By Erin J. Walter, special to the Statesman
This time last year, I was drenched in sweat, belting out a Joan Jett song in a crowded bar with a band of musicians I’d never met. South By Southwest attendees from around the world were screaming and raising drinks in the air as I wailed, flailed and almost fell off the stage during a punk rock karaoke contest for the ages.
Host Anthony Bourdain grinned and hollered from the judges’ table: “You believe it! You made me believe it! 10!” Celebrity chef José Andrés and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme also gave me 10’s — and rather comically asked me out on dates. It was surreal.
I remember thinking, “Well, hell. I guess South By Southwest can still surprise me after all these years.”
Fellow Austinites, here we are again.
South By Southwest 2017 has descended upon us. Do you still believe?
This is that time of year when we locals grapple with what role to play in the behemoth that the festival has become. Some of us are working SXSW, volunteering, speaking on a panel, or playing music in an official showcase. Others who can afford it have headed for the hills, perhaps wisely leaving the crowds, traffic and brand-bombardment to the tourists and industry professionals.
What about those of us who are still here – working our day (and night) jobs, wrangling kids on spring break, not officially part of the fanfare? Do we brave the crowds or stay in hiding? Boycott how bloated SXSW has gotten or find small pleasures amid the overwhelm?
It’s up to you, but I know two things. One: in 2017, supporting artists and musicians is a radical act. In a time of fear and anxiety in our nation and around the world – and when institutions like the National Endowment for Arts are fighting for existence — we need the indie arts more than ever. We need the buskers in the streets and the countless unofficial showcases for working musicians and underground performers. We need joy and songs to sustain us.
Two: Last year’s live band karaoke contest showed me that, more than 20 years after I started attending South By Southwest as a teenager with a $15 wristband, there is still some magic to be had.
Fear Of Missing Out
As SXSW 2016 loomed, like many locals, I planned to sit the whole thing out. Recovering from a foot injury, I was feeling emotionally sluggish and physically out of shape, struggling with my confidence and body image.
As a Zumba teacher and student minister at Wildflower Church in South Austin, I make music and preach about body positivity –that all bodies are beautiful and worthy. Still, like many people, ingrained cultural messages about gender, size, age, ability and more can make me want to hide, away from the spotlight of life.
When a friend nudged me to audition for a SXSW karaoke contest put on by her husband’s company, Roads & Kingdoms, I said no at first. My kids were off from school and my seminary coursework was piling up. I did not need one more thing to do. And I did not need a bunch of intoxicated partygoers with cell phone cameras documenting my jiggling body for all of YouTube to see.
Still, like many Austinites, I am a musician (bassist for rock band Butch County), and the stage is my happy place. It is where I feel most powerful, most me. I had to practice what I preach, so I changed my “no” to a “yes” and sent in an audition video.
When the night of the contest came, I was terrified, uncharacteristically shaky in the crowd of so many strangers. What if Anthony Bourdain, who had professed to hating karaoke at the outset, was just waiting to unleash his inner Simon Cowell? What if Josh Homme laughed at me and it went viral? The Internet can be especially awful to women.
And something very odd was happening. As I waited for my turn, other contestants were singing – no, crushing — my songs: “Do You Wanna Touch,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “Where Eagles Dare.” Josh Homme leaped out of his chair in the balcony for a guy who rocked my Misfits pick, awarding a perfect 10 and declaring, “Song choice is everything.” Yes, it is, and apparently my songs were already chosen.
I started to think there’d been a mistake and I wouldn’t be singing at all. Had I gotten all dressed up, paid a babysitter, and exposed my arms for nothing? What if the band started playing a song I didn’t even know when it was my turn? What pure humiliation awaited?
“I may vomit,” I said to Amanda, the one friend I was allowed to bring as a guest.
Then they called my name.
Bright lights shone in my face as I saw the lyrics to “Do You Wanna Touch” on the music stand. OK then, I thought. I have to sing a rerun. No one wants to hear a rerun. I’d better do something different.
One thing I’ve learned in my recent years as a Unitarian Universalist minister is that people connect through vulnerability. We don’t need our leaders to fake that everything is perfect. We need to hear the truth with love. Many singers had gotten up there and played it cool. It had worked for them, but I knew deep down that the Cool Card was not in my deck to play.
I grabbed the mic and shrieked, “OH MY GOD, SOMEONE ALREADY DID MY SONG AND I AM SO NERVOUS AND IT IS JOSH HOMMMMMMMMME UP THERE EEEEEEEEEEEEEE AND IF I DON’T VOMIT ON YOU, I WILL CONSIDER THIS NIGHT A SUCCESS.”
The crowd went berserk. It felt so good to be honest.
The Punk Rock Karaoke band from Dallas played “Do You Wanna Touch” as I jumped and fist-pumped and leaned into the crowd. I watched the videos online this week, for the first time in a year. My voice sounds atrocious. I do not care now and I did not care then. Nor did I care about my arms or my chin or my belly, or having to be up in a few short hours to make toaster waffles for my kids. I only cared about the joy of the moment.
It was magic.
Where Eagles Dare
I made it into the finals and got to sing, “Where Eagles Dare.” Since everyone had heard a perfect version of the song once already, something wild would be needed to win.
Inspiration – and my training in community organizing — took over. “If you already sang tonight and want to get back up on stage, just jump up here and do this song with me!” I yelled.
A previous contestant, now stripped down to a U.S. flag unitard and red ski cap – I repeat, stripped down to U.S. flag unitard (please picture it) —ran on stage, along with a woman I didn’t recognize. Then another contestant jumped up, took his shirt off, and started swinging it around. He had a Texas tattoo on his chest. (Of course he did.) I put my arm around his sweaty shoulder and held out the microphone for others to join me in screaming, “LET’S GO WHERE EAGLES DARE! GO WHERE EAGLES DARE!”
Only in Austin. Maybe only at South By Southwest. Even in the shadow of the festival’s nonstop corporate branding, the moment felt raw and beautiful. On stage and in life, we are more powerful together than alone.
What Did You Win?
They said nothing about my technically terrible singing during the judging panels. Josh Homme just kept repeating, “This is your night.”
After I won, the judges called for an encore — just one more surprise I wasn’t expecting — so I yelped through another Joan Jett song. “I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation.” After my last high kick, I shouted one more thing to the crowd, “Ladies, join a (expletive) band.” I hope some of you do.
“What did you win?” my friend Phil Ajjarapu, a Portland-based musician, asked me the next day.
Technically, I won an expensive knife set from the contest’s sponsor. But it felt like I won something much better than that — a chance to be myself and be seen in full, insecurities be damned, and to be newly inspired by my city’s flagship festival. I met some amazing local musicians who were fellow contestants and we are still in touch. (And truth be told, a year later, I have yet to open the box of fancy knives. I would rather sing than cook any day.)
If you’ve read this far, I will let you in on a Secret to Live Band Karaoke, which is also a Secret to Life: give it your heart and soul – MEAN IT and don’t worry about being perfect. You can be the rock star of your own story.
I hope you find your own brand of surprise magic this year, in SXSW or beyond. Seize the spotlight, whatever your fears or struggles. May 2017 be your turn to shine.