At South by Southwest, everyone is a VIP and no one is a VIP.
Your $1,600 badge gives you access to everything in the world and nothing at all. You can breeze through the door at a startup’s private party with the flash of a business card or you can stand in a line wrapping around the block to get into a cable TV network’s “sensory house,” which has already run out of Sugarfina gummies.
As a woman obsessed with mundanity and excess as well as status and how internet-age social structures make it both easy and impossible to pretend to have it, this is my ideal environment. SXSW is my Westworld, where I can act out my stupidest fantasies of self without consequence, and also there’s a Westworld.
I love it, mostly because my favorite situations are the sort where the deep stupidity of modern life articulates itself in a way that is so plain it’s impossible not to listen. Where men say “we pair brands with the most important cultural moments of the next five to 10 years,” and when you say “Huh?” they just say it again, in the exact same way. Where you can get a soap opera logo glued onto your fingernail. Where women with blunt, lily-blonde bobs search for something that must be levitating just over your left shoulder, all night long, accidentally missing the eye contact that would give them no choice but to verify that they remember meeting you two days ago. My favorite group contexts are ones in which you know just what everyone wants, and where no one is pretending it’s you.
Maybe it sounds dark, but I’m not kidding. This kind of freedom from the kindness and interest of others is liberating. It lets you be the disengaged, distracted wreck you are! Do your makeup for no witness; spray your hair with a men’s cologne sample you were handed on the street. It allows you to check your Instagram notifications in the middle of a conversation. It means you can say anything and get the exact same response, treat people the way they’re treating you and go home feeling like nothing was ever at stake.
It’s the best. So, every night for five nights in a row, I accepted any SXSW party invite that crossed my inbox, washed my face, and pulled up the corporate Uber account.
Here’s how that went.
Vox Media VIP Party
I was wearing television makeup, a pillowcase line across my left cheek, and also, a black Top Shop jumpsuit I spent $105 on, specifically for this work trip to Texas.
Vox Media requested that all staff arrive at the “VVIP” portion (not to be confused with the “VIP” portion) of its three-day brand activation’s opening night party at the Belmont no later than 7:50PM, but I was the only one who listened.
This was nice because it afforded me the opportunity to watch beautiful people make competent arrangements of cocktail napkins and charcuterie. Eventually, there were enough Vox Media employees present for the beautiful people to move on to arranging us — a few in the VIP room (for VVIPs and VIPs, unless a VVIP was taking a meeting with an advertiser, a person too important for either label), a few in the indoor bar lined with white couches, a few outside to hover near the empty stage. My co-host Ashley Carman and I fielded compliments on the live podcast taping we’d done earlier that day, and if they weren’t offered voluntarily, we suggested them until they were. Everyone was so happy to be in Texas, and specifically to be at a conference where having “press” printed on your nametag actually literally opens doors. I was happiest of everyone because I only like a few things in this world and one of them is being followed by new verified accounts on Twitter. Another is smiling and saying, “I work here,” so as to be allowed to set my things in a back hallway full of clipboards and Advil liquid gels.
Ashley watched a boy who looked like Timothée Chalamet eat cube after cube of cheese and remarked, “He must be famous. Why else would he be wearing a trench coat?” I rolled my eyes and said I didn’t think Vox invited any influencers to the party. It was okay. The air was the right temperature for everyone to talk about the merits of In-n-Out vs. Whattaburger for 45 minutes. It was remarkable, how imposing the skyline could be in a city that prides itself on being “weird.”
On the staircase leading up to the second floor of the party — where there was a patio covered in beds, a third bar, and a man giving out Twix-branded socks — someone had printed the words “Curiosity” on one step, then “Is” on the next, then “An,” then “Emotion.” I thought about it for one hour.
There was a violinist who played the violin while Rihanna’s “Wild Thoughts” blared from the speakers. There were two drummers who played drums while “Despacito” blared from the speakers. There was a balletic performance by two backup dancers flanking the Minnesota rapper Lizzo while she sang Beyoncé’s “Hold Up,” which blared from the speakers. I drank a cocktail that smelled like L’Oréal Kid’s shampoo and tasted like water, and simultaneously ate a mini dark chocolate Twix bar and sat down on a Tempur-Pedic mattress. I asked a colleague, “What should I say if I have to talk to an executive?” He had no thoughts. I said, “Should I ask, ‘What are you most excited to see in a Vox Union contract?’” and he tried to take my drink out of my hand. He walked away before I could say, “Why don’t you follow me on Twitter!”
