Game Rebellion is not the best band in the world—by any stretch of the words "best," "band" or "world."
From their perch in Brooklyn, N.Y., the seven-member collective pimp a kind of "genre bending" that smears Diet Dr. Know guitar solos all over "gritty" Gotham hip-hop beats. Imagine Cypress Hill's "Rock Superstar" sprayed by a backpacker whose cultural allusions are limited to recently revived cult dude-movies like Warriors. It's annoyingly bad, unremarkable stuff.
Still, for around 40 minutes—or however long it took my plane to get from Houston to Austin on the morning of Tuesday, March 13—one of the punk-by-way-of-hip-hop collusionists had a gullible girl in a seat behind me convinced that Game Reb was the talk of this year's hipster Mardi Gras known as South by Southwest: "Yeah, you ever heard of Bad Brains? We jump off on that tip, with a bit of Mos Def, Dead Prez and some Rage Against the Machine thrown in there, too...."
She bought it. She "totally gets" the connection between dude's Dr. Dre shirt and the Bad Brains vest hanging off of the dreadlocked Game Reb guitarist back in 14B. It may have taken some coaxing to get her on board, but that's what SXSW is all about: relentless self-promotion, careful impression-building, lying through your goddamn teeth, and convincing everyone on your plane ride or on the corner of Sixth Street and Red River Road that they should care. Remember: Mathematics won't allow all of the 1,500 bands in Austin to matter.
For better or worse (probably worse), SXSW is all about selling yourself on a specific posture, a certain cool. It's about knowing why you're there, who you're there to attract, and how you'll attract them. End of the day, at SXSW, every band is doing its best to live directly into the image—be it the lowly blog underdogs, the disaffected outsiders, the good-time drunks, or the regal old gentlemen.
From the outside, or maybe on DirecTV and MTV Overdrive, SXSW looks like a bunch of skinny white boys with guitars (ostensibly, it is), but immerse yourself in this thing for a week, and several versions of cool show themselves.
Aged Cool: For the bands who've been there before—maybe one time too many. When I saw Donovan Wednesday night at the First Presbyterian Church, he was, rather disappointingly, just an old dude with a guitar. But I got to hear "Mellow Yellow" live for the first, and probably last, time in my life. Aside from a few jokes about his itchy licensing finger and some stuff about his songs saving our lives, he was a living relic to the it's-safe-to-bring-your-kids-to-this-one set.
Indie Cool: Aged Cool in waiting. The sort you'll find at one of the many blog-sponsored day parties, or the showcases at Beauty Bar, where I caught The Comas and Menomena, both post-DIY iPop bands, clean enough to be adored by Jane magazine but just scruffy enough to qualify as hipster musicians. The above-mentioned are class acts, but the streets of Austin are infested with the opposite—nameless, faceless bands projecting a steely Indie Cool. These are bands that want to sound good, and have less bass in their vocal monitors. These are bands that like to play rooms with solid acoustics. Bands that don't just read their reviews, but read reviews in general. These bands are here because the blogosphere (or their bartender, or their friends, or you) taught them to believe in their music. That's why this is a dangerous kind of cool: Of all the varieties, these dudes take themselves most seriously.
Wasted Cool: Polar opposite. Like a walking Vice Magazine, this is about being dirty, playing loud and, at the very least, looking like you just did some smack. Daughters was certainly pulling it off Thursday night on stage at Emo's Annex as each of their guitarists actually stroked those big phallic six-strings, forgoing actual fret-work, because, Dude, these song are really hard to play after a case of Lone Star. You know you've stumbled over Wasted Cool when the entire venue smells like an alcoholic and the band on stage seems pretty proud of playing their songs pretty poorly. That was the scene at the Annex for Daughters. I appreciated its simplicity.
In-It-For-The-Fans Cool: Easily the most annoying. These are the Game Rebellions, the bands that walk right up and talk to you. The bands that hand out flyers before shows and thank their MySpace friends on stage. These are bands like 1997, which after spotting me parked at a laptop late night at Denny's, assumed I was a journalist and asked me to write something about them (happy?). These bands will never be famous.
Man, It's Cool: My personal favorite. When I stumbled out of a cab onto the pavement outside of a big, airy, Austin home last Thursday, I assumed I was in the wrong place for the Monitor Records pool party. This was too peaceful and quiet for SXSW. Little did I know, I'd left both Austin and the festival a mile and half behind me. I walked inside and was almost immediately smacked in the face by this new, foreign atmosphere: "Welcome to Baltimore, wanna hang out?" No sign of selling cool anywhere. Nobody looking to shake hands or boost their MySpace friends count. At risk of sounding nauseatingly romantic, there was nothing but laughter, camaraderie, music and a pool. For better of worse (probably better), Baltimore packed itself up and came to Texas.
On my way home, I was on the same flight as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, a British buzz band from a few years back who were slathered in New Music Express-love but never really connected for some of that Kaiser Chiefs or Arctic Monkeys pay-dirt. Still, in Austin Bergstrom International Airport, they carried themselves like rock stars, dreading/awaiting the moment they'd finally be recognized and, oh if you insist, have to sign some autographs for your friend, what's his name again?
That moment never came. If only Get Cape had gone for a bit of that face-to-face self-promotion, told a few people that "we fancy the Postal Service, with a bit of Badly Drawn Boy and Damien Rice thrown in for good measure," the girl in 18F would have been a bit more receptive. Oh, well. There's always next year.