Hipster holidays – Austin

University towns rarely let me down. Put enough bright young things with scope to procrastinate in one place and you will inevitably produce an enthusiastic social scene focused on having the most fun for the cheapest price. Which is easy in the US where beers and burgers are bargains.

With one of the biggest universities in America, Austin certainly has the numbers to produce a scene – and what a scene it is. It’s a big call, but I’ll make it: South Congress in Austin is more hipster than Williamsburg, NY. Although perhaps they have an unfair advantage – no doubt it’s easier to track down pre-loved plaid shirts in a State full of farmers.

Boldly claiming the title “live music capital of the world”, Austin sets expectations high. But clears the bar with ease. We’re there on a Tuesday and live bands are playing in all of the multitude of bars and beer gardens dotted along SoCo. It’s not hard to imagine how crazy it must get during the week long South by Southwest festival when dozens of temporary stages pop up across town – in Churches, laneways and drive-in movie yards – to complement an extraordinary number of regular music venues (well extraordinary for an Australian who is more used to music venues closing down than booking out). The festival is firmly on my bucket list together with Eeyore’s Birthday Party – a 50 year old Austin fundraising festival where attenders might, say, swing giant hoola hoops while enjoying live music in the shadow of the Statue of Eeyore – a Winnie the Pooh version of the Statue of Liberty.

Tonight, we skip the busy bars for the more relaxed food trailer park. Primed with veggie sliders packed with avocado and black beans, we kick back and join the locals listening to a veteran busker plucking out some old bluegrass tunes. A young girl nervously asks to join him and suddenly we’re watching the Austin school of busking as the old man coaches her on voice projection and the other skills required for acoustic open-air performance. By the time we retire to our eco-bungalow (when in hipsterville…), they are belting out southern duets which sound surprisingly good for two strangers from different millenniums.

SoCo can at times feel almost like a parody of hipster culture – what with its retro rollerskates, vintage vinyl, fair-trade food and moustached men. But it’s hard to resent it, even a little. Because Austin is one of those places that just make you feel great. The city is so full of life – students riding bikes through the streets, kids dangling from the many tire-swings scattered in residential gardens, toddlers climbing through pumpkin patches as their parents hunt for the perfect jack-o-lantern, middle-aged couples enjoying local beers and local bands under the stars. In an era where so much of our social interaction is done on our Apple device of choice, Austin is a vibrant outdoors community that oozes a welcoming warmth.

As we farewell this glorious student town, I feel refreshed and healthy – full of vitamin D, fresh Mexican food and deep sleep after exhausting days of cycling. If it wasn’t for the size of the utes it would almost be hard to believe we just spent a few days in the Lone Star State. That is, until I spot a man crossing the highway with a dog by his side and a Texas Rat Snake in his arms. Suddenly our “Don’t mess with Texas” souveneirs seem rather apt.

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Hipster holidays – Introduction

I’m about to begin an ongoing series of posts about cities that emanate with creativity and soul. Places that are, or will be, remembered for their influence on pop culture and for capturing the zeitgeist of a generation. Cities to visit because they have spawned an array of talented musicians and become the launching pad of a new subculture.

Hipster habitats if you will.

But before I start, I should clarify that I’m no hipster. I’m friends with hipsters, sure. I live near a certain hipster haven. But I’m no hipster. Throwing together the perfect vintage finds and some designer offcuts would never come naturally to me and even if it did I would never convince myself that the getup worked – and hipster culture is about nothing if not confidence. Plus the wasted hours thinking about clothes when I could have donned the clothes on the floor and been out the door half an hour ago would never work for my time poor lifestyle.

We do, however, often end up at the same places – me and the hipsters.

For me, travelling is generally about making a pilgrimage to a place that has stirred my soul. Usually a place that has been home to artists who have created a style of music in which I have lost myself for years on end. Or a place where a diverse array of musical styles emanate from the city walls. The kind of places where the locals must have such an unconditional love of music that the artists amongst them feel completely comfortable trying something new and crazy.

