AUSTIN, TEXAS — James Hetfield sort of missed the point last Friday at Austin's South by Southwest music conference when — between yarling classics during Metallica's "surprise" set at Stubb's Barbeque — he launched into banter: "Yah, hello! We are a young band from Norway. Yah, we would like to get signed!" (Oh, James. What a ham! Now shut the fuck up and play "Master" already.)
VIDEO: Dirty Projectors, live at South by Southwest
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Hetfield's understanding of SXSW (more colloquially and douchily known as "South-by") is as oddly off as his band's presence here. Ten years ago, SXSW was widely accepted as the ultimate opportunity for baby bands and A&R representatives to make goo-goo eyes at each other until a hastily drafted record contract could be signed and the mutual process of fucking each other over could be commenced. These days, there are a lot more of the former than the latter — and younger, wiser bands simply don't bat their eyelashes at the majors like they used to.
What is actually a "conference" — complete with pricey badges, keynote speakers, and complimentary tote bags heavy with promotional swag — has steadily melted into a straight-up "festival." Even as the Austin Convention Center stuffs its function rooms with panels that unwittingly detail the desperate scramble within the music industry ("A&R 3.0," "Should Artists Be Paid for Radio Airplay?" and "Bloggers Are Now in Charge"), the red meat (or pulled pork) of South-by has increasingly shifted to its unofficial domains: day parties, BBQs, shows on bridges and boats, in bookstores and parking lots, or virtually anywhere that has electricity and foot traffic.
Despite an increasing level of hipster-borne grousing over SXSW being not much more than a vomitous swirl of industry shitbags, self-appointed tastemakers, and Twittering shutterbug nincompoops (guilty!), the slow crawl of the conference's raison d'être toward these badge-less, unsanctioned territories is actually good news: the experience of SXSW has become less about the industry rescuing bands from the underground, and more about rescuing the underground from the industry. If the frontier mentality displayed by some of this year's most eagerly queued-for bands is any indication, indie music is primed for a wave of serious radness.
Without making a tract out of this (or resorting to oversimplifications like "Hip-Hop in the Age of Obama" — an actual panel), let's just suppose that, if the past 10 years have found us desperately seeking order, control, and familiarity in the midst of grim cultural conditions, our new paradigm — with its emblems of hope and copacetic illusion — has the underground hungry for chaos, disruption, and newness.
Precision-preened image (see: the Strokes, SXSW Class of '01) has been ousted in favor of pure spectacle (like Israeli garage-torchers Monotonix, whose Ami Shalev splayed his hairy ass while surfing his band's own kick drum across thousands of fans at Waterloo Park). Cutesy innocuous hookage (see: Peter Bjorn & John, Class of '07 — roundly booed this year) gave way to atonal kicks and explosive noise (from the likes of Montreal's AIDS Wolf or LA's HEALTH). And highly iffy hype-pop (see: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, Class of '06) fell pretty-face-first to limit-testing party bands with actual talent, like the Mae Shi and King Khan.
It's as though all of that precious security we've demanded from our music is being hastily dismantled: Dave Longstreth's guitar work at the Dirty Projectors NPR showcase was simultaneously feral and refined, erudite yet aphasic; the note-less scratchings of Michachu and the Shapes glimmered with an unmistakable pop sheen; and the ritualistic hoedown dealt out by the innumerable membership of Georgia's Dark Meat made their leaf blower stuffed with confetti seem right at home alongside their trombones and banjos.
Who knows? This explosion of the exploded could simply be the product of an unconscious defense mechanism: the underground's immune system protecting itself from the normals by any means necessary. Then again, rock music may finally be bust — good thing for us it sounds better busted.
For oodles of exclusive photos, videos, and show reviews from this year's installment of SXSW, check out thePhoenix.com/sxsw. Michael Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.