Ah, March, the time of year when the music business heats up, the world's hot bands descend on Texas and the hipsters get their marching orders on which groups to worship for the next few months.
By the time you read this, Racket will be in Austin, wallowing in the rock and roll phantasmagoria of South By Southwest more than 1,100 bands playing on probably twice that many stages amid fields of fajitas, kegs of Lone Star, breakfast tacos by the ton and caramel-colored oceans of Shiner Bock, all at the world epicenter of twitching, frenzied, clench-jawed hype.
While SXSW was once a place for labels and unsigned talents to hook up (in the old-fashioned nonsexual way, usually) and cut deals, today's South By is almost entirely about hyping bands already signed and anointing two or three of them as the best bands in the history of the universe until Christmas shopping season, when two or three new ones will take their place until March 2007, when SXSW next gathers.
This will be my sixth straight one, and I've learned a few things along the way. First, don't waste your time at the trade show or the panels or even, to a lesser extent, the official showcases. Only mooks go to those. Instead, find a way to hit the coolest day parties. That's where the real action is nowadays.
Second, and more important, know going in that the whole "it" bands are foreordained. Barring a complete meltdown at South By, the bands that have the most and best hype going in will have the most and best going out.
The decisions have been made in smoke-filled rooms in London, New York and L.A. and in Pitchfork's Chicago office. The Arctic Monkeys, the Go! Team, Editors, Art Brut and Love Is All have already been bathed in the holy waters of Pitchfork's raves and are sure to wow everybody at their shows.
Why? Why are their shows sure to be epic? Because those who will be attending have been told they will be, by cool people on the Internet. I know this is true because I read the March issue of Harper's, wherein supercool person Bill Wasik the evil genius behind the "flash mob" social experiment of a couple of years back, served up an amazing article on the state of hipness in the year 2006.
First, Wasik dredged up the old, now-neglected social psychology term "deindividuation," which is defined in the article as "a state of affairs in a group where members do not pay attention to other individuals qua individuals." (Sorry about that qua. It will never appear in Racket again.) Wasik elaborates thus: "When in a crowd or pack, the theory ran, each man sees he doesn't stand out and so his inhibitions melt away."
And then he applies the theory to today's hipsters whom he defines as "those hundreds of thousands of educated young urbanites with strikingly similar tastes." In other words, the target audience for South By's Anointed Few, who, in Wasik's words, "make no pretense to divisions on principle, to forming intellectual or artistic camps; at any given moment, it is the same books, records, films that are judged au courant by all, leading to the curious spectacle of an 'alternative' culture more unanimous than the mainstream it ostensibly opposes."
Wasik traces this phenomenon back to 2002, when Strokesmania was willed upon Hipster Nation, who embraced them for a few months and then junked them along with their trucker hats, ironic mustaches and white belts in about October. And after that, the cycle was repeated Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, Bloc Party and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah all followed, a list of Wasik's to which I would add Wolf Parade, and now, the Arctic Monkeys, who have yet to experience the full force of the inevitable backlash and discarding. (The case of CYHSY is particularly interesting. A few years ago, they would be seen as coming into SXSW with force-five momentum. In today's hyperkinetic hype-backlash world, they are already yesterday's news.)
But while this phenomenon might be new in America, it's been going on a lot longer in the UK. Britain is and has always been much more interconnected than the United States it is tiny compared to America (England, shorn of Scotland and Wales, is only about the size of Alabama) and densely packed, and until the relatively recent rise of Sky TV, it was dominated by state-run media. Also, compared to the States, the UK lacks cultural diversity. Yes, there are lots of Asians and black people in the big cities, but for the most part the British cultural scene is not divided into country, rap, rock and the dozens of other camps that dot the landscape here. Most Brits would identify as fans of "pop," which includes everything from rock to rap to Eurodisco.
And for many, many years, the Brits have operated on the same hype-backlash paradigm that has recently taken root here. Here's how it worked over there: Some band let's make one up called the Librarians, since "mundane professions" seems to be a de rigueur template for hipster band names right now gets together and creates a stir in their native woebegone pub scene in Wigan. Needless to say, their sound features angular postpunk guitars and a razor-sharp rhythm section. They cut an album and tour grotty clubs in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh. And then the Librarians take London. They diss the Fall in an interview, and then a week later pose for a beery pic with Mark E. Smith.
The NME sends a scribe out to their big show, and said writer is either cynical or naive or lager-pissed enough to actually go to print with his paid expert opinion that "the Librarians are the best band in the world." A couple of weeks later, the NME releases a list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, and the Librarians' Daft as a Brush comes in at No. 3, behind whatever Beatles album the hipster canon is highest on in any given year (a five-year cycle that churns through Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's, the White Album and Abbey Road) and maybe Astral Weeks or Pet Sounds or Exile on Main Street or some punk landmark like London Calling or Never Mind the Bollocks.
And then the Librarians were launched upon America. Every once in a while, it clicked here too, and you would get an Oasis or something. But far more often, these bands foundered on Plymouth Rock and were tossed overboard like so much unwanted tea. Our critics savaged them mercilessly. American fans knew and mocked the British music press. The NME had about as much credibility as Tom DeLay pontificating about ethics. Americans were immune to British hype.
But ever since everyone got on the Internet, we have succumbed to an American version of the same. Pitchfork is the Yank NME. All it takes is a grade above 9.0 for a band to have it made here at least until the backlash sets in, which will arrive with your second release. If you fail to heed their advice and just go away, the scorn will intensify with wild abandon on your third album. After all, no one likes to see a puffy, bloated hulk, a shadow of that once lean 'n' hungry hero, sneaking belts of cut-rate vodka behind the potted plants and bloviating loudly to all and sundry about those long-gone wild nights in Silverlake, SoHo or Williamsburg with Winona, Kate and/or Drew. (Or Paris Hilton, if you were into fucking ironically.)
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And given that Pitchfork deems 99 percent of reissues as superior to 99.9 percent of new albums, you won't be cracking the nines until your boxed set comes out in 2031. Then, on that joyous day, some yet-unborn Pitchfork geek will give your reissued music a 9.6, singling out for special praise your "criminally underrated second and third albums." (Of course the next week, they will give a 9.7 to Revenant's 16-CD set Crack Corn: 337 Joints of Funky-Fresh Golden Age Hip-hop from Topeka's Phiendin' Pha Phat Label.)
"Over those who would sell to the hipsters, then, hangs the promise of instant adoption but also the specter of wholesale and irrevocable desertion" Wasik writes. In other words, at any given moment, only one band matters, and that band matters only until the next one comes along.
Yep, to quote that much-mocked sage Huey Lewis or is he ironically appreciated now? Or is he cool? What does Michael Ian Black think about him? Can I quote him? Will people laugh at me?
Anyway, as I was saying, to quote Huey Lewis, now more than ever, it's hip to be square. And it's hipper still not to care either way.