Who (or what) won SXSW 2018?
Everything we learned and loved in Austin, a surreal journey into the heart of the chaos machine, and the definitive closing recap.
“Welcome to the Montage,” said Kate from Boise, in a conversation entirely unrelated to the annual alpha and omega of street festivals. Austin’s premier, suis generis celebration of creativity, innovation and excess has blown way beyond its humble Texas music beginnings into a heavily-branded, breathtaking orgy that swallows the city whole before collapsing under its own weight. But it’s a montage. It’s a series of quick-cut, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mega-memories all sandblasted into each other, set to a booming, blitzing soundtrack. It’s pure sensory overload from the word “go.” It’s exhausting — and it’s also the best thing in the world. Here, we’ll run down the moments that made it magical and mythical. And we’ll also talk about one thing that made it harrowing and heartbreaking.
But be warned: If you came here hoping to hear about Elon Musk or what’s next for Bitcoin Bros, or a review of “Ready Player One,” or you were hoping to learn the breakout app or band, guess what: You’re reading the wrong recap. Go read Buzzfeed, Bloomberg, Forbes or Pitchfork. This is Medium, and this is my story, and my festival experience. Which means you’re getting it unfiltered, unbiased, and ultra-ribbed for your pleasure.
Part I: The Official Power Rankings of Novelty Things Just Begging to Be Instagrammed
Any SXSW vet will tell you: This is where you go to take pictures of random amazing things, blast them out to your preferred social channel, and hope to induce FOMO from everyone who isn’t right there with you, or in-the-know enough to find it, or privileged enough to have their company drop $1,500 on a platinum badge and fly you into town on a junket. The festival now knowingly plays into this innate desire for people to take the most shareable, snackable, hashtaggable content ever, so brands and artists go to great lengths to make these installations and activations possible. Here were five worth calling out.
5. The Cars in Bubbles — one word: k
4. VICELAND’s activation had baby goats. Why? Because it’s 2018, and we’ve reached peak-Baby Goat because people are miserable and they just want to be around something joyous and cute to take the existential pain and ache of being alive in 2018 away for even the briefest of moments.
3. The DC activation’s Batmobile array. I’m here for a Batmobile. It’s like looking at a unicorn. You know it’s not a real car, but it feels real when you see it and it reminds you of being a child and wishing you were a superhero instead of a middle manager.
2. The #BeBrazil Mural — Walls in general are having a moment right now. Instagram is all walls, all the time. They must be stopped … with this one exception. In a span of 48 hours, a small army of artists transformed the side of a Fogo de Chao into Brazil’s pop-up HQ for SXSW. And the wall-art, well, legendary. Take a look for yourself:
- (WINNER) Okay, Brazil, we see your 48–hour art project and raise you a 24-hour 3D-printed house. Austin architectural tech startup ICON and Bay Area social entrepreneurs New Story teamed up to build this in less than a day, and for less than $10,000.
Y’all, the future would be pretty dope if the adults in the room would stop threatening nuclear holocaust or hacking democracy for like a hot second.
Part II: How To Eat and Drink For Free All Week and Sneak into VIP areas (Or, The Entire Point of SXSW)
Look, stop pretending like you’re spending the Ides of March in beautiful Austin, Texas because you’re here to “learn” something or “network” or “trend forecast.” You’re here to party your face off — and what better way to do that than with free food and drink. Here’s a quick recap of the freebies we indulged in, unrelated to my company’s own activation at SXSW (which I judiciously sampled), and where we found them:
- Saturday, 3/10: About six free tacos at some Canadian professional networking event at the Sidewinder, plus open bar
- Saturday, 3/10: Open bar at the Twitter House VIP section (?) on the second floor at Lustre Pearl (more on this in a moment)
- Sunday, 3/11: Open bar at the House of Scandinavia
- Monday, 3/12: Free food at the Media Temple open house
- Monday, 3/12: Open bar and free smoked salmon lox at the House of Scandinavia
- Monday, 3/12: Open bar at the GSD&M Industry Party
- Tuesday, 3/13: Free buffet and open bar at the Deloitte Industry Party
- Tuesday, 3/13: Open bar at the Tinder Swipe Sessions VIP area at the Mohawk
- Wednesday, 3/14: Bloody Marys and the World’s Largest Cheese Board (!!!!!) at the Wisconsin activation on the third floor of the J.W. Marriott
- Thursday, 3/15: Open bar and free snacks at FADER Fort
- Friday, 3/16: Open bar and free snacks at FADER Fort
- Saturday, 3/17: (Hypothetically) Free Bud Light at The Roots All-Star Jam Session (in theory, we’ll get back to this later)
I’ve learned the key to eating and drinking for free during SXSW is to saunter around during the day and walk through every open door, and if you walk through an open door and you see dollar-signs on the menu, you walked through the wrong door, or you need to go upstairs.
