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Nihilists' America

Nihilists' America

AUSTIN CITY LIMITS: Dawes performing at Stubbs Bar-B-Que. (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

AUSTIN, Texas—If an alien wanted to report to his home planet about life on Earth, he would be hard-pressed to find a place more data-rich than the March South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals, more commonly known as SXSW 2013.

Numbers alone: About 200 movies played at the film festival. More than 2,200 bands performed in more than 100 venues—making SXSW the largest music festival in the world. The interactive portion featuring new technology also calls itself the largest show of its kind. About 30,000 people from all over the world paid up to $1,600 for a pass to the 10-day festival. Total impact on the Austin economy: over $200 million.     

But the reputation of SXSW rests not on these numbers, but on the event’s ability to highlight the “next big thing” in American popular culture. Founded in 1992 and then restricted to unsigned musical groups, it quickly became the place to get discovered. John Mayer, Hanson, Polyphonic Spree, and James Blunt all found record labels at SXSW. The 2010 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker, premiered here. Speakers in recent years have included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and rocker Bruce Springsteen. This year’s keynote: Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters.  

But if SXSW covers the pop cultural waterfront, that means it has both the best and the worst. One of the hottest apps of the festival was “Bang with SXSW,” and it’s a spinoff of the distressingly popular “Bang with Friends,” less than two months old but already with more than 750,000 users. According to ABC News, “Forget matchmaking, this is Internet sex-making.”

Sadly, “Bang with SXSW” is hardly an outlier. Foul-mouthed Sarah Silverman was here too. She kicked off the JASH Comedy Network, a joint venture with Google and YouTube and a stable of young, raunchy comedians. 

Among the movies premiering here was Spring Breakers, featuring former Disney stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in roles that demolish their “good girl” images and will undoubtedly lure some of their teen fans into R-rated films full of sex and violence. Also premiering: Continental, a documentary celebrating New York’s infamous homosexual bathhouse while somehow failing to note that such bathhouses played a key role in unleashing the HIV/AIDS virus. 

That’s not to say that all is lost at SXSW. Artist Jim Janknegt led a team painting a large mural near the heart of SXSW. Titled “Touch the Word,” it shows Jesus in modern clothing touching people under the glow of bright lights from Austin’s music venues. The mural is part of the Wall Project, a joint ministry of Austin’s nondenominational Hope Chapel and the Anglican Christ Church. Terri Fisher, the leader of the Christ Church arts ministry, said, “We love Austin and we want this project to be a presence of Christ in the city.” 

One of the young bands at SXSW was Coin, formed when two members of the band met in a music theory class at Belmont University, a Christian college in Nashville. All four members of the synth-pop band talked comfortably about their faith.  

Paste, which co-founder Josh Jackson told me is “not a Christian magazine, but a magazine run by Christians,” hosted one of the largest SXSW venues. Acts performing there included Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Dawes, and Josh Ritter. Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church, in the heart of downtown, featured an evening of gospel music, including Grammy nominee Anita Wilson.

But visible expressions of Christianity were rare at SXSW. All of this suggests that, if Alexis de Tocqueville is right and the true measure of American character is found in its religion, then SXSW offers an increasingly secular, sexualized, and nihilistic vision of America’s future.

Listen to Warren Cole Smith discusses SXSW 2013 on WORLD’s radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.