At 11PM, I left to attend the premiere of a movie about a crime ring that makes and sells snuff films of teenage girls being dipped in corrosive acid.
Banquet for “25 leading voices in sex and relationships”
Hot Takes, a new company launching a speaking series about sex and relationships, invited me to a dinner party to celebrate its first year in existence. I was, according to the email, one of “25 leading voices in sex and relationships.” Okay! The party was at a banquet table in the backyard of Weather Up, a bar that also has two locations in New York — one of which is referenced in the first season of Girls and the other of which has a large planter in front of it, a ridiculous object I more or less shattered my kneecap on exactly one month ago after four tequila-sodas. Because knee injuries are one of the most notable physical experiences of childhood, the Weather Up brand now feels like home to me.
I was very comfortable explaining all of this context to a private lounge full of professional adults.
At dinner, I sat across from a semi-famous man I had no business talking to, sipping champagne from a chilled glass that was magically refilled every time I looked down at the views on my Instagram Story. He was holding a travel-sized vibrator, pale pink and indistinguishable from a tube of mascara, to the bags under his eyes, cranking it up. “I’ve heard this works,” he said. I told him I loved the piece in The New York Times. He said “Thank you!” but did not follow me back on Twitter. I could tell that one in every three guests was also curious to know why I was invited, and I could tell it most of all when a cluster of the most obviously qualified attendees started talking about how the mainstream media thinks just anyone can write about relationships — as if it’s not a field that requires expertise. I nodded, “Yes, ridiculous,” then texted a boy in Brooklyn: “I’m working on being extremely charming.” I don’t think he bought it. He changed the subject.
What a night. Still basking in the glow of the first Hot Takes dinner. Thanks to everyone who came out to celebrate with us and make this feel like a gathering of old friends...we guess vibrators-as-center-pieces has that effect. Thank you @lelo_official for your generous support! . . . . . . . #HotTakesATX #HotTakes #Lelo
A dating app founder passed me his business card. The president of a branding agency passed the woman across from him a menstrual cup, and she traded him a recently patented condom for it. I ripped the tail off of a piece of shrimp and told the woman next to me, “No, I didn’t see on Instagram that the disgraced media personality you’re talking about is engaged now, but I agree — how odd.”
I talked to a woman wearing the most beautiful pair of earrings I had ever seen about what it is like to date someone who has extremely conservative parents. She put her name in my phone. I followed her on Instagram. She said, “I love my sister, but I’ve never been as good as she is at chasing success.” She looked like she could be a Disney Channel star; she spoke with a slight Australian accent. I sent another text: “I can’t believe I’m the type of person to accept free scallops and touch a stranger’s arm for two hours.” I thought maybe the text would be funny for us to look back on later, me and my new best friend.
The branding agency man told me his age and said he was worried that people were confusing valid seduction for sexual harassment. “Oh, ARE they?” I yelled. He stayed quiet until an hour later when he presented his thoughts on Kim Kardashian: Not a fan. I started to cry. I asked if he’d seen the episode of her show in which she explains that she doesn’t know how to do her black daughter’s hair, but wants to devote time and money to learning. Has that conversation been on TV before, ever in history? Maybe he’d seen the episode where Kim explained, in detail, the complicated, torturous malfunctions of her uterus, and how giving birth to her son almost killed her. He said, “How old are you?” I said, “The women at this party are very interesting and prominent in their fields.” He was wearing a pin with the branding agency’s name on it. I was wearing a burgundy Urban Outfitters jumpsuit I bought with a credit card.
Before dessert, I excused myself to walk along the highway. “Thank you so much for having me,” I said. “This was much better than I would have imagined.”
Tumblr’s “Show Up” party featuring Kelela
Tumblr threw a party called “Show Up!” at an enormous bar and music venue on the far edge of the SXSW nightly free-for-all.
The list of musical guests was long and the headliner was R&B singer Kelela, whose debut album Take Me Apart was a critical darling last year. She was a great choice, and a choice made by at least half-a-dozen other brands throughout the week. If I had thrown a party, she would have been my choice, too. That said, I do not know that, were I to throw a party for a fading website that is used primarily by teenagers and therefore unable to get even an embarrassing alcohol sponsor, I would call it “Show Up!”
