Those who have regularly attended South by Southwest probably know the feeling that can occur as the annual music festival closes: a sense that, for all the wondrous music that poured into the ears, you somehow failed. Failed because you missed the spectacle, for example, of Lady Gaga getting puked on, arrived too late in the week to catch Jay Z and Kanye West or missed [insert buzz band here].
Failed because, as a writer in search of drama, it should have obvious to me to trail rapper Tyler, the Creator at least for a while, because he’d likely incite a riot. (He allegedly did, and was arrested.) Failed because I was suckered into chasing Pitchfork fodder that sounded good on paper but was boring and whiny in reality. Because a doorman said the line to get in to see YG, Ty Dolla Sign and DJ Mustard wouldn’t be moving for nearly two hours, I left — only to learn the next day that they let more people in.
Well, loserdom looms mostly because the best music I saw Saturday night was by a Detroit post-punk band, Protomartyr, that didn’t land on any hot-ticket lists and isn’t really buzzing post-fest. In an industry that thrives on image, heat and pretty singers who wouldn’t tuck a button-down shirt into belted pants unless with irony, Protomartyr was unafraid to tackle ugly topics that most fame-seeking acts avoid.
“That’s how we lived after he died,” offered singer Joe Casey, the coolest uncool frontman I saw this year, of enduring a devastating loss. Wearing the average-dad outfit of someone twice his age and singing with his hand in his pocket like he was queued for beer at a hockey game, he had the stage presence of a grump. It was like Harvey Pekar or Al Bundy leading a post-punk band schooled on a mix of Joy Division, Pere Ubu and Interpol. It was a mesmerizing bummer.
“Don’t feel no love for anyone,” he sang on “Maidenhead,” a depressing line exacerbated by the fact that Casey seemed to be wearing a wedding band and at times was kind of unlovable. Their new record, “Under Color of Official Right” (out April 8 on Hardly Art), features titles including “I Stare at Floors,” “Bad Advice” and “What the Wall Said.” This band will not be playing the Doritos stage anytime soon. They’ll have to pay for their Converse sneakers, and Dockers isn’t known for sponsoring showcases. A song like “Scum, Rise!” isn’t going to be licensed for a Beats Music commercial anytime soon.
And that was beautiful. It felt like a relief to hear someone singing not about hope, true love, “rebellion” or making money, but declaring with pure misanthropy, “If it’s violent — good."
Contrast that with the festival’s most flatulent display of ridiculousness, delivered by (who else?) Lady Gaga during her unbearable keynote regarding her festival highlight.
Said Gaga: “The best thing that happened last night was I came off the stage, I was covered in paint vomit — we did live art at the show — and the CEO of Frito-Lay came in with all her kids and was like, ‘That was so brilliant,’ and she was crying."
If that’s what winning is in Austin anymore, I’ll side with the losers.