AUSTIN, Texas -- "There's been this cultural shift, an explosion of hipster culture," said Blondie's Chris Stein at his band's Wednesday afternoon panel at the South by Southwest music festival here. "When we got here it was like 'World War Z,' every single guy was in a plaid shirt and fedora. When we started our band, we were on the fringe. Now the whole culture is inside."
That line got big laughs from the packed room inside the Austin Convention Center. But it raised a good point about contemporary pop culture -- what happens when everyone becomes a gatekeeper of originality (or rather, when no one is)? Is that better or worse for a healthy aesthetic and business climate for the arts?
In the '70s and '80s, Blondie was at the vanguard of mixing punk, disco, hip-hop and pop in ways that feel entirely unremarkable today but were incredibly iconoclastic at the time. So perhaps its better qualified than most legacy acts to comment on how the total system collapse of the established popular music business has been both invigorating and depressing for working bands.
"I remember when cassettes came out and all the labels were like, 'Oh no, people can steal music now! That mind-set never changed," said Blondie singer Debbie Harry, still as observant and platinum-foxy as ever.
The rise of U.S. festival culture has become a godsend for working bands as the record-sale business has plummeted, and the trend has been especially good for acts like hers, which have era-defining pop hits but play to older crowds that have outgrown club scenes. "Instead of just going out on tour tirelessly -- or very tired -- you can play in these very elegant situations," she said.
During the Q&A portion, one particularly astute fan asked the band about the modern racial and subcultural implications of its genre-mixing, and how it helped to upend the stratification of pop music right when punk and disco and hip-hop were forming. The band appreciated the question, and drummer Clem Burke replied that, "Dance was as subversive as punk to me. Us doing 'Heart of Glass' was our way of pissing off people in our own circles."
Earlier in the day, a very different sort of era figurehead tried to reinvent himself as well. Sean "Diddy" Combs, the erstwhile rapper-producer-vodka mogul, is trying for another act as a tech-and-media entrepreneur, with his Revolt TV cable network. It aims to be a modern update of the kind of tastemaker that MTV was in its heyday.
“For a year and a half, I was so uninspired, I hit a wall. There was such a lack of real music being put out,” Diddy told the overflow Convention Center crowd. “Revolt was a perfect platform. Disruption has always been a key to my success.”
Diddy certainly had the tech buzzwords du jour down in his pitch. He’s always had a knack for putting himself right at the forefront of other macro culture trends -- Biggie Smalls’ career, premium vodka with his Ciroc deals, and now as an aspiring content-production mogul. Time will tell whether Revolt will have anywhere near the reach of early MTV -- or whether it’s even possible for one outlet to drive a new cultural conversation anymore.
But Diddy was incredibly earnest about other aspirations, like wanting to be the first African American football team owner, that suggested his passion projects do actually have some passion behind them.
The panel’s Q&A session turned a little awkward when he deviated from the previously vetted questions and threw the microphone over to anyone who wanted to talk to him.
Naturally, everyone with a video pitch for Revolt TV took the occasion to ask him to look at it. He gamely said over and again that he’d have someone get back to them, and he brought a mature bit of levity when he gently cautioned a nearly 40-year-old guy with four kids in the audience to not necessarily give up his day job to pursue entertainment full time.
But up and down the blocks of Austin, dozens upon dozens of bands were grabbing at that faint but not impossible potential.
The duo Drop Tank, a couple of Aussie metalhead transplants to L.A., brought a racket to the Lodge on 6th that recalled the skuzzier side of Guns N’ Roses with the meth rush of Motörhead and a whole lot of technical skill. It was perhaps a bit early on a Wednesday to ask a hung-over crowd to wake to that much shredding, but if someone gave Drop Tank a good slot at the Sunset Strip Music Festival, the band would absolutely own it. Take note, bookers.
Back in the Convention center, L.A.’s Moses Sumney wowed a church-quiet auditorium with a quick set that recalled the best of Jeff Buckley with some vocal loop experiments and a disarming charisma. It’s no accident that he’s become a KCRW favorite -- the songs are tasteful and highbrow but just soulful enough to still feel moving. Get Sumney into a room with the right producer who can treat his voice and clean guitar work with panache, and a tune like his “Alchemy” could find a chemistry all its own.