Luckily, the extent to which “Show Up!” was a Tumblr-themed Tumblr party was sort of up for debate. One door in the VIP section had Tumblr logos on it. Draped over the stage, there was a banner that said “Tumblr” and “Show Up!” From the porch, you could see a Tumblr employee working her way down the guest list. Everything else was wood and deer heads. It was the sort of party where no person seems to have any relation to anyone else, including a bartender with a Santa Claus beard and a leather vest, who did not appear to know his co-workers by name.
We sat in an empty room full of long wooden tables and played HQ on Verge reporter Nick Statt’s phone, losing on the 11th question and feeling like sun-kissed geniuses. There was no open bar, and therefore no applicable rules of journalistic ethics, so we were free to buy $5 plastic cups of rum punch and tell secrets. I begged to see photos of everyone’s crushes on Instagram. Earlier in the day, Ashley and I had gone to a Bravo brand activation where you could take a photo of yourself in what looked to be a private jet but was actually just a shoddy backdrop and champagne glasses full of beige gel. Several of her followers and only one of mine were confused by the photo, which made me feel like I had done a better job selecting my friends than she had. Every time I finished a drink I asked for another secret.
“What’s a quintessential secret for you?” our producer, Andrew Marino asked. “What’s the formula for a good secret?”
If I have to tell you, you don’t know any.
As 10PM approached, stunning young people in elegant outfits and bronze eye makeup started to show up at “Show Up!” and crowd in on our table. It felt unfair. It hadn’t really been a party in the first place, but it had been a nice way to be in a bar where there were plenty of chairs. Once that part was over, we couldn’t fathom waiting around to see what was next. When I came out of the bathroom, I informed the people in line that there wasn’t any toilet paper in there and a man in a golf shirt moved my body three feet to the left while whispering in my ear “Boys don’t need toilet paper, honey.” It may have been the most nauseating moment of my entire life, but I smiled anyway because, obviously, it can still get worse.
When I got back to the table, Nick was telling everyone, “I don’t want to get involved in an immersive experience,” and I think I said something idiotic. Like, “Life is an immersive experience.”
Secret sashimi party on the side of the highway
I was sitting on the hotel bed eating a cup of chocolate ice cream with a tiny wooden spatula when Nick forwarded me the email invite for the fourth party of SXSW and possibly the last party my body would be able to handle, ever.
The subject line was “Still at SXSW? Secret sashimi party tonight @ 8 PM.” The secret sashimi was going to be prepared by former Olympic athlete Michael Stember, though the email mistakenly stated that it would be prepared by Michael Stebner, the culinary director of Sweetgreen. The sushi would be served in a garage and workshop owned by a lighting design company — located four miles outside of Austin, near an interstate on-ramp — and sponsored by a new blockchain protocol. No one specified whether there would be fire dancers, tightrope walkers, or men carrying women around as they held perfectly still in plank position, but all those things did end up being there.
There were also several varieties of metal vice, hard hat, and extension cord, as well as a trough the size of a child’s swimming pool, full of cans of hard cider. Everyone ignored it and drank a maroon cocktail that tasted like campfire mixed with regurgitated orange juice. I listened to a story about the oral sex competition at Burning Man, then another story about how musicians who try to perform at SXSW without a work visa can be arrested and jailed.
Normally, I have a policy about not using any skills that were taught to me by a man — that’s why I don’t torrent, use Night Shift on my iPhone, or archive emails — but it was obvious I wasn’t going to get through the night without chopsticks. I let Nick show me how to hold them, then I did it slightly wrong just to be a little bit true to myself. We talked to a German guitarist, an Argentinian Verge fan, and two cryptocurrency enthusiasts who asked us whether we had seen Support the Girls, a documentary about the struggles of a roadside sports bar manager who serves as a mother figure to her staff of young women. I was very embarrassed that I had not.