Breaking into VIP areas or RSVP-only parties merely requires acting like you belong there, work there, or casually saying you were just up there. We attempted this strategy in 12 different places, and it worked 11 times. The one time it didn’t work was because we were entirely unaware that the party in-question (which we also broke into) had a VIP area at all. Smile, crack jokes, say thank you, and act like you belong, kids. You can do it. (And, also, it helps to bring a really nice camera or a friend who also has a really nice camera.)
Extra secret pro tip and also just a basic courtesy reminder: Please tip your service industry professionals extra well during SXSW. They’re locals, they’re busy AF, and they low-key hate this annual exhausting exercise. In many cases, they’re overworked and under-compensated by highly entitled tourists and tech-bros and people all-too-eager to pull the “don’t you know who I am” card. Don’t be one of those people. If you’re getting your drinks for free, the least you can do is drop a $10 in their tip jar on the first drink. They’ll remember you and might even make your drinks extra strong.
The cheese board far and away wins this subgroup, though it’s hard to be mad about the unlimited shots of Fernet Branca afforded to us on the top floor of Mohawk. Next time Tinder sponsors anything SXSW, I’m swiping right. (I think that’s correct … I’ve never used Tinder.)
Part III: The Surreal List of Celebrity Run-Ins
SXSW is basically the Nerd Olympics. So you have a lot of titans of tech, politics, film, art, writing, music and TV trampling the same streets as the commoners. I don’t much care about if I catch a fleeting glimpse of Bill Murray, and I don’t do selfies with celebs (not even the creepy kind), but I do enjoy pretending I have no idea who these people are if they happen to cross my path. Here’s a list of these people from this year, in order of how much I enjoyed them happening to cross my path.
8. Adrian Grenier
He was speaking on a panel called “VR for Good.” We did not make eye contact.
7. John Krasinski
I asked Michole, an events marketing manager for Twitter who I’d met some five minutes earlier, “I feel bad asking this, but who is that guy? I feel like I should know him.” She said, “Oh, that’s John Krasinski. You don’t watch the office?” I said, “No, I just didn’t recognize him with his beard.” And then I slammed another free shot of Fernet.
6. Bill Hader
I thought he was Bill Hader, but I had to Google him to be sure. He shuffled out when Krasinski shuffled in.
5. Walter Isaacson
I literally ran into him while dapping up a co-worker. We struck up a brief, kind conversation that started with, “My bad … oh, hey! I love your work!” (I’m such a fanboy. I disgust myself.)
4. Trinidad James
Found Friday at FADER Fort. He was having fun. I gave him a brief introductory handshake and then I left him alone. I’m really, really not good at this.
3. Georgina Campbell
You might know her as the breathtaking woman from the “Hang the DJ” episode of Black Mirror, but she was in town promoting the premiere of Krypton, a new series on SyFy in which she stars. I kept threatening to talk to her, but I just couldn’t. Her star burns too bright. I merely said hello and wandered away sheepishly and wishing I had anything of value to say.
2. David Chang
If you have not watched Ugly Delicious on Netflix yet, you need to fix that immediately. It will change your life. This guy is one boss-ass dude, with a quiet charisma and an easy energy. I feel like he’s someone I would actually hang out with, and yet we did not really hang out. And so I’m still left wondering if he’s someone who would actually hang out with me. (Probably not.)
- Jeffrey Wright
I’m not quite sure a cooler, more grounded, more thoughtful celebrity exists. Just a gem of a human for the very brief moments in which we spoke before I realized I, again, had nothing of value to say, and I remembered I am a writer because I’m bad at talking.
WINNER AND SPECIAL BONUS ROYALTY APPEARANCE: The Crown Prince of Norway gave a speech on Egalitarianism (SWOOOOOOOOON) at the House of Scandinavia and you can bet your ass I was HERE for it (after drowning in free shots of Aquavit, which tastes vaguely like kerosene). I shook his hand and said hello.
