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Percussionists Gidi Agbeko (green shirt) and Sam Bathrick (purple shirt) play on the street at SXSW in Austin on March 18, 2011.Mike Katzif/NPR
A few minutes after 2 a.m. Sunday morning – closing time in most places, but just another occasion for swarming revelry at South by Southwest – a friend and I prepared to enter 6th Street, the most swollen point in the Austin music festival's human stream. My pal, a young journalist, cheerily expressed futility. "How do you find a thread in all of this?" he asked "It's no one thing." He was right. To fashion any single narrative from the thousands of sets played, opinions shared and mouth-to-ear connections made amidst the din would be to impossibly narrow reality.
This, then, is my partial, inadequate view of what South by Southwest 2011 meant musically. I shied away from the week's big stories — one real (the fest has grown dangerously large, resulting in mini-riots and widespread bad behavior) and one pseudo (Kanye West played a show, a celebrity visitation not uncommon in the real world rendered sorta historic by the buzz blender of the fest) — in favor of a busy schedule designed to steer me mostly clear of hype. In choosing my path, I avoided entire popular subgenres — Americana, metal, chillwave, let's take a raincheck — although I did see Deer Tick performing Nirvana, about as white as it gets.
I also caught Odd Future, hip-hop's bratty young hope, but fate put me at the worst of their several showcases, the one where they stormed out (cursing their show's sponsor, Billboard Magazine) in a first grade-worthy huff after playing for just 15 minutes.
Following my own mix of new and new-to-me artists, I did find a thread to grab; actually a bunch of them, intertwined. My SXSW was defined by an extroverted mix-it-up spirit. At a time when new technology is supposed to be pushing music lovers further into their niches, I found the opposite: subcultural desegregation.
Breaking down social barriers is a basic function of popular music, reclaimed now by kids raised on hip-hop in the rainbow-hued American suburbs. Indie rock, the most noticed noise at SXSW, has sometimes appeared to be a strange aberration in pop – a collection of self-consciously homogenous scenes.
At times, SXSW has seemed to be a celebration of the inward gaze that's often afflicted bohemian communities in the post-civil rights era. Despite the mind-boggling diversity and international scope of the fest's programming, buzz tends to gather around bands who stand in for one small, white slice of the musical pie.
That's changing, though, following a trend that's been brewing in underground music for a few years. Indie's demographics shifted in the 1990s – now, band members are as likely to be Latino or Asian (and increasingly, African-American) as white. That's just reality in the Obama era. What intrigues is that the music itself seems to be about this interracial mix.
All over Austin, I heard bold gestures made by artists determined to directly challenge racial and ethnic stereotypes. Rappers picked up guitars (the Knux) or cultivated electro beats (Theophilus London). One, Mississippi's Big K.R.I.T., performed with Grillade, a San Francisco band who'd made its own leap by recording versions of K.R.I.T.'s Southern rhymes with a trip-hop spin. Rock also showed range: indie groups like Los Angeles' La Santa Cecilia insistently owned their home traditions (in their case, Mexican regional music) while still laying claim to noisy post-punk.
Singer-songwriters like Kentucky's Ben Sollee and the super-hyped young Brit James Blake worked to figure out how they could access the nuances of R&B without merely imitating it. (Imitation yielded its pleasures, too: one fantastic set I saw was by the very blonde Allen Stone, who did the blue-eyed thing proud, backed by Raphael Saadiq's band.) Merrill Garbus of tUNe-yArDs, a rising star this year, relied on jazz musicians to realize her heartfelt explorations of African music.
And of course, there were the big acts: West, who (I'm told) showed off his own eclecticism by featuring two particular collaborators, indie rock golden boy Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and hip-hop CEO Jay-Z; and TV on the Radio, whose aggressive and beautiful new material takes the band even farther away from any color-coded categories.
All of these crossings are completely natural in pop music, but have sometimes been harder for the indie world to negotiate. Indie bands have historically tended to reject overt racial boundary crossing for reasons its old-school champions are still figuring out (see Sasha Frere-Jones' provocative 2007 essay "A Paler Shade of White" for some ideas). One may be that the post-baby boomers who founded the scene felt uncomfortable with the sometimes simplistic way their classic rock forebears adopted African-American styles. The Big Chill-style music seemed like cheap imitation; they wanted to claim their own versions of the past.
Today, indie is ascendant — in many cases even mainstream. One story SXSW told this year was about getting comfortable in a changing America. Some of the best artists I saw spoke its new realities in beats and microtones and guitar licks. Multiple narrators made this story rock.