These places also generate the kind of freedom needed for new subcultures to thrive. Or sometimes people flock to the areas looking for that freedom and force a new subculture into the city. Either way, great music changes cities and brings the people who want to be in a place that is breathing creativity. People who want the chance to check out cutting edge bands and perhaps spot a favourite drummer at a local record store. Who want to see the design ideas that may never make it out of the city but which are quirky and brilliant – just not marketable.

Hipsters. Me.

Happily, the places that have given us great music are often near some really beautiful landscapes. The epic soundscapes created by Björk and Sigur Rós make complete sense when travelling through the dramatic Icelandic countryside. Hipster habitats often make stunning holiday destinations.

So, there you go, caveat provided. Let the holiday files begin. 

Best music of 2011: Final notes

This ends my series of posts about my favourite releases of last year. Yes, I’ve skipped over some great releases. Yes, I’ve mainly mentioned American bands and artists – even though I spent a large part of the year listening to music from other parts of the globe. Uncharacteristically, I’ve picked a lot of soul and R&B flavoured music – quite a contrast to the post-rock (hello Jonsi), garage (I’m talking to you Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Dead Weather) and more political offerings (and there you are K’naan and MIA) that I have tended towards in recent years.

But in 2011 I was feeling different. My subconscious knew my heart needed music that would make it feel good – but in a really solid, long-lasting way that would stay with me, not like the quick burst of energy you get from a punk song or most pop music. So the 5 bands and artists I’ve mentioned over the series of posts were the best artists and bands for me in 2011.

And I think they’re all pretty damn brilliant.

Best music of 2011: Adele

Adele is an incredibly rare commodity – a best-selling artist with jaw-dropping talent, a unique sound and unconventional style. Her voice could move mountains and I am convinced she could turn even the Australian tax legislation into a stirring chart-topper. She’s inspired by the great women of jazz – the kind of women who were singing in bars that they often, due to racial and sex discrimination, weren’t allowed to drink in – and exudes this kind of chutzpah herself – having the confidence to squarely reject the unwritten law that all women be size 6, regardless of their other life priorities, famously saying “I don’t want to be on the cover of Playboy or Vogue. I want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone or Q. I’d rather weigh a ton and make an amazing album than look like Nicole Richie and do a shit album.”

In writing this, I have to pay tribute to the late, and incredibly great, Amy Winehouse, whose equally unique talent, sound and style created a business case for record companies to take on singers like Adele. Together, these singers have introduced a new generation to a jazz-soul sound that is a million miles away from the same-same albums they tend to share the charts with.

Everyone has heard the singles from her powerful January release, 21, by now. So my pick is a gorgeous southern-American b-side that, counter-intuitive as it is, leaves you longing to feel desperately and hopelessly in love in a Louisiana dust bowl.

Phillip Adams’ lesson on mining

When left-wingers complain that [mining] is very bad for non-existent climate change they forget that a lighter continent will float higher in the Pacific which will minimise the effect of rising sea levels and protect waterfront real estate values on the Gold Coast and Sydney Harbour.” The Weekend Australian Magazine, 14-15 July 2012.

Best music of 2011: Bon Iver

I love Bon Iver. I listened to their last album and EP several times a week for about a year and would have kept going had my colleagues not staged an intervention. In the opening scene of High Fidelity, John Cusack’s character asks us:

“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

I concluded that, in my case, perhaps it was the latter and prescribed myself a healthy dose of MIA and Kitty, Daisy and Lewis to pick myself back up.

But times have changed. No longer is Justin Vernon, the singer from Bon Iver, writing music about the love who broke his heart from his self-prescribed solitary confinement in a log cabin in Wisconsin (indeed given how romantic those songs and the story of the album was, I wouldn’t expect that the singer will ever find himself unloved again).

