AUSTIN, TEXAS -- Bruce Springsteen got a few laughs Thursday as he kicked off his South by Southwest Music Conference keynote by enumerating nearly every musical genre under the Texas sun, from jangle-pop and hip-hop to death metal and low-fi. "Just add 'neo' or 'post' " to every name on that list, he said, and you'd have hundreds more.
It was an appropriate introduction to a conference that has grown to host 2,000 bands and artists in 92 clubs this week from 200 bands at 12 clubs in 1987. Visit the Austin clubs this week, and nearly every style Springsteen mentioned was represented, "neo" or otherwise. He generously embraced them all in a speech that played like a musical memoir, a personal journey soundtracked by records, from Woody Guthrie to the Sex Pistols.
"There is no unified theory" of music, he asserted. Even in 1964 when he first took up a guitar in earnest, it wasn't so, but "that's nothing compared to what's going on in the streets of Austin right now."
Outside the doors of the jam-packed conference room where he spoke, Springsteen said, is a "post-authentic world" in which artists create vital music with tools his generation couldn't have imagined. Whether an artist is using a computer or a guitar, "there is no pure way of doing it, there's just doing it." What matters is not how the music is created, but the "power and purpose" behind it.
Maybe it was Springsteen's way of justifying to his most conservative followers that it's perfectly OK for him to use drum loops, electronic sampling and rap vocals on his latest album, "Wrecking Ball," which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart this week. Springsteen, if anything, is viewed as a staunch traditionalist, deeply in thrall to a pre-hip-hop era of music that doesn't allow for much in the way of experimentation or formula-tinkering. One possible subtext for all this: Several musical revolutions may have passed Springsteen by since he peaked in the mid-'80s, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been paying attention.
Left unspoken were his opinions about how the business itself his changed, his views on file-sharing and the exhorbitant prices of concert touring; he came up in an era where a $10 ticket was pricey, now he charges 10 times that amount to attend one of his shows. What better forum to address topics critical to the future of music, topics that Springsteen has rarely been quoted talking about in the past?
Instead Springsteen confined himself to playing music critic for nearly an hour, and he's a good one. The doo-wop music he heard on his mother's kitchen radio in the '50s was "the sound of silk stockings rustling on backseat upholstery." Roy Orbison dramatized "the tragic unknowability of women" and made the listener feel that despite the "romantic apocalypse" his songs portrayed, "the ruin was all worth it."
The Animals' version of the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil song "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" inspired "every song I've ever written" with its class consciousness. "Listen up, youngsters," he said after demonstrating how another Animals song inspired his "Badlands" riff, "this is how successful theft is accomplished."
He parsed the difference between "frightening" and "shocking" in regard to the Sex Pistols, who were the former, he asserted, and in part inspired his 1978 "Darkness on the Edge of Town" album. James Brown was the showman no rocker could ever follow on stage, and Bob Dylan "is the father of my musical country." The kids who grew up in the '50s and '60s felt something was wrong with the world, but couldn't articulate how or why until Dylan's songs came along, Springsteen said. Dylan "gave us the words ... to understand our hearts."
In the same way, Springsteen tried to give South by Southwest a philosophy to make sense of now. A fragmented musical world is not necessarily a lesser one, he said. At heart, he urged open-mindedness, an ability "to keep two completely contradictory ideas in your head and heart at all times."
"Have iron-clad confidence, but doubt that keeps you awake and alert," he said. "It keeps you honest."