Open Your Hearts, Music Nerds: SXSW Advice From Ann Powers

March 15, 2011

Ann Powers

Stressed-out music junkies, take heart. (Still from the film High Fidelity, adapted from Nick Hornby's novel.)

I'm in 24-hour countdown mode until I leave for Austin. My stomach has contracted into an irritated fist. Maybe I caught that nausea bug going around my neighborhood. But I think it might be another affliction: South by Southwest anxiety.

It's everywhere: overflowing on Twitter, showing up on personal blogs, and lurking quietly in the opening paragraphs of those survival guides that all seem to center on one thing your grade school camp counselor could have told you: WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES. (My favorite, by my pal Jacob London, advises kindness.) Those of us lucky enough to attend this mother of all American music fests thrill at the prospect of gorging on music, Southwestern chow and schmoozy conversation. But every one of us also worries: Will we do the festival right?

South by Southwest anxiety encapsulates the feelings of inadequacy and failure that form the underside of the music-mad life. Chasing down new sounds, for a living or just as a fan, is mostly a huge joy, because music feeds every part of the body and the soul. Yet this pursuit, like anything that defines us culturally, brings up issues of authority and inclusion that can confuse and alienate.

After more than a decade of heading to Austin every spring, I still never know if I'm hip enough to know which shows I have to see, or important enough to get through the lines and guest lists that might keep me from Witnessing History. I'll know at some point in the next few days, when I feel like an idiot. Many points, probably. But then, I've felt like that so many times over the years.

It's common to say that South by Southwest encapsulates music culture now, as pop continues to go through the revolution that the Web has wrought. The explosion of choices in Austin, from the official showcases to unofficial parties to surprise appearances that feel like living Internet leaks, recreates the debris-filled deep space of the Internet, where anything you click on might save your life or waste your valuable time. What I'm also realizing is that South by Southwest's massive cluster-flow offers a window into the emotional crisis music fanatics face, now more than ever.

As the esteemed critic Robert Christgau has frequently lamented, the monoculture is dead. There's little agreement about what in pop will last, or what defines our times. Yet at South by Southwest, the vestigial urge to define what's cool collides with the new reality: everything is cool, for fifteen seconds, at exactly the same time. Add in the overwhelming pressure to claim virtual ownership of a Historic Moment – or a Next Big Thing – and disappointment seems inevitable.

Remember, though, one thing, whether you're in Austin this week or just at home going through your blogroll: Every music lover sometimes feels like a loser. Certain people fight harder than others to cultivate a sense of legitimacy. Nick Hornby's novels about compulsive, mostly male rock and soul fans expose the hilarious extreme of a painful reality: Music, which should and does unite us, can also be used as a tool to build forts only inhabitable by those with the magic password. Nerds wield their best-of lists like hammers of the gods, showing off in ways that can really make the uninformed feel bad.

At South by Southwest it's mostly love and good times, but an undercurrent of exclusion can arise and overwhelm without warning. When that happens – and it happens a lot to me, since in my heart I'm still that loudmouthed New Wave girl trying to talk to the cool rock boys in the kitchen at the party, the one who likes Kate Bush better than Black Flag – the important thing to do is step back.

Remember that today's once-in-a-lifetime thing is tomorrow's hangover-damaged memory. And that somewhere in the crowd surging from club to club (or website to website, if you're staying home), there's somebody younger, older, more unfashionable or less organized than you. That person feels even worse than you do in your darkest moment of doubt. He might not even know The Strokes are so 2001.

And finally, remember that on some level, all music is worth experiencing. Even if you hate it, beats meeting melody stimulate emotion and subtly rearrange your DNA. Plus, it's a great stress reliever. I plan to dance, scream, shout, sigh and cover my ears with my hands at South by Southwest. And by Sunday, I'll bet I don't have a worry in the world. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.