Part IV: A Complete List of Other People Who Won My Heart This Week Who Are Not Celebrities (Yet) But Whose Work You Should Check Out
Before we begin this segment, we’d be remiss not call out friend and Austin photographer Annette Michelle, who came along for the ride with us, unleashed her camera sorcery, and snapped many of the incredible pics you see here. Follow her work on IG. Here’s her website if you want her shooting your next event.
- Michole from the top floor of the Twitter House with her amazing conversation and charismatic charm …
- Austin-based fashionista and designer Sloane Lenz, who had a breathtaking SXSW making art out of recycled materials and also outfitting under-underground FADER Fort darlings Speedy Ortiz …
- Artist and activist Benjamin Von Wong, who put in hella work to create an utterly astonishing art installation made out of recycled circuit-boards …
- Long-time Internet friend and rising ESPN scribe and commentator Kavitha Davidson, who gave an enticing panel on the state of Amateurism in college athletics, and who is one helluva storyteller …
- Activist, writer and extremely long-time real-life friend Kristen Parisi, who led a discussion on Ableism and Disability in the Media which was roundly well-received …
- Véronique Gingras, who I found out is the French-Canadian “me” and I was here for it …
- Hanna Tuulonen, a Finnish ex-pat writer in Sweden who did an excellent talk on the Humanoid Future of Journalism …
- MIT Media Lab luminary Neha Narula, a truly whip-smart charmer who nailed an inclusive and insightful panel on the future of Cryptocurrency …
- Magdalena Maria, who apparently has been reading me forever and who also apparently lives here and who also apparently is a friend of a friend and who I also just happened to bop into at FADER Fort with said friend and who is also dope IRL …
- Photojournalists and videographers Brooke Adams and Madison Tyson, who braved the Media line for The Roots showcase (more on this later) with me and took amazing pics like this one:
- HYP3R journo Brianna Valleskey, who was kind and cordial in person and then wrote some really great branding things about the fest you should read …
- Maryland rapper Reggie Prime, who talked Raekwon with me at FADER Fort and has solid bars of his own …
- LA-based model Hannah Dye, who uttered the single best quote of SXSW when she said, after I asked how long she’d been in town, “I’ve been here forever. I was born here. I exist here. And when I leave this Earth, I will still be here. I am forever.” Then she handed me a joint. I feel like that should’ve happened in reverse order …
- Global citizen and journalist Yenis Monterrey, who slayed the festival with her legendary and effortless way of bopping around town.
WINNER: This is a loaded region. All these people won in their own way. But none of them won SXSW. Not all by themselves.
Part V: Musicians We Saw And Enjoyed a LOT, in Alphabetical Order
I suppose we should finally talk about the music. This year’s lineup was wafer-thin with big brand names, but it was not, by any stretch, low on talent. This was the strongest year yet for throwing up your hands and saying, “there’s too much happening that i want to see all at the same time, fuck it, let’s go to FADER Fort and figure out the rest later.”
(And, yes, we made our fifth consecutive appearance at The FADER’s annual blowout bash, and it was their best rendition yet. The new venue was the perfect size, there were no bad viewing angles, the RSVP wasn’t noticeably overbooked, the artists on the low end of the bill were almost uniformly strong, the three surprise guests were fun, and the crowds never felt claustrophobic. Plus, there was ping-pong.)
After seeing her last year and enjoying the hell outta her, we were compelled to return. She came back even stronger this year than last, to a more sizable and receptive crowd, and she owned her craft like a sorceress. She’s ASMR you can dance to. Highly recommend.
He surprised and delighted, per usual, the smoothest motherfucker in the room, and he was in a LOT of rooms this year. He just kept showing up and putting in the work that only he can. All the hits you know and love, all done with effortless charm and grace.
This delightful, charming, hypnotic Bay Area singer-songwriter delighted a capacity crowd at Cu29 with her sonic wizardry. Her soaring, sweet, sultry voice makes perfect bedroom pop and complimented the intimate venue perfectly.
DJ Jazzy Jeff
He still bangs. It’s 2018. He’s still every bit the turntable master he was 30 years ago. I would never, ever throw him out of my house. (RIP to Uncle Phil.)
