Keep Austin Weird
isn’t just a bumper sticker, it’s a battle cry. Unfortunately, construction from all the condos that are going up has drowned that battle cry out. Once upon a time, Austin, Texas was an ideological oasis deep in the heart. A state capital disguised as a college town, the city attracted oddballs and iconoclasts with a penchant for the eclectic. Live music, low rents, and a lack of big-city pretension made for a harmonious existence: hippies and rednecks frequented the same honky-tonk bars while conservatives and conspiracy theorists (when conspiracies still leaned left) frolicked in a nearby nude swim spot nicknamed Hippie Hollow. Dallas and Houston had oil and energy—but Austin was pure milk and honey.
A brief timeline:
Situated on the Edwards Aquifer—one of the largest systems of groundwater in the world—the city was built on a literal oasis. A vast network of ancient underground crystals only encouraged the place’s holistic bent in the 1960s. By the early ‘70s, an anti-Nashville country music scene had begun to take hold, attracting the likes of Waylon and Willie, and later on, blues rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan. The University of Texas at Austin—the liberal solution to Texas A&M—kept the population young, open, and subliminally feminist with football fans chanting to a longhorn logo in the end zone that, to this day, looks more like a womb than a bull.
In the 1980s, a good many of those promising UT minds wandered into Austin’s early tech scene, which loosely intersected with the city’s gadgety media arts community. An independent film movement—underwritten by punk rock and skate culture—instilled a DIY aesthetic that only a latchkey kid could unlock. By the early '90s, angsty Gen X-ers had emerged as the anti-heroes of the era. Richard Linklater’s breakout film Slacker
glorified Austin’s free-thinking flaneurs with its semi-scripted, solipsistic tangents, all shot on location, and with a non-arc that followed in the footsteps of esteemed postmodernist filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
most memorable moment involves a failed bid to sell pop star Madonna’s pap smear in a street deal, its most telling scene offers a philosophical nugget from a professor character, who points to the Texas Capitol as a place he’d personally like to blow up before gazing toward the UT Austin Tower and marveling at America’s first mass shooting. The professor’s wistful take on political hypocrisy and social anarchy teases the extreme, of course, while touching on the timeless tension between Austin and the rest of Texas. Says the professor: This town has always had its share of crazies. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else
. Crazy happens to be a selling point for a city bobbing like a blue buoy in an ocean of red.
But what happens when crazy (or weird) disappears and you’re left with god, grievances, and a stockpile of guns? Fortunately, the corporate titans of Austin (the ones who have driven up the cost of everything) act as a sort of buffer against these Lone Star dark impulses. In fact, a number of the city’s current titans started off as local business heroes. South by Southwest, the annual music fest founded by four guys from town in 1987, is now an international media conference that brings in upwards of $400 million in revenue for the city’s economy each year. John Mackey, who started a local health food store in the early 1980s, is none other than the founder of Whole Foods Market. And Michael Dell, whose Dell Technologies is headquartered just north of the city, is one of many proud UT dropouts (Mackey, too) who redefined an entire industry.
Apple, Meta, and Google are currently the largest occupiers of office space in the city, and Elon Musk is supposedly crashing on some undisclosed couch on the east side, not far from his Tesla plant. Weird and wealth, however, don’t pair very well—a growing problem in the cultural landscape of virtually all major cities. Neighborhoods that were once distinct in their history and identity have become curated food courts of sameness: Union Square in San Francisco could be Union Square in New York. Is it naive to think Austin would (and should) be an exception to this corporate takeover?
A brief analysis:
When it comes to Austin’s “it” factor, they say the earlier the better…but early is in the eye of the beholder. American Indians, for instance, were a millenary presence in the region until the mid-1800s. Austin only formally became the state capital in 1846, a year after Texas was annexed by the U.S.: eccentrics, outlaw poets, and musicians didn’t start showing up for a hundred-plus years after that. To better understand the Keep Austin Weird
motto, one must look to the motto-maker himself, local librarian and native Austinite Red Wassenich. Wassenich, who passed away in 2020, is said to have first uttered those words when calling into a community radio station back in 2000 during a financial pledge drive. The slogan instantly caught on, appealing to those who found themselves living in the shadow of the city’s expanding skyline.
