As recently as two years ago, it's a safe bet that most people in Austin still weren't aware of the phenomenon that is Formula One Racing. When it was announced that an F1 course would be built in one of the more rustic (to put it politely) corners of the greater Austin metro area, the promise was of a well-heeled, spendy, trendy group of international fans coming for a weekend of absorbing this not-so-American sport, being expensively on vacation.
Today, that weekend is upon us. The local media is regarding visitors with an arch curiosity, including our local National Public Radio affiliate, whose curiosity extends to asking the question, "Do they love Austin like we love Austin?" Locals are bracing themselves for paralyzing traffic jams and hoping for a mystical tourism dollar windfall from the pockets of Gauloise-smoking tourists in tight pants. Local party planners and socialites are making sure that the phrase "red carpet" is getting thrown around as casually as "y'all" or "fixin' to" does in the Midwest tourist's version of What Texas Sounds Like. (America: Please send more red carpets. Austin is running out.)
And, finally, downtown Austin is being transformed in a sponsor-rich outdoor street festival zone, under the moniker Austin Fan Fest, with Flo Rida, Nelly and Enrique among the musical attractions commanding $100-plus ticket prices. (There's also an Aerosmith/Cheap Trick offering tonight at the Erwin Center that seems more welded onto than organically part of the event; note that it's not being billed as "You Know, The Guy From American Idol.")
The Austin Fan Fest is, frankly, puzzling if not downright alarming for Austinites not used to all this flash. In fact, there's a popular city slogan, "Keep Austin Weird," indicative of the civic pride bound up in being eclectic and eccentric. For years now, there's been a fear of a "Dallasification" happening in Austin that the recent H&M Store opening and continued condo building doesn't help, and F1 seems a particularly virulent strain of Dallasification that could cause one to break out into a fit of Anthropologie shopping or worse.
Earlier this month, Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell cracked that Austin hosting an F1 extravaganza was "like Mayberry hosting the Super Bowl." The city is doing what it can to accommodate the proclivities of the more elite F1 fans, including allowing temporary helicopter landing spots for helicopters to ferry the highest-dollar fans over the masses in land-based vehicles to the race site.
For a city that's no stranger to festivals, F1 and its ancillary Austin Fan Fest are odd curiosities in appealing to both a financially aspirational and yet mainstream audience. Local fashion publication Tribeza went as far as to create a special F1 edition of its magazine, full of ads for high-dollar Austin realtors. The issue's content includes a fashion section covering "what to wear to the track" -- outfits that are indeed indistinguishable from what young, attractive well-to-do professionals with appreciable clothing budgets would wear at many other out-on-the-town destinations.
The curation of the Austin Fan Fest headlining acts makes sense if you're trying to appeal to a young nightclub set -- the sort of set that the nightclub operators that ill-fated Yassine Enterprises appealed to before an FBI investigation earlier this year, leading to a criminal hearing ready-made to air on CBS.
To wit: Flo Rida's first big hit -- "Right Round," with Ke$ha contributing her vocals -- reworks the '80s dance-pop hit from Dead or Alive into stunningly unsubtle, fellative territory. Enrique's recent hit, "I Like It" -- featuring Pitbull, no less -- offers some of the worst relationship advice of perhaps any pop song in recent memory. And Nelly? He of the superfluous bandage? Despite his mid-'00s pop prowess, he's becoming increasingly irrelevant -- ir-Nel-evant, if you will.
By contrast, even though the three major music festivals in Austin are impressive economic drivers in their own right, they still keep a character and cultural relevance that makes them essential in defining Austin's identity. In Austin, art and commerce can be aggregated in a way that honors the aims of both without diminishing one or the other.
South By Southwest -- now with an Interactive Festival drawing more than the official Music fest -- still has a brand strong enough to transform bars that are frat-friendly for 51 weeks of the year into pockets of welcome hipness, and the official festival remains a well-planned, organized grid in which bands are still expected to start on the hour and give their best for 40 minutes.
The unofficial showcases and day parties have transformed a controlled, defined festival into a sprawling free market of music, hydra-head impossible to conquer but a must-do experience for any music lover who wants to ingest as much sound and spectacle as possible.
The Austin City Limits Music Festival -- expanding to two weekends starting next year -- transforms a large downtown park typically given over to pickup soccer games and bandana-wearing dogs into a music-hungry city of 75,000, while still keeping a distinctly Austin sense of goodwill and purposeful leisure about it. For me, the iconic photo from the event is still a crowd shot of thousands of happy Phish fans from a few years back, one of them beaming as he holds up a handmade sign that simply reads: "Play Whatever You Want."
And Fun Fun Fun Fest, the youngest of the three core Austin music festivals, has grown from its day-long punk-leaning roots to be an increasingly large and ambitious event worthy of its triplicate name. The latest version, just two weeks ago, brought an estimated $28 million to the local economy over three days, averaged 18,000 attendees per day, and hosted the RUN-DMC reunion to highlight arguably the most indie-pleasing lineup this side of Coachella.
Fun Fun Fun Fest's biggest contribution to city-defining images this year, however, wasn't a band on stage, but a taco cannon. Tacos -- be they for breakfast, lunch or dinner -- are a staple of Austin life, even when not fired from a modified T-shirt cannon. The tacos were from Austin's Torchy's Tacos -- a not atypical local success story, evolving from a single food truck to become a chain with multiple Austin locations, but with the same edgy aesthetic that got diners initially curious. The promotional team at the festival not only got the cannon to fire scores of tacos through the course of the event -- they got this to happen on Good Morning America, helping to perpetuate Austin's reputation as Home of the Weird.
Austin Fan Fest will be an important element in determining whether established Austinites regard F1 with smiles, smirks, disdain, or dread -- and new Austin's embrace of the festival will provide an interesting perspective on whether F1 is a curious outlier in the city's tastes, or part of an evolving population. And while Austin's still not L.A. or New York, it contributes enough to the American popular culture equation for the ripples from F1 Weekend to be observed and absorbed.