The hip-hop breakout at FADER Fort. What a booming West Coast throwback to back when everything was a G Thang. The YG comparisons are low-hanging fruit, but it’s a solid comp if you’re curious. You heard it here first: He’ll be a chart-entrant within two years. To wit, run this video back:
The LA-based Electro-trio performed an exclusive world premiere showcase at the Dell Experience, bolstered by their debut Blade 2 (not the Wesley Snipes movie). The music tore the paint off the walls and was cathartic, catchy and moving. An unexpected treat to the less than 100 guests inside, it was straight bangers from the jump.
The ravishing soul crooner had it working all night at the Tinder Swipe Sessions at the Mohawk. With a strong catalog at her disposal and a harp player by her side, and an impeccable array of flowers on stage with her, she floated and glided and left the whole building feeling some kinda way.
One of two artists we saw twice, this R&B up-and-comer is no mere 90s soul revivalist, she’s a trailblazing, tour-de-force with her own style and grace who took the energy in the room and made it her own. Her undeniable stage presence drew the crowd in close.
We were absolutely jacked to see this fella live for the first time, and he leaned heavily on his hits for a soulful, sweet set backed by a live band. Every bit the seducing presence live as he is on record, Miguel brought the house down and got the crowd moving with euphoric romps that blew well past the ubiquitous “Adorn.”
We were tipped off to this group pre-fest by FADER as one to watch, and, man, were they ever. Clinched by the try-hard charm of pink-haired front-woman Cacie Dalager, the Minnesota indie-pop outfit nailed their set with an affectionate and affecting ease.
PEAK. FUCKING. MALL. POP. This was, by several leaps and bounds, the catchiest group of SXSW, and the one I had zero clue would be so good. A brilliant surprise from Manchester, England, if there’s justice in this whole late-80s San Junipero revival movement, they’ll be launched into the stratosphere in no time. They became an immediate Spotify add.
Hear me out. Rae Sremmurd are hip-hop’s LCD Soundsystem. That sounds bat-shit crazy, but, listen. They’re a group that sounds damn fine on record, but when they take the stage, you’re left just uncontrollably smiling and dancing and singing their lyrics back to them. This was our fourth (!!!) show, and when they dropped that Sremmlife 3 was imminent, the crowd went crazy. They surprise-closed FADER Fort in epic fashion, and their new material leans even poppier and catchier than “Black Beatles.” Bigger things are on the way for them. (Yes, even bigger than they are now.)
The surprise guest on day two of the FADER Fort played straight Wu-Bangers start to finish. Raekwon did the first four verses of “Triumph” every bit as well as the other Wu-Gambinos would’ve, plus his star-turns of “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Incarcerated Scarfaces.” We’ve seen him do SXSW before, but, this was his best sprint-effort yet, and proof positive that in the 25 (!!!) years since we first entered the Wu, Da Chef ain’t lost his knife skills.
The award for best control of the crowd by an up-and-comer goes to Rico Nasty. Raunchy. Brilliant. Clever. Weird. Awesome. She’s unlike anyone I’ve seen live before, and she started a ladies-only hip-hop mosh pit and, you know what? Just go download her album and make it a point to follow her on tour. Words won’t do her justice.
I adored this act. Playing hella early at FADER on Day Two, but with all the charm of seasoned vets, this teenaged (!!!) outfit rocked you slowly to sleep in a way you weren’t mad about. Front-woman Lindsey Jordan has all the finesse of a capital-P professional and charmingly sings about love, loss and existentialism in ways that are well beyond her years.
SOB X RBE
Even now, I can’t pronounce this. The double-cup, lean-heavy set got their fix with the Vallejo, California posse’s incredible, charismatic performance that perfectly capped off Day Two at the Fort. 90’s west coast influence swirled with a little bit of Houston and a whole lotta ATL, which means smooth bangers all the way, but every MC has the makings of being a solo star in their own right.
This irresistible Nashville/Brooklyn band was the one we were most hyped to see perform for the first time. And, man, did they ever deliver. Sophie Allison’s vocals and lyrics wander between gritty, dreamy, clever and sweet, but her bedroom pop has now been fully fleshed out with a capable band she glowingly gave credit to when we met with them after their FADER Fort set. “Your Dog” was an obvious highlight, but the entire back-catalog is worth streaming (and purchasing!) because, frankly, when you craft a song like “Switzerland” — one of the most breathtaking lovestruck, world-weary ballads of the 2010s — you deserve to be heard by as many people as possible.