For Wassenich, “weird” likely referenced the heyday of his own youth, which straddled the late '60s and early '70s. In 1972—when Red was 22—Willie Nelson, fresh off the boat from Nashville, took part in a three-day concert in Dripping Springs, just west of Austin. Dubbed “Hillbilly Woodstock,” the Dripping Springs Reunion attracted Earl Scruggs, Waylon Jennings, Tex Ritter, and the not-yet-iconic Redheaded Stranger. Despite the stellar line-up, turnout was relatively low, with only a fraction of the anticipated numbers showing up. But the Reunion is best remembered for the “hippie-redneck” hybrid of an audience it drew—a socio-cultural phenomenon studied by historians and real estate developers alike. Who knows if Wassenich attended that weekend, but the city’s underground crystals must have been working their magic.
As Austin became a mixed-bag mecca for music and musings, a scrappy but sophisticated film community began brewing on an off-campus strip of cafes and shops. It was there that a young Richard Linklater joined with a crew of friends to make Slacker,
which, against all odds, premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 1991, helping to spark an epoch of indie offbeat cinema verité. Slacker
was a sleeper—and Austin was out of the bag: sometime between Hillbilly Woodstock in 1972 and Slacker
at Sundance in 1991, “weird” worked its way into the city’s psychic center. Much like Austin’s underground water system, an underground ethos of creativity and nonconformity was suddenly in steady supply. And word got out.
By the early 2000s, right as Red Wassenich rallied with his Keep Austin Weird
slogan, the city was in full-blown gentrification mode: less hippies, more yuppies. Another twenty years on, today, Austin is perhaps better known as ATX and the only thing weird about the place is that it continues to outpace almost every other American city in terms of luxury real estate. (COVID further sealed this deal, with an uptick of New Yorkers and Californians fleeing their disordered cities for a kinder, gentler existence.) Hippie Hollow has been replaced by hollow hippies living in soulless mixed-use complexes where the old cultural haunts once stood. A blithe meritocracy of mostly white, mostly well-meaning, liberals are now in a game of exquisite corpse with the city’s once-weird charm.
I, for one, moved to Austin from New York City in 2014, after having spent my first 34 years in the Tri-State Area. I decided to leave the Northeast after getting priced out, but upon arrival, I instantly noticed the same lamentation coming from those living in ATX. Austinites were no longer able to afford their fair city, thanks to people like me—who could no longer afford their
fair city. I met an artist couple early on, neither of whom were from Texas, but had been here long enough to keep hanging on. For years, I watched them make art about the moral outcry of Austin’s growing unaffordability, so imagine my surprise when they suddenly left town for another rapidly growing U.S. city (also in an affordability crisis) after a family member agreed to buy them a million-dollar home. Nobody, of course, wants to be on the wrong end of gentrification. But it is interesting just how blind-spot specific the struggle becomes when you’re the one packing up and displacing someone else. Nostalgia is the yin to gentrification’s yang, especially in a city that has gone from 200,000 to two million in a matter of decades.
In writing this piece, I came across a website called TheEndOfAustin.com, featuring a meticulous visual essay tracing the various Austin locations in the film Slacker
. A lively discussion in the comments section ensued, including from those who worked on the film or could simply recall the Austin it once captured—all of them lovingly splitting hairs over every aching detail of the era. It is a curious kind of collective nostalgia: protective, proprietary, and so very fierce. One online commenter did catch my eye, a scholar by the name of Per Urlaub who was at UT Austin at the time of posting (a quick Google search reveals that he is now a linguistics professor at Middlebury College). Urlaub goes so far as to compare the staunch sentimentality for Slacker
(and Austin in general) to former Ossis’ nostalgia for East Germany:
The result of such a rapid development is a culture of nostalgia. This longing for the past is more present in Austin than in any other North American city I have lived in, including places that are much older (and “with much more history” as they say), such as Boston and New Haven. In a certain way, Austin’s culture of nostalgia is not unlike a somewhat de-politicized “Ostalgie,” the longing for the past among many East Germans disillusioned by the new market economy. Considering these two issues one can argue that nostalgia in Austin (and to a somewhat lesser degree in Berlin) is more a reaction to ongoing radical economical/urban change in the presence than a strategy to commemorate a distant past.
I once asked Slacker’s
cinematographer if anyone on set could have foreseen this fascination for Austin that the movie, at least in part, inspired. Never
, he laughed a bit guiltily.
A brief conclusion:
It’s hard to hold on tight when change is always coming up from behind. My non-native take will not likely win me any favors with the diehards. But as an outside observer, my job is to see the things those in it cannot see. And what I see is this: Austin is an oasis that others caught onto, which caused ruin in one way, and rebirth in another. An old story, really, with a fistful of fierce nostalgia that keeps it young. Despite Red Wassenich’s strong objections, Keep Austin Weird
eventually did get trademarked. Battle cries do make for good merch. And the bumper sticker is available for purchase in stores throughout the city.