I'm writing this on New Year's Day, the anniversary of my friend Esme Barrera's death. I remember sitting in this same spot one year ago, trying to rank and file so many emotions, ones closely tied to Austin and the music scene I'd just left for Dallas. The loss of Esme to a random act of violence was unthinkable, but in the wake of that tragedy, there was also a community left unmoored by her absence. I've tried to use the word "community" rather than scene, because Esme acted much like a community organizer for Austin music, a street-level optimist who never let cynicism or "scene fatigue" get to them. What I wrote about her still applies:
Esme was always front row. Always the biggest fan. Always championing a new band or showing up to support an old one. Always making a mixtape. Never arms crossed, emitting the cynicism or snark or smugness that can bog down folks who write about or work in music for a living. We often get so wrapped up in shit-talking and side-eyeing and anonymous slap fights and trends/fads/scenes that we forget music is supposed to be a goddamn pleasure, not a chore, not something we have to elbow out of the way. She's representative not just of a specific music community, but all of them.
I ended that piece by asking if we could balance the scales. This was before I really had a sense of Dallas as a city, but in my year covering music for the Observer, the idea of balance has been on my mind. So has progress, and the search for a discernible aesthetic that makes Dallas what it is.
In 2012, I witnessed things that made me hopeful. Track Meet's parties and shows have given the Dallas producer/DJ scene a boost, and their events have a definite aesthetic, one perhaps shared by several micro-communities throughout the country, though their hyper-obscure detailing and devotion to evoking "1993-1997 monads, using 2093-2097 methodology" show they've been calculating their moves in a way that takes into consideration fashion and taste, but not necessarily for the sake of commerce.
Hip-hop thrived in 2012, and there is a pronounced scene of artists, producers and promoters who are really good at social networking and making you pay attention, which makes me excited for 2013. But we could still see a few more ladies in the scene. Witnessing Snow Tha Product rap to a classroom of girls during Girls Rock Camp and seeing Mz. Fortune back A.Dd+ at Bryan Street Tavern were two of my favorite memories of the summer (including Miss TB's anthem), but we need more ladies on this front, to balance the scales.
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Seeing the Dallas Chamber Symphony perform in the new Dallas City Performance Hall last fall made me wonder what else will be put in that space, and how experimental they are willing to get. We got a hint via October's "Glimpse" event, which featured Waterfalls (members of Eyes, Wings & Many Other Things) across the street from DCPH, and multi-tasker Danielle Georgiou -- who could be seen dancing in venues like Double Wide and Bryan Street Tavern in 2012 -- performing in front of the Winspear, accompanied by drummer Stefan Gonzalez. This merging of the experimental music and arts communities is an important one.
Speaking of the Gonzalez family, their jazz trio Yells at Eels took part in an event in which they mobbed several DART stops and venues around the Arts District during lunch hour. We need more of that, musical events that use Dallas for what it is: A canvas.
We got more in the music community in 2012: More festivals, more big-name touring acts, more DJ nights, more places to drink our cares away. We've got a handful of dedicated promoters and venue owners keeping the bar high, and trying to bring culture to us. We love the big, the shiny, the excessive, and there's nothing wrong with that.
But then there are those who think culture is putting a generic logo of your "neighborhood" on a shirt and selling it to people in the name of community. And people will smile and nod and bite, possibly because they want to be part of some identity, any identity, even if it's aesthetically boring. We will, often times, just accept that the same three bands are going to keep playing together, or that the band you loved in the '90s is still putting out albums, and yes, of course you should care, even if it's mediocre.
Perhaps this points to a bigger issue of identity in Dallas. In this basin of new and old money, what we're willing to buy and be told makes us tastemakers has implications in every artistic realm: Music, art, food, and so on. But maybe we should take a closer look at what we're being sold, and what identity is actually attached to it.
In a conversation with an artist a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I found myself recently getting more upset about bad art than bad music. Her response is integral to all artistic communities that want to shake the sheets:
"We need more people here who are upset."
Another colleague took it a step further:
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"To go from bad to good we have to say yes, but to go from good to excellent we have to edit the shit out of the mediocre stuff. Dallas is such a teenager about people-pleasing, we aren't an old cooky lady yet."
I still don't have all the answers about what Dallas is, but I've seen flashes of the progressive beast Dallas can be, and met the people who want to edit the shit out of the mediocre stuff. I'm hopeful about this new year, but in 2013, we need to put some of that teenager angst to good use, and get upset in the name of progress. And I don't just mean hating things. We have plenty of people here who will happily get into virtual shit-talking and slap-fighting over topics that don't matter 24 hours later. We need people getting mad enough to make something of it.
There's a site where friends of Esme sent in mixtapes she had made for them. Elvis Costello's "Beyond Belief" was on one. Listening to it now, the lyrics take on a whole different meaning, but something about the opening verse feels like it applies here:
History repeats the old conceits The glib replies, the same defeats Keep your finger on important issues With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues