I spent the last two days of my life strolling 6th Street in Austin, TX for two days, taking in the sights, sounds, and feel of [[link|url=http://sxsw.com/]]South By Southwest 2009[[end-link]] (SXSW), one of the largest music festivals in the world and known for show casing good, up and coming bands and artists.
SXSW got me thinking again about something that has always been a mystery to me - what makes music good. I just like what I like, right? But thereís a definition. Thereís a definition created by those who know music, or those who listen to music a lot that extends beyond simply what people like. It might have to do with how clever or intricate the music is, or perhaps how unique, cutting-edge, or timeless. Maybe there is a definition of ďgoodĒ only grasped by people who know music in the classical or theoretical sense. Whatever it is, there seems to be a group of people somewhere out there who know what good music is.
A friend of mine is one of them. A music programmer by trade, he always knows the latest bands, and whether his knack for discerning good bands comes from his own intuition or whether he follows defined trends of some higher source, he seems to get it. He tells me ďthis band is good,Ē and often I hate the music. But in these situations I know he is right, the music is good. People think itís good, those higher authorities think it good, my tastes aside, it is good. Are there such people out there that have a 6th sense for defining good music that I donít have?
SXSW helped me figure it out, at least a little. First, I realized that I had not exposed myself to enough music. SXSW does a huge service to music and music fans by bringing artists and fans together constantly for over five consecutive days. Virtually every single bar or venue on 6th street has a band playing in it from 11 a.m. until the early hours of the next morning, many of them for free. I realized at SXSW that I actually know very few bands out there, and a lot of these bands I didnít even know existed, I really liked.
I learned that you have to expose yourself to a ridiculous amount of music to even begin to understand what good music is. You have to listen to music all the time and you have to crave hearing it. You have to be the type of person who canít be happy with pure silence anywhere, in your car, room, or any other surroundings, and the type who feels naked if you leave the house without your ipod.
I found that even during the very short exposure that I had to only a few bands, eventually I began to discern exactly what qualities of songs and shows drew me in and captivated my attention the most, and I was able to begin to pick out common themes in the music I liked. I realized that many of those qualities are the same qualities that also drew my friends and many other audience members to the same bands. I came to the conclusion that if you average together all of your own common qualities that make music appealing to you and then average that with the common qualities that others think are "good," you come out with overarching guidelines for good music. My theory works because it allows for specific tastes to be taken into account when defining good music, since it is basically just an average with a large range and a lot of outliers. The exact definition of "good" is one that probably encompasses a balance of the qualities I cited before, like uniqueness and timelessness, but it is not a definition that can be strictly articulated, and exists as a common intuition or feeling.
So now, with my unrefined tastes and a new found sense of what good music is, let me tell you what I loved at SXSW. I had no idea what to expect, so I spent two days being led around by a friend of a friend equipped with only my id, phone and a single credit card. The atmosphere was one of absolute excitement while remaining completely laid-back. SXSW was like being in a city where I felt like everything I ever wanted to do was at my fingertips, in a place with no rules or obligations. And things were cheap, if not free. If you have never been to SXSW, GO. But donít pay for it. Thereís enough amazing, free music to fill the entire 5 days. And if you play your cards right, youíll drink for free too.
My friends and I spent most of our time at the [[link|url=http://www.pastemagazine.com]]Paste Magazine[[end-link]] party at Radio Room in the heart of 6th Street. I learned that [[link|url=http://www.pastemagazine.com]]Paste[[end-link]] throws one of the most consistently awesome parties of SXSW each year, and we found that once in the doors, we really never had a reason to leave.
At Radio Room I was completely blown away by [[link|url=http://www.portobrien.com]]Port Oíbrien[[end-link]], who had the audience, many of whom were brand new fans, singing along to songs like ''I Woke up Today'', as well as the rest of their mix. I saw [[link|url=http://www.mwardmusic.com/]]M. Ward[[end-link]] and my skepticism for acoustic guitar singer/songwriters mostly dissipated. He is exceptionally good at the guitar and the first of his kind to hold my attention for the whole set all by himself. I even went to see him again the next night. I loved the energy, electronic sound, and weirdness of [[link|url=http://www.myspace.com/passionpitjams]]Passion Pit[[end-link]], and while [[link|url=http://www.myspace.com/cursive]]Cursive[[end-link]] is not my type of music at all (think refined emo-screamo), they put on a crowd-pleasing show. Also a favorite, [[link|url=http://www.bishopallen.com/]]Bishop Allen[[end-link]] was easy listening and high energy.
My absolute favorite was [[link|url=http://www.thaomusic.com]]Thao & the Get Down Stay Down[[end-link]]. Each song flowed from measure to measure surprising me at each turn with something I didnít expect. The upbeat songs were deceptively complicated, with driving rhythms and intricate undertones. Plus, Thao Nguyen is an exceptional performer and has a style that not only revs up a crowd of people, but also entices that crowd to simply adore her.
I saw a ton of other bands, including Paper Route, The Hollywood Ten, and The Avett Brothers, and Iím adding all of them to my collection of music. Iím still working on my theory and applying it different situations. The most important thing in the end, of course, is not what good music is, but what YOU like. So Iíll be listening to a lot more music and thinking about why I like it...and probably not worrying very much about what is ďgood.Ē Oh, and Iím serious about SXSW. If have never been, you have to go. I'll see you there next year. :)