Shock and Brouhaha

Why San Francisco is better than Austin, even during the South by Southwest music festival

Finally, a reason to appreciate the Dixie ChicksWhat's the difference between Austin and San Francisco? About 193,000 people -- that is, the approximate difference in crowd size during recent protests in the two cities. Of course, 7,000 citizens marching against the U.S. government anywhere in Texas is akin to a teenage boy dismissing the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders as ugly. It's just not done.

But this war (which I like to call GWII, both for the Gulf War and George W. the Second) isn't some ordinary conflict. Sure, Saddam Hussein is one really bad dude, but we've overlooked equally heinous individuals in the past -- heck, we've even placed a few into power. (Look at what Herr Bush has done himself: steal an election, gut the environment, make spying practically legal, do away with civil liberties, and give his cronies oodles of cash while hiding them from prosecution.) We're the aggressors here, no matter what flimsy charts and fuzzy satellite photos Colin Powell foists upon us. The idea that Georgie was reluctant to start the bombing, as he suggested during his war kickoff speech last week, is ludicrous at best -- this doofus has so much warmongering drool puddled at his feet that he needs a wading pool.

For the first time in history, a conflict has proven immensely unpopular before it's even started. You need only look at the recent onstage statements made by Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines in London to see how anti-war sentiment has entered the mainstream. Here's the frontwoman for one of the biggest acts in the nation, a group whose latest album was No. 1 on the country chart for 28 straight weeks, saying that our foreign policy sucks eggs and that she's "ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas." Naturally, when reports of her statements made their way stateside, conservative country fans flipped out, calling for Dixie Chicks boycotts and burning more albums than in the heyday of disco. And because a hideous music story wouldn't be complete without a mention of hulking media monopolist Clear Channel, two of CC's Florida stations -- WQIK-FM (99.1) and WROO-FM (107.3) -- pulled the group's songs from rotation, with Director of Programming Gail Austin saying it was "out of respect for our troops, our city, and our listeners." I'm sure this action had nothing to do with the double C's increasingly cozy cohabitation with Colin Powell's offspring, FCC Chairman Michael "Too Much Ownership Is Never Enough" Powell.

In the end, Maines caved to the pressure of the marketplace, apologizing for disparaging the president. Freedom of speech, apparently, is blowing in the wind. But protesters in Austin still carried "The Dixie Chicks Were Right" signs; even the one dude shouting, "Four more years! Four more years!" as if he were at a monster truck rally didn't dampen the marchers' enthusiasm.

I was in Austin for South by Southwest -- the weeklong music industry drinkathon, er, marathon -- and of the over 1,000 scheduled artists at the festival, the only one I spotted at the protest was Dallas' Polyphonic Spree, a 23-person symphonic pop ensemble that dresses in white robes and sings Up With People-ish ditties. Even during the many shows I attended, only three performers bothered to mention anything topical. Indie rapper El-P told the crowd, "This country is going to shit!" before launching into a song about how Bush-whackers are as patriotic as flag-waving fatheads; the Jungle Brothers suggested that their hip hop party tunes could serve as a salve in these miserable times; and Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery swapped his Reagan-era communist bogeyman for the currently vilified "Islamicist" during "When I Win the Lottery." Otherwise, it was business as usual, with Liz Phair doing her best to help the anti-war cause by talking about her recent sojourn on the private yacht of one of the founders of Netscape. Exile in Guyville, indeed.

If you think I'm being too hard on the performers, the audience members didn't seem much brighter. As one Young Turk attempted to hit on a girl, he was told by her friend, "She has a boyfriend." The guy paused for a second and said, with no apparent irony, "That's OK; I don't care if she's bisexual." (Not that there aren't plenty of dumb people in San Francisco. Look at how many numskulls think Gavin Newsom would make a good mayor. Doesn't he know that we're in a budget crisis? He should be finding ways to taxpanhandlers, not deep-six them.)

As the bombs finally started flying last week, it became even more obvious that I wasn't in Austin anymore. Sometimes I'm not sure whether to be proud of or nauseated by my fellow Bay Areans. What response should I have to the protesters in Pukers For Peace, who vomited all over the steps of the Federal Building because war makes them sick? And yet, I keep thinking back to the bland, polite Texas march, at which the best slogan was "Fist me -- I'm Irish" (which had more to do with St. Paddy's Day than with GWII). Here, we've got the most creative objectors anywhere -- self-described "crafty bitches" staging a "knit-in" near the Old Navy on Market Street, the 20-person Brass Liberation Orchestra blaring out tunes as they walk, and a yoga troupe contorting for world unity. At one point during the meandering protest on Thursday night, as the crowd headed for City Hall, 30 policemen tromped past in formation. Instead of being intimidated, people started up the cheeky chant, "Cops march for peace! Cops march for peace!"

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