SXSW 2012: Can Austin Stay Weird?
Do a Google image search of "Keep Austin Weird" and among the tie-dye shirts donning the name is an image of Leslie Cochran bearing his ass in a leopard thong.
Leslie, Austin, Texas' ambassador of weird, died Thursday at the age of 60 at Christopher House, an inpatient hospice center. His death comes on the heels of one of the city's most well-known, now least weird events, South by Southwest. With the growing corporate side of a once-homegrown music festival, and news of Leslie's death, it's hard to ignore the weakened weight the city's slogan "Keep Austin Weird" carries.
Politically, Austin is liberal. The blue dot in a sea of red can mostly be attributed to the massive student population from The University of Texas (of which I am an alumni). It's the place where college graduates go, or never leave from, to retire. The city's focus on small businesses has bolstered the local economy, while keeping out mega corporations such as Wal-Mart. It's the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World. Food trucks were once a trend but are now a staple. There's a spring-fed watering hole just south of Downtown. Breakfast tacos are the hangover cure of choice. It has the largest urban bat population in the world. It's beautiful, it's healthy, it's full of contradictions, it's Texas and it's weird.
Watch below for a University of Texas commercial narrated by Walter Cronkite (it mentions breakfast tacos):
So why is there a recent, more mainstream draw to the city? Despite the countrywide recession, Austin has thrived, hitting a number of "fastest growing cities," "lowest unemployment rate" lists. In a country so focused on recessionary woes; what's not appealing about an economically thriving town with warm weather, live music and Tex-Mex tacos?
Some argue this economic stability can be attributed to the drive to sustain local businesses. Others would argue the tech scene puts Austin ahead, the Silicon Valley of the Southwest. But others would say the city is just now grabbing hold, that the economy has grown due to the move of big businesses to the city (Apple just announced a $304 million campus building endeavor that will add 3,600 jobs in the city) in the past 10 years.
Though the reasons why the city is growing are numbered and not always clear, there are more concrete ways the city is growing less weird. That contradiction between weird and normal, local and corporate is happening with SXSW.
SXSW started in 1987 as a way to get local musicians from all over the world to band together and get their names out. And, yes, SXSW is still very much focused on praising the talents of the up and coming. And, yes, massive festivals like SXSW -- and Austin City Limits -- boost the economy ($167 million in 2011). But, it also boosts the profits of massive corporations that sponsor shows with chart-topping musicians, and supports those chart-topping musicians themselves.
In response to the growing attendance, and ticket prices, an onslaught of unofficial and free SXSW events happen every year. Now, even those are getting out of hand. This once go-local idea is not even accessible to the locals anymore.
I remember waiting for two hours in a line (never made it in) to see The Black Keys at The Mohawk in 2010 before a majority of the country knew who The Black Keys were. Guess who it was sponsored by? MOG from California. Imagine the chaos that ensued when Kanye West played the unofficial pop up show at the Austin City Seaholm Power Plant. Guess who it was sponsored by? Vevo from New York. Jay-Z is making an appearance this year at a show sponsored by American Express.
It's this bombardment of corporate chaos that puts a strain on the strange; every time another massive out-of-state company moves in to one of the recently built downtown skyscrapers, or a big-name musician graces a stage that used to be reserved for a small band, is when the city loses a little. What the city has gained in monetary value, it's lost in weirdness.
It's truly hard to say which direction the city will go, and the question deserves further exploration than this article. Living in Austin, though, I never had to buy and wear the Keep Austin Weird shirts because it was a phrase used by Townies for something I always knew was true. Now, even though I live 1,745 miles away in Brooklyn, Austin will always be home and Austin will always be weird to me. In addition to Bevo for UT (Hook 'Em!), Leslie will always be my Mascot of Austin. I just hope people that move there for the booming music scene and economy will realize that, too. So please y'all, Keep Austin Weird.