Everybody Wants Some in the U.S.A: A Savage Journey Into SXSW
“I want to win Texas! I want to win Texas! I want to win Texas!” – Donald J. Trump, 2016
“Everybody wants some!!” – David Lee Roth, 1980
I’m speeding through Waco en route to Austin in a white Subaru Outback, blasting Donald Trump’s interview on The Late Show With David Letterman from November 1998 through the speaker system. It’s probably one of Dave’s great interviews, a meeting of (like em or not) two iconic New York figures to discuss the promotion of another (like him or not) iconic New York figure, Woody Allen, whose then-upcoming film Celebrity featured a fantastic Trump cameo. Yet, when I turn to my buddy, Scooter, who’s driving the rig, I only have one thing to say: “Man, Trump’s hair looks bad ass.”
I’m bound for South by South West in Austin. In 2016, “I’m not going to SXSW” means what “I’m going to SXSW” did in 2007. Still, I plunge forward deep into Texas, not to see a band or hear a riff. I’m in Texas to search for America. Because on these hallowed grounds, the literal steamroller of a presidential campaign run by Donald Trump was soundly smashed by “Lyin’” Ted Cruz. Why did Trump lose? Isn’t he supposed to win? Win, win, win? This is why I am here at the SXSW music and film festival, at possibly the most liberal gathering in modern music culture. I want to know what is happening in this country, and I want to know now.
Yet the harder my body is flung across Hill Country, the more my desire to answer these questions provokes more questions – on the nature of art, politics, and riffs. I present two of them for your consideration below:
1. No More Fun?
At a critical juncture in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Daisy Ridley’s Rey leans in to a close-up of the face of John Boyega’s Finn, who is passed out following a tremendous lightsaber battle in the snow (one of the most beautiful moments in the film, echoing gracefully the samurai sword-fights of Kurosawa, Kobayashi, and Gosha). It would appear, by the standard of most major Hollywood movies from the 1980s and on, that this is the moment where the two will kiss – consummating the nuclear family and satisfying the bits of sexual tension littered through the piece.
Yet Rey leans in, and only kisses him on the forehead. In a fell swoop, Abrams signals to us that this will be a wholly radical thing: a plutonic friendship. No sex in this film series.
Barely a month later, Kanye West, who alongside Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, and Star Wars, is the loudest influential media mouthpiece in America, releases a tour-de-force song (one of the few good ones from his new, messy album), “No More Parties in L.A.” The track doesn’t so much decry the hedonistic, vapid culture of American urban life, as it does lay it to rest. No more parties, says Kanye. No more fun. Not allowed.
These are the messages purveyed by some of the most popular, influential artists of our time, and I’m turning them over in my mind – no more sex, no more fun, no more parties – during a SXSW screening of Richard Linklater’s fantastic new film Everybody Wants Some, a kind of “spiritual sequel” to his legendary Dazed and Confuzed. The movie harkens back to a free and unrestricted time in America, in the transition from the 1970s to the 80s, when fratty baseball players could mosh at a hardcore show, groove at a disco, “dress new wave,” and engage in performance theater all within the space of a few days.
The film explores a time in this country – before the war on drugs, before the irrational exuberance of our economy in the 90’s, before the disaster of the Iraq War, before Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, and before Donald Trump. This was a time right as the children of the Woodstock generation grew up, and began to have their own bouncing babies, dropping into the conservative, “bourgeois” capitalist lifestyle that their artistic culture stood staunchly against in the 60s.
In a pivotal scene, four of the baseball frat-bros smoke marijuana and debate the merits of Van Halen and Pink Floyd. The wizened stoner-bro (who brought the weed and bong, so he’s the smart one, man) posits that Van Halen are an incredibly conservative band – sanctioned, commercial fun – riding pentatonics to nowhere. As opposed to Pink Floyd, whose riff in “Fearless,” he asserts, “leads you up a mountain, man.”
I’m not sure what to make of the sentiment right away, but I’m profoundly affected by it. What if untouchable bands in rock and metal history like Van Halen – the ones that even editors at Noisey and Pitchfork and MetalSucks go to bat for despite their normie popularity, no questions asked – are manifestations of conservative corporate values? That’d be fine I guess, other than that basically every band ever positions themselves as a rebel unit. What was it Lemmy said, “Rock n’ roll is supposed to piss off your parents,” or something like that? Are rock bands all liars, like Donald Trump? And do those lies effectively mean nothing, like with Trump, who only rises in power as he tells more of them?
In my quest to avoid seeing a single rock band at SXSW, I accidently saw a bunch. In between eating tacos and making my way through a sea of struggle rappers on 6th street, I’d stumble into a venue looking for a bathroom or cup of water. A few of those bands were good – Guerilla Toss, Diarrhea Planet, Power Trip – really good, even.
