The Story Of Sixto

The tale of the just-departed Rodriguez is a story of technology and culture shaping a musician’s life. And we’re all a little better that it did.

By Ernie Smith

I can tell I’m starting to get up there in years because the people that are dying are folks I considered heroes in one way or another.

To me, the singer-songwriter Rodriguez was a unique case, a man full of wonder and surprise, whose entire life arc was defined by limitations in communication and the rise of improved technology.

It’s not that Rodriguez, a Detroit-based musician whose albums made essentially zero impact on the American market in his heyday, had a particularly unique story as the music industry goes. Record labels screw musicians out of opportunity all the time.

And even his rediscovery could read uncharitably as somewhat paint-by-numbers—his label Light in the Attic specializes in releasing previously unknown records like his that only emerged thanks to digital crate diggers. (Another discovery of theirs, the ASMR-y blue-eyed soul duo of Donnie and Joe Emerson, is the subject of a new biopic starring Casey Affleck, Zooey Deschanel, and human cartoon Walton Goggins.) If that’s all it was, maybe it wouldn’t have much impact as a cultural tale.

But Sixto Rodriguez’s story represents something else—the tale of the internet breaking down geographic and communication barriers. His massive levels of success were unknown to him for decades until the fateful moment where the internet connected passionate fans with his family. Rodriguez might have never known that millions of South Africans grew up with his music and revered him like Elvis if not for someone putting a fansite on the internet and Sixto’s daughter discovering it.

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In recent months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the monoculture, and how it often shaped our experiences in the pre-internet era in ways good and bad. We all read the same newspapers and magazines, watched the same TV shows, and listened to the same radio stations. When MTV came along, we watched the same music videos. And we were OK with that—until the internet showed us that we didn’t need to follow the same plot.

Today, anyone can step on a platform and describe themselves as a musician. When Rodriguez wrote and recorded Cold Fact, he needed infrastructure to even get going—a label, access to studio equipment, money for touring. If he couldn’t get one of those slots on Top 40 radio, that was it, he wasn’t going national.

I’m sure his label at the time was looking for some way to make back its investment, so they shared his music overseas, where it surprisingly had more luck, thanks to a mix of word-of-mouth and bootlegging. (It helped that its cultural message was more resonant in apartheid-era South Africa—creating a situation where largely white audiences, in a country that explicitly segregated people by race, grew up embracing the countercultural critiques of a Mexican-American man.)

The bootleggers made their money; Sixto never made his, at least until he started touring and became the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary. But his success in so many ways shows how monoculture was harming us. It’s not that Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson were bad people; it’s just that they were the only frame of reference for many, and that meant that they became our gatekeepers.

When given the choice to choose for themselves, consumers might favor another kind of musician or creator entirely. South Africa chose Rodriguez; he might have been put there by bootleggers or labels schlepping off copies of a failed record, but he resonated in a culture where so many top-down things were being handed to them that they needed something organic to look up to.

Eventually, the rest of the world would want that, too. Which is why the internet proved such a cultural disruptor—and why Sixto found his way to the main stage.

I want to close out by saying that I consider Sixto Rodriguez to be something of a personal hero. He is someone who saw success and failure in equal measures, and lived life the same humble way despite those dramatic shifts. He lived in a simple home and stuck around his neighborhood. He wasn’t shaped by success; success molded to him.

His life story is one worth aspiring towards.

Links Of Wonder

Sufjan Stevens is back, and he’s just as good as you remember him.

I loved this observation on link hierarchy by Joshua Benton, who caught a fun strategy being used by The Verge’s new Installer newsletter.

Speaking of links, if you click on a New York Times link on Twitter, it will come with a free five-second delay, because petty is the speed at which the internet operates these days. (ᔥ Hacker News, ↬ Taylor Lorenz)

Speaking of petty, HP is facing a class-action lawsuit for apparently limiting the scanning capabilities of its printers if the printer is low on ink, which is a level of petty even Apple hasn’t sunk to yet. (↬ Numlock News)

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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