Words and photos by Rev. Crash Winfield
“That sounds fucking stupid.”
With the exception of a few supernaturally open-minded folks, this is almost invariably the first thing that comes out of anyone’s mouth after they learn that a real International Air Guitar competition exists. To many people, the idea of competing at playing an instrument without actually playing it sounds ludicrous.
But that’s splitting hairs. In fact pop music – from rock to R&B and rap has a long and semi-honorable tradition of doing just that. There is a long “airitage” to air-guitarwinism.
Case in point: Stu Sutcliffe, the original bassist for the Beatles barely knew how to hold a bass much less play one. Did it matter? Ultimately, yes, as he was fired. But he lasted long enough to enjoy plenty of drug-and-groupie perks in Hamburg. Try lasting a day in a philharmonic while pretending to play the violin. Or scoring any groupies, for that matter.
Throuought subsequent decades countless singers have been seen pretending to play guitar, often not even bothering to opt for an instrument cable to complete the illusion. And not just guitar – for every Madonna and Avril Lavigne that pretend to thwack their axes, there are several Britney Spearses and Milli Vanillis who don’t even actually sing their songs. Even if they do, tons of them use computer plugins like to make it seem like they can. What’s more, consumer programs like Garageband have allowed the utterly talentless to pretend to play, write, sing, and record music that isn’t much worse than the paraquat the big studios are putting out.
But who gives shit? Do most people enjoy popular music because they’re impressed with the intricacies of their idols’ talent? Fuck no. For most music consumers, rock and roll is more about attitude and fluency with the cliches of posture, gesture and outfit than any actual musicianship. We’ve all enjoyed that great episode of South Park that makes fun of kids that think they are actually playing guitar when they play Guitar Hero. But many “actual” musical heroes aren’t that much more deeply self-deluded.
Which is why the Air Guitar Championships — rather than adding to the bullshit — in fact helps cut through all the goldbricking that underscores a lot of the money-driven, phonily-packaged, demographically-directed modern (so-called) music today.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Los Angeles date of the US neck of the competition at the famous Troubador nightclub – the same place where stars like Elton John, Neil Diamond and the fucking Eagles got their start. And while my expectations were scaled back, I have to admit that the acts were tough to appreciate at first. Initially it seemed like little more than a hastily improvised lip-synching show you’d watch at a freshman dormitory. Only with a cover charge and expensive parking.
However, like an acid trip that’s slow to come on, I gradually found myself getting the groove and digging it despite myself. Slowly, the atmosphere became electric (as it were) and it hardly mattered that the heavily-costumed, spastically-gyrating lunatics up on stage weren’t even holding the guitars they so aptly thrashed upon. The postmodernists out there might have a lot to say about simulation and simalcrums and semiotics and what-have-you here, but the honest-to-Motörhead truth was that it fucking rocked. What’s more, it was funny too, and funny is the special sauce that goes with everything. It literally made me laugh to beat the band, as the Stranger put it. Who knows, maybe he’s an Air Banjo fan himself.
In all fairness, some acts were better than others. A few were just gimmicks – like the guy who dressed up in a Darth Vader costume and barely moved. But some were so enthused and seemingly dedicated to their “craft” that the audience fairly wept tears of mirth.
Parody exists to deflate the egos of those who would take themselves too seriously. Moreover, truly awesome parody often illuminates and inspires the audience far more than the object of ridicule originally was intended to do. Rock and roll (and its many offspring) has become so self-obsessed with itself that a clownish, arch, and well-delivered satire like Air Guitar can only help nurse it a bit back to health and humility.
In the same way that The Big Lebowski teaches us how silly it is to venerate preening heroism, Air Guitar reminds us that it’s only rock and roll, but we like it. What made Rock and Roll so revolutionary in the first place was that it was honest, democratic and leveling, not affected, elitist and self-important. The ancient rock gods may have calculated their cool at times, but it was all part of the act, and everyone knew it.
One of the greats of Air Guitar, Dan Crane (a.k.a. Bjorn Turoque), titled his book on the subject “To Air is Human”. If you’re able to catch one of the remaining shows in the tour, you’ll see some some seriously silly shit — some of it downright awful — but you’ll also see something sublime: The human face behind the marketing and machination that that has tended to obscure the humanist heart of rock and roll.
Of course, make sure to check out the exceptional documentary, Air Guitar Nation – it really ties the subject together in a way that this rambling article could never hope to do.
Finally, if you fancy yourself a true hurricane of the Air Guitar, why not become a competitor at next year’s event? Show up in a robe and shorts and represent Dudeism!
Next Page: More photos from the event.