This had been the year without a killer app — a thing that couldn't help but emanate from the lips of every writer and developer and marketing person and local at SXSWi. A thing that would remake the world as we know it. But then I walked past a sea of blue VIP bands, bobbing and humming to get into the Twitter/AmEx Jay-Z show. Then I saw the New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. And it was the first time all week that AT&T's network completely crumpled. Jay-Z was this year's killer app.
I've gone to the Consumer Electronics Show for six years. It's almost always crushing. Everybody there feels like this, even though we're all there at this massive trade show in Las Vegas, ostensibly, to see the newest and greatest technology in the world from the biggest tech companies on the planet (except Apple). The difference is that SXSW is buoyed by a relentless optimism. Everybody is happy, so happy to be here. We're the people changing the world. It's why Sean Parker and Al Gore can have an earnest conversation about using the internet to fix democracy and new toolsets unlocking the power — the Nerd Spring — for change while the bodies of homeless men are re-deployed as walking Wi-Fi hotspots outdoors, not 50 feet away. Jay-Z is in some ways the validation we've all been searching for at SXSW, a legitimization of the reason we're all here. We didn't create or find the next app that's going to change the world, but Jay-Z — Jay-Z! a real-life mainstream superstar — played a show for us. Not for the SXSW Music crowd or film crowd, but for us, for the nerds. The very importantest of the nerds, even. We made it. We mean something. This is a real thing that the real world touches now. Four days of relentless optimism at SXSW culminated in like an hour of pure ecstatic joy for over 1,000 writhing bodies, cellphones in hand to document as many moments as possible, even if the networks were rendered into smoldering ashes. If you weren't at the Jay-Z show, where you you, really? Why were you here?
Two moments in particular highlighted the way that SXSW has moved so far away from its origins as a place for people who wanted to change the world through technology — even in the ecstatic bubble of a Jay-Z show populated by a limitlessly hopeful crowd. A white man with slicked back hair and an overstarched shirt, in between shoving his tongue down the throat of the woman in front of him, leaned over to me and said, "Fucking nigga's got some talent," genuinely impressed, before he turned back to his beer and his ladyfriend, who mouthed all the words, though it was clear this man had heard Jay-Z but a few times in his life. He was just here to be validated.
The other moment was hearing this crowd of venture capitalists and media elite and folks who synced their AmEx to their Twitter account or something to see Jay-Z for free so earnestly singing along, "It's a hard knock life for us."
And why was Jay-Z there? Officially the show was presented by AmEx sync, a way to get you to tweet merchant-specific hashtags so you'll earn deals with a synced credit card. In other words, effectively a way to pay you to advertise for merchants on Twitter. Even AmEx says the point is "turning Twitter content into commerce." Gag with me now. That's what brought Jay-Z to SXSW.
Toward the end of the show, the crowd started losing steam. Jay-Z played a real, full hourish-long show, not a bullshit 30-minute tease that's so common for corporate events like this. I got the sense everybody was ready to go network, to go meet the next guy. We had our mainstream legitimization. We had it after the first 30 minutes. It's time to go meet some more people. Maybe a VC to fund our app, or a dev to build our dream. Maybe we'll be the killer app at SXSW next year.
It was a great show, btw.