists. A conventionally beautiful naked woman sitting atop a television, the monopoly man fixed to her genitalia. It depicts our country, our media, our American lives that are consumed by media. The kind of art that conveys so much truth it’s hard to look at.
The streets are quiet as we make our way to the Eastside for the Ketel One Party; not yet littered like they will be next week. But as we approach the venue, it looks like a couple hundred others were pretty stoked for it too. We decide there’s no chance we’re getting in and move on. REMEMBER: If you’re going to do SXSW for free, you have to expect nothing and appreciate everything.
Interactive Day 2: Virtually Free
We’re at a barbershop on 5th for a virtual reality experience. I get behind some goggles and put on headphones to take a trip to a series of virtual worlds. Every which way I turn there is something to look at. I start to think: Is this the future? Suddenly I imagine a world not-so-farfetched where these goggles are permanently attached to our heads. We don’t have to face the harsh realities of the physical world. The Sims of real life. Am I currently being brainwashed? But the experience ends as soon as I start to loose myself. I grab a screwdriver and some chips, then head out.
I hear a guy say, “FREE CRAWFISH!” We make a beeline for The Blind Pig Pub and climb to the rooftop, where there is a line that wraps around twice for a heaping bag of crawfish with all the fixins. They’re dishing far too many crawdads for one human to consume. A hundred people deep in the line, I imagine someone giving me their share, a la The Secret (that book based on the law of attraction and how positive thinking can lead to life-changing results). “Do you want this?” a stranger asks, holding out a tray of crawfish. But this is real. Life changing.
Artificial snowflakes fall from above, getting stuck in my lip gloss. National Geographic’s promotional party for an upcoming Alaskan survival show has a line down to the next block. Besides the fake snow and three free drinks, there isn’t much else going on here. But by now I’ve realized that 80% of the people here are like me: willing to stand in an hour-long line for free shit. I will probably never watch that show.
Music Day 1: Unlikely Encounters
My anxiety is at an all-time high right now! People have flooded the streets and a muffled concoction of every music genre is clogging my ears. To catch our breath, we scurried into The Driskill for a cocktail. Standing directly behind my sister is a man that looks uncannily like former boy bander, Nick Lachey. After mulling over whether it’s Jessica Simpson’s ex or not (I say yes, she says no), he plops himself next to me in the cushiony booth. He is so close he is sitting on my crossbody bag that I am still wearing. A girl walks up and requests a photo and I let out an I-told-you-so chuckle. Obviously, I was next in line for a photo. FYI: he likes his burgers cooked medium well.
We made a few stops on our way back to the garage, and we were about to call it a night. That was before someone told us we might be able to catch Incubus’ set across the street from the 7th floor. It’s apparent this is not a secret as groups of friends start pouring in, six packs in hand, prepared for a free show. A blonde girl with a high-pitched voice and Monroe piercing tells me that seeing this band has been her dream since she was 17. “I had tickets and then my mom took me to Spain, so I couldn’t see them. I was pissed!” I too have always wanted to see this band, but am having trouble relating. Her adolescence sounds a lot different than mine. My parents would have never been able to afford for us to travel outside of the country. Hell, we never left the state! After an awkward silence, she says, “I’m a brat.” We laugh and sing along to every song until a buff security guard orders us to leave.
Music Day 2: New
The rain has been putting a damper on a slew of today’s outdoor showcases. With the majority of our plans foiled, we have sought shelter in the Convention Center, where a number of free events are taking place. I head straight for the synth expo.
Two bearded guys dressed in all black speaking Portuguese are creating beats on one end, when a smiley woman from Michigan introduces herself. They all start collaboratively working on a beat. After my unlikely bonding moment last night and the one right before me, I’m starting to realize an even deeper and more beautiful aspect of the marketing mess that is SXSW. Whether you come here with friends or by yourself, you’re going to make new friends. Even if it’s just for one night. Even if you don’t remember their name the next day. Everyone comes with an open mind, ready to experience “new”. New trends, new people, new things.
Music Day 3: Last Men Standing
South by SouthWET. Punks are moshing in ponchos, my knees ache, and I feel like the empty cans on the side of the street; caked in mud. We’re at a hip-hop showcase, where it’s clear that I am not alone in those sentiments. A rapper comes on stage and says, “You made it! Y’all are the last men standing. I saw a lot of people go down last night.”
Punk. Hip-Hop. Indie. Blue Grass. We are catching showcases by a number of acts that I am sure you will all know about by next year. Quality music, performances, and attitudes not yet jaded by corporate record labels. The last band of the night’s front man keeps throwing me off, though. He comes on stage with a Bill Cosby sweater, high-water pants, and a floral cap. Throughout the performance, Albert and I point how unconvincing his whole shtick is. Their set’s over, he leaves the stage. I walk around back and catch him changing out of his ridiculous getup and vanity glasses into a t-shirt and jeans.
Walking around SXSW at night is a lot like that scene in a movie where the main character is in focus and moving in slow motion, while their surroundings are blurred and moving at an accelerated speed. Everyone has somewhere to be, even if they don’t know where they’re going. I threw my soggy itinerary in the trash and ended SXSW the way it should be experienced.
Open and aimless.