Max considers the state of punk while watching Diarrhea Planet play “Thunderstruck”
But Everybody Wants Some was hands-down the best piece of art I saw at the SXSW festival, one of the most media-branded festivals in America (every company, label, magazine has its own showcase), because it’s a gentle and nuanced look at youth culture, not a political one. It’s not in your face, like the Facebook posts by people who “aren’t going to SXSW” because it’s become “too corporate.” What’s wrong with corporate fun?
In 2016, in Trump’s America, it may be the only kind we’re allowed.
2. Winners Only?
“We’re gonna win so much you’re gonna say, Mr. Trump, please, we’re winning too much! It’s too much! And that’s when we’re going to win some more, folks.” – Donald J. Trump, 2015-16
Everybody knows that SXSW is a festival of pulling rank. This person works for Vice, that person plays in that hype band, this photographer has a media pass, this badge lets you skip THAT line, etc. You have to be a winner to succeed here.
But Linklater’s film raises a profound question about the point of all of this media consumption on a raw level – if Pink Floyd’s riffs lead us up a mountain, where did Van Halen lead us? Where did Black Sabbath lead us? Where is American heavy metal going, and where is this country going? Is America in its adult life, or is it in its infancy? In other words, what is America all about?
In a way, most of music culture leads toward a kind of “pulling rank.” Most bands seem to be stuck within the endless cycle of media that culminates in the SXSW mentality of “making” or “breaking” it. Play the next bigger show, do the next bigger tour, release album on the next bigger label, get more likes on Instagram – this is what these bands feed off. They’re what Justin Pearson and I talked about a few recently (interview coming soon!), they’re “just bands” bands, who are really just focused on delivering you a good time with their content. These bands believe that somewhere beyond the album-tour-album-tour cycle lies some kind of victorious relief. Win, win, win, and then win some more.
What are those bands leading us towards? What is the political cost of a good time especially when its framed within the safe corporate environment of branded-entertainment festivals?
En route to the MetalSucks showcase, grabbing coconut water at Buc-ee’s. Photo: @scooternet
I’m not sure about the answers to any of these questions. I am sure that I’m not waiting on baited breath for every artist to be like Justin Pearson, Aaron Turner, Ben Weinman, or Kurt Ballou, or for every young band to be like The Armed or Baptists. As I’ve discussed with Sergeant D both publicly and privately, as well as with the novelist Donovan Peters, I think we are incredibly lucky to get one great album in a given year – an album that you get to grow old with, study, enjoy, and live through.
I think audiences feel the same way, even if they’re told otherwise. I don’t think we really want to win, win, win; or at least, we only want to sometimes.
Endnote: Punishment in the U.S.A.
A thought: Donald Trump, like the spirit of the endless gorge of lightweight bands and indie films at SXSW, is yearning for a time in America that I’m not sure ever existed. For Trump, it was probably sometime in the mid-20th century, in the historically aberrant period of postwar growth. For the indie rock, punk, and metal bands, it was the boom in the 2000’s, after Napster took down the bigwig record labels but before the Internet rendered being in a band a complete financial disaster. And for the indie filmmakers, it’s the Sundance era, beginning with Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, And Videotape in 1989 and cresting with Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a fertile ground upon which independent studios and major Hollywood sub-companies would finance $15-30 million auteur projects – a stark contrast to our current mainstream cinema experience that’s dominated completely by the $100 million+ cookie-cutter superhero blockbusters.
Times have changed, but Trump, rock bands, and indie filmmakers continue to get up on stage and punish us with rhetoric and art that’s all about winning and delivering to “ME” the success I deserve. Metal bands do it too – contribute to our Kickstarter, check out my mixtape, follow me back on Twitter, “shout outs to the homies in X moderately famous band I don’t actually know but am friends with on Facebook,” etc.
I don’t think you can define an era as easily as VH1’s I Love the 90s or CNN’s The Eighties series try to, but there are definitely thematic lines you can trace through periods of time. I wonder whether we are approaching an era of pure punishment, in which the only fun allowed is sanctioned by media giants, where safe art trumps radical art, and where the audience itself is confused over what “radical” and “interesting” actually means.
So what do the audience and artists at SXSW and beyond want? I think they want something more than sex or fun, and I think that the endless parade of thinkpiece articles about self-obsessed millenials only wanting fame is too reductive an argument – these people just want to learn something about themselves! From the numerous horn-rimmed glasses girls I saw stage-dive for the first time during Diarrhea Planet’s 1AM set to the ripping math-riffs of Wild Throne, everybody and everything is searching for a release. Everybody wants some.