Platinum-selling rappers, the Boss, Doritos, trash and puke. Those were the not entirely unrelated traits that defined this year's South by Southwest Music Conference.
The music industry's biggest hype-generating soiree of the year -- which takes over the streets of downtown Austin like Mexican general Santa Anna took over the Alamo (but without anyone named Bowie) -- SXSW remains a great place for new bands to get noticed.
After five days and 10,000-plus performances, some of the baby acts christened at the buzz altar by the time the festival wound down Sunday morning included hard-rocking soul band the Alabama Shakes, punky young noisemakers the Cloud Nothings, saucy rapper Danny Brown and Afro-British singer/songwriter Michael Kiwanuka.
A lot of established rock stars joined the Austin fray, too. Jack White, Fiona Apple and Norah Jones all came to tout new albums, as did Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Jimmy Cliff and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. Both the Boss' celebratory keynote speech and spirited concert Thursday rose up as all-time top moments in SXSW's 26-year history.
On the downside, though, came a sinking feeling that SXSW has gotten away from its origins of touting independent and unsung musicians.
Jay-Z got a jump on things with an American Express-sponsored concert the day before the music fest began, but while SXSW's equally hopping (and bigger-moneyed) multimedia conference was in high gear. His presence seemed to set the bad tone: More mainstream rappers than ever tried to cash in on the conference's corporate marketing side; more mainstream-rap-loving, high-fiving college spring breakers attended; and those extra days and extra hard-partiers meant more litter, filth and, yes, vomit on the streets by fest's end.
Lil Wayne, the newly paroled T.I., Nas and 50 Cent with special guest Eminem all crashed the party. The most shameless -- and quite literally the cheesiest -- display of corporate schilling by a rap star came from Snoop Dogg, who performed for the (Pepsi-owned) Doritos under a four-story faux vending machine stocked with the chipmaker's product.
Hip-hop itself did not merit a bad rap. Many MCs contributed to the festival's musical highlights, ranging from sexually outlandish and electronically innovative rappers Brown and Spank Rock to Minneapolis' soulful Brother Ali, who debuted a funky new live band with horns. Best of all, Nas kicked off the 20th anniversary tour of his debut "Illmatic" by performing all of its tracks under an elaborate Brooklyn street scene inside the new studio home of PBS' "Austin City Limits."
"I never thought I'd be here," Nas admitted.
Nas was one of many artists who played entire albums at SXSW 2012, including 50 Cent, Norah Jones, the Wedding Present and former Twin Citian Bob Mould (touring to mark the 20th year of Sugar's "Copper Blue"). This applaudable trend defied the belief that full-length records no longer matter in the digital download era.
Most of the other trends in Austin this year, however, seemed to raise the lingering question of how long SXSW itself will still matter.
* Follow Riemenschneider on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib
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