Competitive Air Guitar: Loads of Fun, Worse Than Stupid

Photo: FLAMES OF FURY. Air guitarist James Rostosky goes by
Salgu Wissmath/Staff
FLAMES OF FURY. Air guitarist James Rostosky goes by "Jammin J-Bone" when he's performing.

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Since 2003 competitive air guitar in the United States has rolled itself into a tight snowball of popularity, the kind of event that anyone and everyone not directly associated with The Man should supposedly enjoy. Air guitar is no longer something only to be done in the privacy of one's bedroom, the simple strumming of an invisible ax to the tastiest riffs of that one recording Led Zeppelin made live at the BBC, no, rather it has blossomed or careened into what on June 25 at the Independent had become, officially speaking, the 2008 Cuervo Black U.S. Air Guitar Championships, presented by TouchTunes.

Part of the appeal of air guitar is that anyone can get his foot in the door. You don't need to be able to play guitar or have money for an instrument or for fancy clothes or fancy music lessons. You do need some performance skills, but to some extent breaking into this competition (if not winning) is not about talent, it's about willingness. The willingness to stage dive when maybe no one is catching, to look like a fool, to have a good time; one must volunteer and be confident and have a routine.

These aspects of air guitar give off a pungent democratic whiff, at their very best borrowing from the do-it-yourself aesthetic of punk rock. If anyone can play guitar, the competition seems to say, then certainly anyone can play air guitar (at the end of the event, all comers were invited onstage to perform Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" in lurching tidal unison). But the difference is that a punk band is a band. It's creating something. It could have aspirations toward making art or articulating politics or even (even!) changing the status quo. Air guitar, meanwhile, creates nothing new except perhaps a new performance spectacle. The apparently borrowed do-it-yourself aesthetic attenuates, then, quite dramatically, to one of complete narcissism: an It-Yourself aesthetic.

Because what is the do-it-yourself aesthetic stripped of its ability to call something new into being? It's the absence of rock, it's pure celebrity, perhaps much closer in kind to reality television than it would care to admit. The problem is not that U.S. Air Guitar has "sold out," it's that by slowly paving itself over with ads and promotional material (and don't forget to apply a thick mortar of irony, lest the whole enterprise crumble) the competition has exposed itself, with the aid of a perhaps-not-so-mysteriously fawning media, for what it really is, the unfortunate bizarro-child of Jack Black (imagine "Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny" with less joy and more shameless self-promotion) and that touchstone of popular culture, American Idol.

The Air Guitar World Championship (which was the inspiration for its American counterpart) was first held in Oulu, Finland, in 1996, by students ostensibly interested in world peace. They attached the knowingly preposterous tagline, "because if everyone was holding an air guitar, no one could hold a gun," and vague world peace associations have stuck ever since. It's a decent joke, and arguably appropriate for a lighthearted competition, but as the competition has grown more serious to its competitors over the years (at least in the United States), what began as an only somewhat cynical joke (when you think about it) has become uncomfortably, if slightly, darker.

The promoters today won't talk about world peace, but they will joke about their careers in air guitar and describe the competition in mock-serious terms. The "face of U.S. air guitar," Dan Crane a.k.a. Bjorn Turoque, has starred in a documentary film, published a book, and made the event his livelihood; he rides a tour bus with his image painted on the side. He and other promoters now walk the fine line of taking their work very seriously but knowing its absurdity. Self-conscious self-deprecation and an ironic deflection of meaning, plus the denial of whatever countercultural or political impulses air guitar may or may not have originally held (or could hold), is the result.

When, at the press conference before the show, I did ask about air guitar's political potential I got a muddle of responses, all humorous and all in hot retreat from the question. "I think they're directly correlated," joked Ricky Stinkfingers, last year's San Francisco champion. "I think they're inversely proportional, actually," countered Bjorn Turoque. And after weighing his options: "Ultimately, I think the economy has a lot to do with it, too. I mean as the recession builds, so does air guitar. Why is that?" Titters from the audience. Mock-seriousness having run its course, he concluded, "I mean you tell me, journalist guy," and fielded the next question.

Capture air guitar glory with Evan at [email protected]

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