(Photo by Nicole Berlin Photography)
Barring a cancellation, I’ll be at Weekend 1 of Austin City Limits, my fifth consecutive year at the festival (as you’ll recall, there was no 2020 edition) and my third straight as working press.
This past week, organizers released the schedule — which is, of course, always a defining moment in the run-up to ACL or any other multi-stage megafest. For most serious fans with eclectic tastes who aren’t of the “I’m just going for Guns N’ Roses” variety, there will be conflicts. Counter-programming throws at least a little cold water on whatever excitement you originally felt at the breadth of musical talent on the poster, and you have to make hard choices. Punt Artist A you were anticipating seeing in favor of Artist B playing at the same time, choose artist B instead, or split your time? And what if there are, god forbid, three bands you want to see occupying the same or overlapping time slots?
Looking over the schedule, however, the fact is there just aren’t that many nasty conflicts for ya blogger. (That’s me, incidentally. I’m “ya blogger.”) That owes in part to the fact that this is a pretty weak lineup relative to other ACLs.
However, there’s one mammoth Weekend 1 scheduling conflict that amounts to a heavyweight fight. And right here, I’m going to break it down in real time and make a call: Black Pumas vs. Megan Thee Stallion.
Austin vs. Houston. Rising adult album alternative stars vs. a rising hip-hop superstar. Both are scheduled for the 6-7 pm slot on Friday, Oct. 1. I’m generally not a scheduling conflict time-share guy, and I don’t intend to do it here. I’ve never seen either live (ahem, a little more on that later) and I would like a full set from one of them.
For the purposes of this blog and a decision I will (probably) adhere to when Oct. 1 is actually here, I’m going to break down all the factors (representing “rounds” in this overextended metaphor) and pick a winner. Who will get my eyeballs and eardrums? Here comes the bell for round 1. Ding! (Should I have actually said “ding”? Was that too much? Anyway…)
Round 1: Music
As much as many (most?) would just pick whoever’s music they like (even slightly) better, I can’t just call it a day there. That said, of course it’s a massively weighted factor.
Although Megan has a more extensive discography (a 10-song EP and a mixtape), both she and BP have exactly one full-length album to their names. Both are really good: I reviewed Black Pumas here in 2019 and may have lowballed it just slightly with my 3.5-star rating, but at any rate, it’s retro psych-soul at an uncommonly good level. Megan’s Good News arrived last November and is a bright, uptempo, and nearly flawless party. As much as Megan’s body positivity, sex positivity and provocative videoing are what drives media headlines, her flow and commitment to keeping heads bobbing and bodies moving are also badly needed to balance today’s angsty trap-drenched landscape.
Even as a hardcore lover of retro-pop and rock sounds, I’m going with Thee Stallion by the smallest of noses. All she’s doing right now is cranking out acrobatically lyricized jams. Slight advantage: Megan Thee Stallion
Round 2: Anticipated showmanship
Does it follow that if Megan has the edge in music for churning out jams, she would have the edge in stage presence as well? Not necessarily. For one thing, both hip-hop and modern pop’s tendency to gravitate toward pre-recorded backing vocals and choruses — as exhibited here by Megan performing “Body” last “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” — is a detracting force. Not a ruining one in and of itself (and it’s basically a given today in many instances), but a detracting one. In a perfect world, I’d rather hear Megan rap all the way through, not just get to the chorus and twerk and funky-chicken to her own voice. (She might’ve lip-synched the whole thing here, but even as expected as that might be, I’m always hesitant to make that “accusation,” such as it is.) On the other hand, Megan will undoubtedly have interesting things to say — about society, about the state of things, about the proverbial Hot Girl Shit — and will likely say them well. She may condense the entire theme of the “Thot Shit” video into a moving soliloquy.
Then though, the Pumas are all but certain to deliver a “more live” performance — organic, sung entirely live, perhaps pulling you into a time warp that takes you back to the Fillmore in the late ’60s or the “Old Grey Whistle Test” studio. The feedback I’ve seen/heard from their multi-night makeup stand at Stubb’s last spring has been nothing but impressive, and all things considered, what they offer may be just what I need. Advantage: Black Pumas
Round 3: Future opportunities to see artist
This is the “reverse advantage” factor, and in 2019 it helped dictate my choice in another tough conflict: Gary Clark Jr. vs. Billie Eilish. I chose Billie (and didn’t regret it) largely because Clark is local and is going to play here a lot. It isn’t that hard, for instance, for an Austinite to make a New Year’s resolution and say, “I’m finally going to see Spoon this year,” because there’s an awfully good chance you can see Britt and the boys in any given year. Secondarily, in the Gary vs. Billie case, it’s most likely going to be cheaper in the future to see Clark as a headliner, as opposed to whenever Eilish rolls through town again. And, to the case at hand: However big the Pumas are getting, however many late-night musical gigs or “CBS This Morning” interviews they’re lining up, you’ll likely get your shot more frequently with them. So, this round goes to Tina Snow. Advantage: Megan Thee Stallion
Round 4: Musical significance
To harmlessly err on the side of melodrama for a minute, this is where you consider your own musical legacy. Who, at this moment in time, do you want to make sure you’ve crossed off your list? Who do you want to tell people, “I saw X when Y”?
In all honesty, this was the other factor in me choosing Eilish over Clark: I felt like I couldn’t pass up seeing Billie Eilish when she had just reached the top of Olympus, galvanizing young people to embrace off-center music and a public image of their own choosing, rather than one of their peers or some music exec. Clark is an artist, and a tremendous one; Billie Eilish was, and is, both an artist and a movement.
Back to the decision at hand: It’s closer than you might think. The Pumas, as noted in the above-linked CBS feature, are an Austin institution now. They’re likely to stay that way even if their national success doesn’t sustain. They may have some more Earth-moving music in their future. But… Advantage: Megan Thee Stallion
On the surface, you might think we’ve got a 3-1 score in favor of “Hot Girl Shit Live!” But these factors aren’t weighted equally. In truth, it’s hard to say exactly how I’m weighting them. This is a blog post, not Olympic diving or trampolining, so I feel no need to pretend I’m trying to exactify this science.
I’m adding a fifth factor, an X-factor of sorts: My gut. And my gut says it’s time to cross another local luminary off my show list. I did it recently with A Giant Dog and felt not only fulfilled by what unfolded at Hotel Vegas, but also a little accomplished. Megan Thee Stallion will undoubtedly be back at ACL; she was just on the bill two years ago, and … well, something happened.
The voice in my head that says “The time is now” is just a little greater for Austin’s biggest national stars of the pandemic era. Once Megan returns to ACL, she will earn my presumptive priority for any counter-programming that may leave me with another touch decision. This time around, your winner — and my choice to watch on Oct. 1, 2021 at 6 pm — is the Black Pumas.