South by Southwest kicked off in Austin today, bringing with it a fresh wave of talent and innovators ready to share the fruits of their labor with the world. SXSW is different from other festivals because it’s more than simply a music festival for fans to see their favorite bands. The annual event, now in its 31st year, is mash-up of entertainment media that is simultaneously a festival, expo, conference, and showcase. (And in case you were wondering, Refinery29 will be there.)
What makes SXSW special is that it’s a convening of ideas. It’s a space for experimentation and introductions, which is why so many artists, known and unknown, perform there every year. Musicians who take the stage at SXSW bring their A-game, not to run off a bunch of hit singles to screaming fans, but to creatively express the unique thing that they bring to the American entertainment industry.
This freedom seems particularly important for women artists who don’t fit into the narrow box laid out for women entertainers. A quick look at some of the women whose careers got a boost from the event is evidence of that. Janelle Monae had already gained a Grammy nomination by the time she performed at SXSW in 2009. She was known amongst R & B and neo-soul aficionados, but her explosive performance catapulted her into mainstream American success. Amy Winehouse officially became an international superstar when she crossed the pond to hit the 2007 SXSW stage. The same can be said of M.I.A. and her 2005 collaboration with LCD Soundsystem in Austin. It generated enough buzz to capture audiences before she released her catchy single “Paper Planes.” Grimes, with her tiny voice and big bag of musical tricks, ended up being signed to Jay Z’s label after she mesmerized a SXSW crowd in 2011.
All of these women are known for their off-brand style of femininity, but clear mastery of their crafts. Apparently the SXSW crowd appreciates raw talent above all else, and is willing to go to bat for it when they feel particularly moved. This is what it looks like to truly support women artists and media-makers.