an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Your walk should be a brief sojourn: Red River to Congress. Ten minutes, tops. But throngs of revelers block your route like a blood clot. Faces and bodies blur into each other, the sheen of reckless abandon coating skin and clothing. The bars bulge with drunken patrons like fat happy ticks, customers oozing out an open door onto the sidewalk, into the street. As close as you are to them—it is impossible to avoid their sweaty gnarled clumps of limbs and torsos as you navigate among them, awful and gross and please just stop invading my personal bubble for a second—the gulf between you could not be wider.
The bacchanalia that is Sixth Street intensifies during South by Southwest. Clusters of Austinites that normally occupy the street’s bars are ruptured this week, diluted by the presence of thousands of outsider carousers who only know Austin through a brief descent into a Hobbesian state of nature gone pop-pomo. Leviathan, meet Google and Justin Timberlake. They feed off of our chaotic vigor like corporate succubae.
The street teems with flesh. You carve a jagged path through the unpredictably moving bodies to return to your home. A wayward elbow knocks your temple, bone clacking against bone. You’ll bruise—this is the first of many. It could have been anyone.
The masses are here for a purpose beyond making your brain throb. They bring dollars (dollars and dollars, so many dollars). Side streets and bars bulge with consumers of start-ups and corporations and everything in between. Businesses from all over the nation ply these people with food, booze, booze, swag, booze again… anything to generate the necessary buzz to become the next Twitter or Foursquare. But we get Prince and Bruce Springsteen and Snoop Dogg and thousands of local bands and free free free, if we buy the badges (much of SXSW isn’t for the proles), if we wait in line for 6 hours to breech the doors of the intimate venues in which these folks perform, if we have the energy to remain standing after a day of buzzing about downtown. We don’t have to make dinner for a week. Our stomachs become distended from the ubiquitous cornucopias of barbecue and beer.
But the sheer volume of outsiders who do not know this place other than through its deranged SXSW step-twin changes this city. The street is profoundly alienating, more so than during any other moment in the year.
This is their week of self-sanctioned bad behavior. They don’t care, even as the spirit of the city mutates. This Austin is theirs: it is a sordid vacation, not only from New York City and Los Angeles and London, but from personal restraint. Victorian America this is not. The quirky, contemplative Austin, with its swim holes and cafés and generally chill vibe, y’all… this is not. It is a depraved, grotesque caricature. It is indifferent to your presence.
As much as you long for the city’s return to normalcy—or, at least, to return to a place of relative tranquility far north of downtown—you must navigate around these drunken clods first. The pulsing bass bleeding from the bars makes your temple throb. Sounds from scattered venues churn together in a vortex of vibrations and you press on. It is impossible to separate the knotted threads of noise into anything musical. Beneath the cacophony you hear a buzzing drone of voices spilling from the gaping maws of vacant faces. You hear the occasional isolated word—David Bowie. Vice. Cab. Shots. Shots. Shots!—but the conversations clutter and blend together into an unintelligible din. Blurry people, blurry city, blurry music. You connect with nothing. Where are you?
But South by Southwest is not all Sixth Street. It’s not all commodification or hedonism or gluttony or long lines or outsiders. The week also offers small pockets of community and distillations of what drew so many people to Austin in the first place. The next afternoon, you find yourself in a backyard on East Sixth. A nouveau folk band strums lazily in the evening sunlight for a smattering of twenty-somethings sitting cross-legged in the grass. You sip a beer. You know none of these people. The mustached gentleman in a fedora (seriously?) to your left passes you a joint. You inhale more than you should, sneaking another puff (bogart, sure, I grant you that) before passing it on. The sounds harmonize with the rhythms of your body; your body melts into the energy of the audience. You grumble about your cliché contentment—yeahhh, get high, loosen uuuuup, man…how absurd—but the swell of warmth for the city overtakes your self-loathing. This is what Austin is about, maybe: a quiet buzz, a cool beer, thrumming guitars and mandolins.*
*None of this actually happened. I wrote this cloying Hollywood ending because I felt guilty about my scathing assessment of this small segment of downtown Austin. But Sixth Street is plainly terrible and gross.
Carrie Andersen is a member of The End of Austin editorial board and a Ph.D. student in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research explores violence, media, affect, and political theory. She also works as a comedy reporter for Laughspin.com.