Two hours into the party, a woman pulled Nick aside by the shoulder and said: “You’re Nick!” He said yes, and then she pulled another man over, with the same haircut and a different sweater. “I thought he was Nick,” she laughed, and the man said, “We’ve been looking for you, Nick.” The woman laughed so hard, it reminded me to ask Nick whether this seemed like the type of party where people would be doing coke while we weren’t looking. Then we shut up because the host of the party was talking into a microphone. He was wearing a neckerchief and no shoes. He said, “I’m very fortunate to have found out about artificial intelligence.”
I was delighted but hurt — everything that happened felt like a setup. Everyone in the room knew that I was writing down their sentence fragments in my Notes app and waiting to make fun of them. That they went ahead and let me do it felt like either a grand gesture or the ultimate dismissal. Did it really not bother one single person here that I was leaning in to smell their hair? At 10PM, I noticed that the boy in the trench coat from the Vox Media party — the one that Ashley thought must be famous — was pirouetting past me, holding hands with a woman in a trench coat. He pulled a hard hat off the wall and tried it on, wiggled his arms like he was in a One Direction music video. I blinked and blinked and blinked at him.
He’s famous. His name is Brad Oberhofer, and he is the founder and frontman of the Brooklyn band Oberhofer. He curated the soundtrack for the Craig Robinson and Anna Kendrick comedy Table 19 last year, and before that he mostly made indie surf pop songs with Steve Lillywhite, the producer of the final Talking Heads album.
When I told Ashley she had been right about him, it felt like a joke played specifically on me.
Pandora country music showcase at The Gatsby
The Gatsby is a bar and an enormous parking lot on Sixth Street in Downtown Austin, which is effectively the love child of Times Square and a frat house. Pandora enlisted Ashley Furniture to set up couches and bean bag toss games all over it, and from the porch above, it looked very accidental. It also looked accidental that the 18-wheelers buzzing along the overpass 50 feet away did so without incident. It was night, but there was a Naked Juice tent and a High Brew canned iced coffee station.
Pandora’s party was three days long, and the first day was dedicated to a country music showcase — perhaps because country music is Pandora’s sole remaining option for survival. Not that I was there to ponder a streaming service’s business model. I was there because Caitlyn Smith, a Minnesota singer-songwriter who I love, was the second act. For selfish reasons, I hoped she would play a sad song called “This Town is Killing Me,” which begins with the line “No one’s listening / they’re too busy drinking on the company tab.”
It was 9PM and I was barely standing. I wasn’t drinking, I was delirious. I was wearing the same jeans as I had the previous three days, a shirt that smelled like it was owned by a girl who had shattered her travel-size deodorant on the bathroom floor the night before and forgotten to deal with it. I touched the side of my shin to show Nick where, earlier that day, I’d cut into it so deeply with a two-dollar Bic razor that I’d gagged and then used a handful of Verge logo stickers to tape a wad of tissues across it, to keep from leaving a trail of blood down the hotel hallway.
Smith said “I love Carole King,” and then sang a cover of “A Natural Woman” and crawled around the stage on her knees. At the end, a man next to me said, “Who’s Carole King?” He was joking! I was relieved and chewed on an ice cube while a man in a mesh snapback blew cigarette smoke into the back of my neck. The air was perfect, like standing in a cloud of your crush’s breath.
She sang a song called “Scenes From a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday” and she explained, “I went to New York, to the Lower East Side once. There was a bunch of weirdos there.” She laughed. I laughed. All of the characters she described in the song sounded fake: a “Marlboro man” hitting on an underage girl with blonde hair, a guy who takes his tie off and drinks something out of a rocks glass. “No, no, the Lower East Side is where Timothée Chalamet hangs out,” I wanted to tell her. “They totally check IDs.” I sent the boy in Brooklyn a series of emoji: glitter, New York skyline, pink heart with glitter. I missed my apartment so much I thought my ribs were going to slide onto the pavement. All week, I had resisted the urge to say anything that smacked of affection, anything along the lines of “Not everyone smells like your laundry detergent, but some people do.” Or “I’ve been getting so tired and crying in the strangest places, thinking about how much snow fell through your bedroom ceiling last week, and also how mean I was about it.” Emoji seemed fine.
What I’m saying is, I should not go on business trips that offer me a change in season I haven’t earned. And you should only go to South by Southwest if you’re prepared to meet whoever you are when you don’t sleep for an entire week. But it’ll probably be okay either way, and you totally have the option to leave the ugly parts off of Instagram.