The song I have picked from the new album makes your heart swell, unlocking that sense of anticipation you had in your youth about the future and about who you would become, and making you soar with inspiration to fulfil your younger self’s dreams – or to at least keep dreaming. As Justin Vernon’s angelic voice sings “I can see for miles miles miles”, you feel your eyes opening – seeing beauty in your world that you normally ignore as you go about your busy life, seeing the small but precious acts of love that people around you show you everyday but which normally go unacknowledged and seeing the person you could be if you believed in yourself a bit more, went a little further out of your comfort zone, allowed yourself to fail on the way to achieving your goals.

Don’t miss the video clip to this song. It is set in the incredibly diverse and awe-inspiring country of Iceland and showcases the country so well that it makes you feel that you are there with the angelic-looking adventurous child, the dramatic landscape and the isolation that has created one of the most independent-people groups on the planet. In fact, it’s the most well made marketing clip a country could hope for – I hope Brand USA is taking notes!

Brand USA

Sadly, my post on the US was not sponsored by Brand USA – the US’s first coordinated international tourism marketing campaign (but do let them know I’ll write some posts on my favourite US towns if there’s a free airfare in it!). It seems that the impressions that my Gen Y peers have of the US: too familiar, middle aged, brash, are shared by a pretty large proportion of the world at the moment and this has contributed to the US losing almost 7% of the total travel market over the last decade.

Brand USA, which has just been launched, is the US’ attempt to lure that lucrative tourist dollar. Funded by the ESTA fees paid by international visitors and by private donations, this marketing campaign will be trying to remind us to associate the States with freedom, possibilities and pop culture.

I think they have done a pretty decent job of capturing the American spirit in words. An excerpt:

“America is more than a destination.

It’s a land where everything is possible, so anything is possible.

Where imagination becomes reality, and nothing is too new, too big or too far away to actually happen.

a collective culture that is only as robust as the stories and personalities that contribute to it...

We want to remind the world that this country is filled with boundless possibilities that open up even more possibilities within ourselves.”

http://www.thebrandusa.com/about/

With stats showing that 35 overseas tourists create 1 American job, the Government must have been hoping that these words would be turned into a masterpiece that will seduce the masses – in time for a November election.

Unfortunately, the commercial they have created under the moniker Discover America really doesn’t bring this language to life. Frankly, it’s pathetic.

Rather than reaching for the stars and inspiring us – the American Way – the ad tries to show how the US can be something for everyone – whether it be wineries, forests, beaches, cities, the US can meet every holiday need.

For most of the ad you could be excused for not knowing what country they are talking about. A montage of great scenic shots interspersed with shots of great food and friends laughing together set to a downbeat feelgood song? Well that could be any number of countries – NZ, Australia, Canada…

And what do they do to convince us that the US really is the “land of dreams”?  Give the ad an irritating soundtrack which repeats this phrase again and again. Because repetition is the key…

Overall, the ad takes a safe path which achieves the same kind of mediocrity of most tourism ads.

IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY!!

If you want great scenery, go to NZ, go to Iceland, go to Switzerland (if you have a trust fund). There’s no doubt that there’s beauty in America, but it’s spread much further apart than those countries where there’s breathtaking sights around every corner. And if you want to laugh with friends against a pretty backdrop, go to Asia where you can do it over a few 10c beers.

The US is special because it can inspire you to pick yourself up, stretch yourself out to be the most you can be and throw caution to the wind as your determination to carve out a future that excites you projects you to carry on with your life in a whole new way, believing that no-one will stop you now.

The song that Brand USA should have used? The awesome all American anthem, “Carry on,” by New York band, Fun. And perhaps for Britain – one of the first targets of the campaign, go cheeky with Planet Funk’s “Who Said”: “I’ve never been to the USA. I’m a slave for the minimum wage. Detroit, New York and LA. But I’m stuck in the UK.”