We saw fellow October 3 Birthday Club member Kweli last year, but, it bears repeating — dude goes HARD live. It doesn’t quite come out on record. His gift of gab does, but, even at his boldest on wax, he blesses the mic with grittier, tougher, louder, better bars than even that. Truly an electric stage presence with the content and charisma to match, Kweli went all-in at Container Bar and we were bopping right along with him.
The second act we saw twice during SXSW was the most triumphant. I want to go on record with this: Tinashe deserves to be the biggest pop star in the world. She is the complete package, from the dancing, to the stage presence, to the singing, to the lyrics, to the beats. Tinashe has come a long way from making songs in her bedroom on her Ableton Push. She has true stadium potential, and we hope that’s where she finds herself in the years to come.
We went to the Dell Experience, remarked to someone, “Hey, this guy’s really good. Is he local?” And they said, “Yeah. He was also on The Voice.” Well. That explains that. A serious talent who did a low-key masterful job with just an acoustic guitar and a white v-neck.
The face-melting glory of the multi-lingual, multi-national, female-fronted rock band again just destroyed their set (we saw them last year and absolutely had to go back to that well) … fittingly, the last one we caught before the end of the festival. Front-woman Sisi Berry’s vocals sear, guitarist Saul Artera shreds, and the entire crowd was left sweaty and breathless by the end of their brilliantly executed performance.
WINNER: Tinashe. Not close. Apologies to everyone. Also, this playlist.
Part VI: The System Is Broken …
Look, let’s address the elephant in the room. Shit’s been messed up in this country for a while and it’s rapidly hurling itself with the speed of a meteor into the sun toward authoritarian kleptocracy, pitting races against races, genders against genders, and splitting hairs over what exactly qualifies as “American” or “Patriotic.” And you could very, very clearly feel it all over this year’s festival.
Austin —SXSW homebase and the only major U.S. city without a mass shooting since 2009 — experienced indefensible tragedy this month in the form of three package mailbombs, two fatal, and two on March 12. (UPDATE: Late March 18, a fourth package mailbomb detonated within city limits and injured two more.) The two killed were both African-Americans. It’s indicative of the times we live in, and an example of a violent value system that has no place on this Earth or the next one Elon Musk wants to inhabit.
Additionally, The Roots All Star showcase was cancelled following a credible security concern in the form of another bomb threat. We were waiting in the Media line when we received word first from event staffers. The building was swept and cleared, and an arrest was made. And, yeah, we were robbed of this joyous setlist but thankfully no one was hurt:
It’s (rightfully) impossible to experience SXSW and extricate the bliss of the moment from the bleakness of our climate. These are dark times, and we’re all just running the fuck around Downtown Austin on Spring Break just trying to feel anything but hopeless and helpless. So, it could be said, that — on that level — Domestic Terrorism and Late-Capitalist Dystopia won SXSW. But, still, they did not, for reasons I’ll explain.
WINNER: Not applicable.
Part VII: … But Our Spirits Are Not
Because, you know what? We saw free-from-being-wrongfully-imprisoned Chelsea Manning introduce free-from-being-wrongfully-imprisoned Pussy Riot before they launched into an all-out punk-rock assault against the creeping authoritarianism, racism and fascism that are mainstreaming in whole societies around the globe.
Because at FADER Fort, we saw the best of everyone — white, black, asian, queer, man, woman, trans — and we all got the fuck along and vibed out.
Because cooler heads prevail in the long run. Yes, this world lapses into violence and chaos way more regularly than we’d prefer, and the history of the Straight White American Male is as checkered as those gingham shirts we seem to love to wear so much, and this world is and remains a dark, cruel place. And, yes, it’s hard to sit here and chill when everything is breaking all at the same time and not feel the urge to rage against all the injustices all around us.
But, if there is any (any!) solace in what we’re collectively experiencing as the very fabric of humanity bends and breaks and moans like an old ship in rough waters, it’s this: At SXSW, by and large, people were just happy to be there with each other. We were united by music, by art, by literature, by the pursuit of fun and free shit. And it felt more than good, it felt natural.
So, you know who won SXSW? You did. The doers. The dreamers. The makers. The musicians. The photogs. The writers. The speakers. The activists. The artists. The inventors. The strugglers. The sufferers. The ones who work twice as hard to get half as far. The outcasts and indie-bands and battle-rappers and bright minds and beautiful people who make the festival, and this country, and humanity, what it is: Welcome to the Montage. You’re the stars — and you’re the soundtrack. Y’all are welcome back to my home city anytime you want. See you next year.