Paige Schilt

My Queer South by Southwest Diary

Filed By Paige Schilt | March 27, 2010 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: Butch County, Christeene Vale, Claudia Gonson, Exene Cervenka, Gretchen Phillips, Magnetic Fields, Phranc, Rosie Flores, Shunda K, Stephin Merritt, Strange Powers, sxsw

Reuters is reporting that 2010 was a record year for South by Southwest, the famed music and media conference that happens every March in my hometown of Austin, Texas. This year's festival certainly felt more intense to me--but then, my perspective was a bit queer: my sweetie was performing, I was chaperoning a six-year-old on spring break, and I didn't have the funds for an official badge. Read on if you want to hear how a DIY dyke-mama gets her festival fix with the help of Austin's below-the-radar queer community.

Days 1-4: SXSW Interactive

Although I didn't attend any panels, SXSW Interactive was educational nonetheless because Bil and Jerame were in town for a discussion on Engaging the Queer Community. After the panel, I hounded Bilerame until they explained how Grindr works. Fascinating! I really want there to be a lesbian version (Trailr, perhaps?), because I want to be able to stand in line at the post office or in the freezer aisle at the grocery store and to know exactly how many feet away the nearest dyke is.

Day 6: SXSW Film

First of all, I want to apologize to the people who sat next to me during the screening of Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, which was heralded as the "second gayest" film at SXSW.

You see, my son, Waylon, is a big fan of the Magnetic Fields' music, so I hit upon this screening as an activity that might satisfy my desire to experience SXSW Film and Waylon's desire to have some spring break adventures.

He was actually pretty riveted by the parts of the film that explore the Magnetic Fields' low-tech artistic process. They make sounds with kitchen whisks! They play something called a frog caller! However, as the film focused more insistently on Merritt--a notoriously shy and ungiving interviewee--my son became more and more fidgety. I spent the bulk of the film holding him on my lap, wishing he would fall asleep, and trying to keep him from accidentally kicking the people on either side of us.

There's a line towards the end of the film when Sam Davol, the cellist for the Magnetic Fields, talks about making music with Stephin as a kind of "strange intimacy." For me, the unorthodox intimacies--especially the relationship between Merritt and keyboardist/manager Claudia Gonson--were at the heart of what made Strange Powers queer and emotionally compelling.

I can only hope that the people next to me were as philosophical about their "strange intimacy" with a squirming six-year-old.

Day 7: Girls Rock Austin Day Party and the butch/punk rock network

As anyone who's been to SXSW can testify, the free, unofficial day parties are where most of the DIY fun happens. I was full of anticipation for the Girls Rock Austin day show, which featured some of the most legendary ladies of punk rock, including Rosie Flores, Girl in a Coma, Viv Albertine, and my personal childhood heroine, Exene Cervenka. I was milling about in the crowd when Elizabeth Jackson from the band Darling New Neighbors approached me.

"Exene wants to meet you," she said. I nearly fainted.

As I waited in line for my audience with the mother of American punk rock, I racked my brain to figure out why she would want to meet little ol' me. Did she somehow know that, as a teenager, I read and re-read her book of poems, Adulterers Anonymous, until the binding gave out? Did she know that a battered cassette copy of More Fun in the New World was my first roadmap to political feelings in the Reagan/Bush era? That her solo album, Old Wives Tales, was the soundtrack to my initial baby steps into activism during the first Gulf War?

As it turns out, the angel of this moment was Phranc, who had asked Exene to deliver her regards to the members of Butch County, which is my sweetie's band. Phranc! Phranc the Jewish, lesbian, punk rock folksinger was literally the first lezzie public figure I ever knew about--the only indication in my entire high school career that you could be an out lesbian and, what's more, make art about your experience.

Just when I thought my queer-punk-rock-girl-high couldn't get any better, Girl in a Coma played a beautiful set that was packed with young Latina fans who followed their every move.
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Watching the faces of the girls in the audience, I could trace same kind of feelings I still have for performers like Exene and Phranc: a mixture of identification and idol-worship. I'm so glad that this generation of fangirls has girls rock camp to help them find their paths to identity and self-expression.

Last Day: gaybigaygay

I think Thor Harris said it best. During a booty-shaking set with Gretchen's Disco Plague, he stepped to the mic and asked band leader Gretchen Phillips if it would be fair to characterize gaybigaygay as the "engorged clit of SXSW."

Indeed. The crowd went wild.

It's difficult to describe this annual free backyard music party to people who haven't seen it with their own eyes. I think of it as queer Easter: a spring ritual of hope, rebirth, liberation, and defiance.

This year the Easter connection was easy to make because Butch County was shooting an egg-hunt themed music video (directed by PJ Raval and Silas Howard) for their new single, Sugarloaf Mountain.

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The costumes are always one of the best parts of gaybigaygay, but this year James Dean Jay Byrd took the cake with his face mask constructed entirely of marshmallow peeps. It was terrifying and riveting. I hope someone ate it off his face after the set.

If you've read other people's queer coverage of SXSW, then no doubt you've read about Christeene--literally and figuratively the most overexposed queer performer at this year's festival. I won't retrace such well-trod territory, except to say that Christeene's set occasioned my favorite conversation of the day:

Me: "Do you think it's okay for me to change clothes right here?"

Lisa: "Dude, someone just pulled out a buttplug and threw it in the audience."

Me: "Yeah, so I guess it's okay if they see my bra."

Perhaps the only queer performer who rivaled Christeene in sheer number of performances at SXSW was Shunda K. There's nothing I like better than a bossy, boasting butch (see Butch County, above), so I was really looking forward to her set at gaybigaygay. In spite of a small technical difficulty with a cord that shorted out in the middle of a song, Shunda K did not disappoint. Her flow seemed effortless, like a force of nature. And talk about sweet! Somehow, even when she's exhorting the crowd to "fuck that bullshit," a fundamental sweetness pervades her performance.

According to the good folks at The Gay Place, Shunda K is working out of Austin part-time these days. It seems like a good fit. One of the things I love about Austin queers is our earnestness. Sometimes visitors want to read this scene as distanced and ironic. They miss the part that's just a bunch of queer kids who want to put on a show--and who really do love metal or disco or hip hop...or the Lord.

In the end, seemingly overcome by the positive energy of the crowd, Shunda K delivered a mini-sermon about how God loves the gays just the way we are.

It seemed like a fitting ending to a festival of art, ritual, and community. The party went on, but my honey and I decided to call it a week.

(Photo of Girl in a Coma from girlinacoma.com. Photo of Butch County courtesy of Mocha Jean Herrup.)


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Sounds like a blast. I love Magnetic Fields and Stephin Merritt. I doubt that film will ever screen here, though.

Regan DuCasse | March 27, 2010 4:31 PM

One of my best friends has his original home in Austin and he just regaled me with what HE did at this festival.
I've only been to Austin three times in my life, and my friend is always inviting down there with him.

Of ALL the places in TX, this one IS my favorite.

Waylon has excellent taste in music! :-)

And I can't wait to see the film.