 

And the footage? Break the beautiful scenic- and city-scapes up with shots of great US moments. Footage of Woodstock, of Hollywood during the golden era of cinema, of Billie Holiday live in Chicago, of the civil rights protests, of an early Elvis performance, of Sesame Street (which is set in Manhattan), of Haight-Ashbury in its hey day, of a Nirvana concert in Seattle, of Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa and Joan Baez in the heady Laurel Canyon days, of Kerouac and Ginsburg and all those cats at Citylights Bookstore in San Fran, of the Declaration of Independence plaque in Rockefeller Square. Plus some shots of pop-cultural-history-in-the-making moments that tourists have a window of opportunity to participate in: hipsters in Williamsburg, Lady Gaga playing Times Square, an indie gig outside a microbrewery in Portland, a roller derby in Austin.

America is the backdrop of nearly every pop cultural touchstone of recent decades and, although their economy is in tatters, the music, TV and film that we discuss at the water cooler at morning tea and seek solace in at the end of the day will continue to come from America. That stuff’s important – it shapes how we see the world and creates an unspoken bond between us, our peers and millions of strangers around the world. These cultural touchstones are locked so deep within us that we’re unaware of their hold on us, often shrugging the US off as passé until a simple comment about Greenwich Village or Dollywood stirs an odd feeling of nostalgia for a country that is home – even if we’ve never been there.

Brand USA didn’t need to convince us that the US is great.  It just needed to remind us that it’s intrinsically part of who we are.

America: The antidote to Australia


I love the US.

It’s not very cool to say this amongst my Gen Y peers. We are a generation who travel regularly and widely and so countries become passé to us quickly. Mentioning you are visiting the US will generally earn you a raised eyebrow and perhaps an inquiry as to whether it will be a stopover on the way to Cuba or South America. Because that’s where hipsters travel. Add a dash of Asia, eastern Europe and perhaps an African safari or a visit to the Middle East and you have the Gen Y to-visit list.

Expressing pro-US sentiment is particularly perilous in this era of the tea party. Immediately, young people assume you’re an anti-choice conservative visiting America because you never quite got past Friends and the OC.

It’s a shame because in many ways, Gen Y and the US are a match made in heaven. Both truly believe that individuals should follow their dreams. Both are convinced that they are unique and have something special to offer the world. The main difference between the two seems to be that Americans are generally full of genuine encouragement for each other. They want to know your story, heck they want to pray for you as you go on your way! Gen Y-ers tend to be far less effusive with their peer support.

I wasn’t expecting to embrace the American enthusiasm quite so quickly. I mean, I find earnest Australians jarring and I avoid their company at all costs. Self-promotion drives me insane. And I’m the poster girl for cynicism. But in the US, it’s different. In the US, talking about what you could offer the world isn’t self-promotion, and stepping out and trying something new isn’t a lame attempt to be someone you’re not. Instead, they’re both about finding and fulfilling your dream – and there’s nothing closer to the heart of the nation than that.

Don’t get me wrong – there are a lot of places in the States where dreams and people have been crushed through bad laws and bad attitudes. Where the “you can achieve your dreams” attitude has been hijacked and turned into “we can do anything we want – even if it’s at your expense.” But there are a lot of places where the original attitude has allowed the world to change for the better.

For all the towns where racism and homophobia are rife, there are vibrant college towns and progressive cities where diversity is celebrated in a way unlike anywhere else in the world. For all the states where environmental ideas are rubbished, there’s California – the most populous state in America and the most energy-efficient. And music and the arts seem to be embraced almost everywhere.

But enough of the back-peddling – I’m not declaring that America is the greatest country on Earth and I’m not encouraging people to apply for citizenship (although I’m all for more couches to crash on).

I think that America has something important to offer Australians. It’s the perfect ying to the yang that is the tall poppy syndrome nature of Australian society. I love the Australian culture of keeping each other grounded, but there are times when you need an injection of self-belief. And the US is perfect for this. Need some time out to ponder a new career direction? To kick off a creative venture without wallowing in self-doubt? Or maybe time to reflect on how to break out of the humdrum routine you’ve fallen into? Some time with the enthusiastic Americans will inevitably energise you.

