Photos by the author
To the discerning consumer of culture, it's common knowledge that South By Southwest has become a hollow shell of what it originally was about. Every year America's top thinkers, influencers, and thinkfluencers, descend on Austin and all conclude basically the same thing about SXSW: It's overrun with brands grasping at any desperate measure to make people care about them, it's not about the music anymore, and, worst of all it's not even cool. Well, SXSW skeptics, if the festival were really branded beyond the remotest shred of authenticity, no longer about the music, and deeply uncool, would I be headed to the 2015 installment of it on a JetBlue marketing experience plane watching Nick Lachey, formerly of semi-popular boy band 98 Degrees, film an episode his VH1 morning show, Morning Buzz?
Yes, actually. Of course I would be. Of course I was. What is SXSW about if not giving in completely to the corporatized absurdity of it? We are powerless to do otherwise. If we want to check out bands in a quiet, laid-back environment, we can go to a local coffee shop or something. When you're offered a chance to fly down to Austin with Nick Lachey—and eventually check out more brands—you take it. If Rachel motherfucking Ray, of cooking show fame, is going to be on that plane also, you take it more emphatically. So I did. I showed up in the terminal and gawked at Nick Lachey and his perfectly smooth skin and perfectly swooshed hair and perfectly muscular frame that filled out his perfectly functional long-sleeve navy shirt as he went through binders of show production notes at the bar. I thought about the inevitable, rapidly approaching moment in the next five hours that I would ask him to take a selfie with me. I texted lots of people I knew and explained to them that Nick Lachey has a morning show on VH1.
“What I love about our show is there's no bad idea,” Lachey would later tell me. “Like 'why don't we film on a plane?' It's a pretty ambitious thing to do.” He added, “It's crazy, but it'll be fun. Every day you go to work, and you never know what's going to happen, what ridiculousness is going to happen that day.”
Of all the crazy ideas Nick Lachey's staff might have conceived—which, bear in mind, is a list that included a plan, unrealized due to illness, to fly an F-16 over the Super Bowl—shooting a show on a plane to South By was certainly among the craziest. Nick Lachey is many things, but he is not the one thing that SXSW is supposed to be, the thing that makes brands and everyone else so desperately want to be a part of it, which is underground cool.
In fact, Nick Lachey, who, in addition to being formerly of semi-popular boy band 98 Degrees, was also on a reality TV show about his marriage to unrepentantly mainstream pop star Jessica Simpson, is more or less the antithesis of underground cool. That's not a knock on Nick Lachey, who, in the segments of his show I could hear—the whole thing was mic-ed directly into the cameras, and, due to airplane noise, entirely inaudible if it wasn't happening directly in front of me—fucking rules at morning show banter. I could listen to Nick Lachey laugh off the idea of him using a barf bag on a plane, which he did as part of a segment where plane “passengers” asked him questions, all day. There could be a TV show that was only Nick Lachey making jokes about going to Mars with Rachel Ray on an executive order with Michelle Obama, and I would eat that shit up. Nick Lachey is an ideal TV host. But Nick Lachey is not on brand when it comes to the type of coolness SXSW purports to offer.
“Doing things differently but not trying so hard” is what it means to be cool, Lachey told me. “The same, regurgitated, run-of-the-mill stuff is not cool. It's the original ones thinking outside of the box and doing things that way. I think that's cool.” As for himself living up to that, he astutely observed, “At this point in my life, you just try to be who you are and hope that it resonates with somebody.”
The grand promise of SXSW is that it is a democratizing event, one that puts regular people, aspirational artists looking for their big breaks, industry insiders, the coolest bands in the world, and celebrities on an equal playing field. In theory, SXSW is a place where you might run into Wiz Khalifa walking down the street or where you might pass your mixtape to someone only to discover they're the head of Universal Music. In practice, the more industry insiders and celebrities and sheer number of regular people who are introduced to the equation, the more the regular strata of society are reinstated for the protection and sanity of everyone involved. Getting into an event where you might pass your mixtape to the head of Universal Music is unlikely enough, but that's not even the final obstacle. There are new tiers of importance and guest list and access and VIP, all of which are intended—and, quite frankly, needed—to prevent every event from descending into a screeching mob scene. One showcase I asked to get into this week listed me as Ultra VIP, which is very flattering but also insane in that it is a tier of access that exists (also, considering that I am in no way an Ultra-level person, I assume there are more tiers above this, splintering off into an unfathomable kaleidoscope of different colored wristbands).
In the place of unmediated chaos, sponsors and the like have stepped in to provide the simulacrum of that idealized image of a level playing field. Sure, there's always a chance you could end up stumbling into a party with TV on the Radio or whoever, but it's less intrusive and more lucrative for everyone if that party is really just an event put on by a cell phone company. We all accept this because it's a good way for the brand to look cool and the most realistic shot we, the plebes (or even we, the Ultra VIPs), have of ending up at a party with a cool band. Maybe A$AP Rocky will walk down the street and come to the same show we're at, but that might just mean that the cops block the door to that show and refuse to let you back in until the fire marshal comes, which is something that really happened to me last night. It's just easier to let the playing field be a little less level and have some sponsor grease the palms that need to be greased and book a cooler event space. They get to look cool, and everyone is less stressed out unless they happen to be part of the everyone who is stuck on the street waiting to get in.
In this way, SXSW is a lot like the internet brought to life: If the early years were a brave new frontier where anything could happen and everyone was on equal footing but the user interface was kind of shitty, the more recent years have been a weird cash grab where there's an illusion of equal footing (e.g. Twitter), a much slicker look, and all kinds of new status symbols (e.g. verified accounts). Both versions have their appeal: If it's harder to stumble into seeing the next Arcade Fire in an empty warehouse, it's way more achievable to watch Wiz Khalifa perform with Ty Dolla $ign in front of 300 people (and you could even livestream it!). The corporate shit show may be obnoxious, but, in terms of corporate shit shows, it's the best in the world! We might as well take the plane in stride and recognize that the idea of SXSW is in some ways more powerful than the event itself. And who knows: For a band like Marian Hill, the earnest post-collegiate trio who played the Morning Buzz plane show, playing on a plane that's vaguely associated with the allure of SXSW for TV might be more valuable exposure than the four SXSW Interactive and seven SXSW Music showcases they had scheduled, even if the coolest tastemakers in the world were at one of those showcases.
Yeah, that's Rachel Ray
As an occasional Ultra VIP, my tastemaker take is: I couldn't hear them because it turns out everything is impossible to hear on a plane. This was also the main impression I got of Rachel Ray, with whom I took many selfies via looking backwards down the aisle (shouts out to my flight attendant fam for showing me this trick while getting off their own equally fire aisle selfie Instagrams). Filming a TV show on a plane, while it involves bringing a lot of equipment along in the overhead compartments and running mic cords down the aisle, pretty much boils down to the same thing as filming a TV show in a studio: a bunch of cameras and lights hovering over the talent, producers offering up the tightly scripted premise for each loosely scripted segment, and everything running tightly on schedule while those of us who were uninvolved sat around and ate snacks. But then we disembarked from the plane into a normal airport like it was the most normal thing ever, and we all checked our phones to figure out where to head next, which hopefully was another enclosed space with famous people in it, where we could hang out in tightly scripted scenarios to have loosely scripted interactions with said famous people. I can't wait. SXSW is awesome. Here is a selfie I took with Nick Lachey:
Kyle Kramer is downloading more apps to increase his #influence at #SXSW. Follow him on Twitter.