From afar the movies seem schmalzy, but up close you realise that Americans live like that – with all their enthusiasm and friendliness and self-belief. And as nauseating as that sounds, it’s infectious. I always come back from the States with really clear ideas as to how to live better – whether it be how to up the ante at work or connect more with my local community. And above all, I come back with energy to be extraordinarily friendly – which can lead to some really unexpected but wonderful connections with people. What’s particularly amazing is how long that energy lasts – my experiences haven’t been those quick hits of holiday enthusiasm that diminish a few weeks after I’m back at work. Instead, that buzz from some of the great US towns seems to linger about for ages – nagging at me when I get lazy or dour.

So that’s why I love the US. There are pockets of the country where the unique snowflakes gather in such a warm and inclusive way that you can’t help but count yourself amongst them – a unique snowflake searching for that bit extra out of life.

Best music of 2011: Raphael Saadiq

If you choose one unfamilar artist to get to know from last year, make it Raphael Saadiq. His album, Stone Rollin’, is the perfect party starter. It’s an incredibly tight set of Motown and soul flavoured tracks that just beg you to jump up off the couch. I actually think Raphael is more consistent than any of the 70s R&B artists other than perhaps the Jackson 5 – who will always fill the dance floor while I’m around.

Raphael’s a guy who has experienced some of the greatest pain life can present – losing several siblings at a young age in heart wrenching circumstances. The kind of tragedies that it’s impossible to make sense of. Rather than take us into his painful past, Raphael invites us on a journey of joy. He insists that we dance through the bad times as well as the good. Then finally, when we’re exhausted from the beat, there comes a rare moment when he opens up and shares a little of his story. He tells us that he survived his childhood because good people were looking out for him – teachers, preachers, warm-hearted folk – and he implores us to be one of those people – someone who would look out for a young Raphael, someone who may have a hand in helping a kid from the troubled side of town find their dream. “Stop saying the game is sold and not to be told. Try to help the child that’s only 4 years old. Why, why would you sit back and relax And watch the kids fall off the tracks?” It’s a question that we generally try to avoid, but Raphael asks it so tenderly and genuinely that it doesn’t feel confronting or uncomfortable – simply stirring.

Buy it, play it, dance. Let the infectious rhythm into your body and let Raphael’s closing challenge eat at your soul.

Caution – don’t watch this clip at work unless you’re prepared to see your colleagues bust some moves…

Best music of 2011: Lady Gaga

So I have to confess that I haven’t actually heard all of Lady Gaga’s album, Born This Way.  I tried to absorb the unreleased tracks on one or two of the 45 flights I took in 2011 but was inevitably seduced by Glee (where there’s singing AND dancing).

Regardless, for my money, the title track from this album is the best single of 2011.  It’s certainly not Gaga’s most original musical offering.  But that’s by-the-by really because what makes this song so seminal is that it is an anthem of acceptance.  No wait, THE anthem of acceptance.

Born this Way is a beacon of freak-flag-flying-light in the normally amoral pop culture world.  It’s a song for the kids who are different – certainly the LGBT youth (who, due to lack of acceptance and support, comprise an estimated 25% of the homeless youth population in NSW and are 3.5 to 14 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their hetero peers), but also everyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the box that their school, workplace, family sees as ideal and normal.  Against this backdrop, Born this Way takes us as we are and tells us we’re worthy, that we’re capable of handling every curve-ball that this life can throw at us.  And that’s what makes Lady Gaga a star whose legacy may well surpass all of the big names of the last generations.  Yeah, Madonna, MJ and Nirvana all created amazing music and influenced us significantly in different ways.  But no other act of that grandeur has, to my knowledge, consistently exuded, through music and marketing, a world-improving message as much as Lady Gaga.

Or arrived at the Grammys in a womb…