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Listening in Plain Sight: The Enduring Influence of U.S. Air Guitar

The mention of “air guitar” might conjure images of the Bill and Ted series. Or Risky Business. Or maybe even Joe Cocker at Woodstock. You might think of air guitar as an embarrassing fan gesture. So when you hear there’s an annual U.S. Air Guitar competition, you might imagine an entirely superficial practice without any artistic merit. Maybe you just think of it as gimmicky. Or a celebration of the worst aspects of classic rock fandom and the white male guitar heroes that often populate its pantheon. In all honesty, I thought all of these things at first, until I began to take the competition seriously. 

The title of this clipping from the Washington Post on November 28, 1983 reads: “Music to Their Airs!” Text appears alongside a large image of a man flying through the air with an invisible guitar in his arms.

I did not realize, for example, that air guitar competitions have an enduring history since the late 1970s, existing as an incredibly influential popular music pantomime practice that informs platforms like TikTok. I did not realize how invested contemporary competitors could be—dedicating years to learning the craft. And I did not realize how these reconstructions of guitar solos could creatively rupture the relationship between guitar virtuosity and privileged identities in popular music’s past.

The U.S. Air Guitar Championships began in 2003 as the national branch of the Air Guitar World Championships, which began in 1996 in Oulu, Finland. The competition emerged as a bit of a joke alongside the Oulu Music Video Festival. Eventually, two people—Cedric Devitt and Kriston Rucker—founded U.S. Air Guitar, which expanded across the country (thanks, in part, to the influential documentary Air Guitar Nation). Today, folks compete in order to advance from local to regional to the national competition, ultimately hoping to be crowned the best air guitarist in the nation and sent to Finland to represent the United States (think: Eurovision but air guitar). United States air guitarists do incredibly well in the international competition, although they face formidable air guitarists from Japan, France, Canada, Australia, Russia, and Germany (as well as less-formidable air guitarists from elsewhere).

In each competition, competitors perform as personas, such as Rockness Monster, AIRistotle, Agnes Young, and Mom Jeans Jeanie. They don elaborate costumes. They painstakingly practice elaborate choreographies and compete in some of the most famous musical venues in the country—from Bowery Ballroom to the Black Cat. Competitors stage routines that bring a particular 60-second rock solo to life, using their bodies to simulate playing the real guitar (what air guitarists call “there guitar”). Think of these as gestural interpretations of the affective power of guitar solos, rather than a mechanical reproduction of particular chords, frets, and licks. They use their bodies to draw out timbre, rhythm, and pitch, and they also play with the juxtaposition of their own identities and those of the original artists. Judges evaluate performances based on three criteria:

· Technical merit (does the pantomime more or less correspond to the guitar playing in the music?)

· Stage presence (is it entertaining?)

· ‘Airness’ (does the performance transcend the imitation of the real guitar to become an art form in and of itself?)

Scores are given on a figure skating scale, from 4 to 6. So a perfect score is 666 from the three judges. Winners in the first round advance to the second round, where they must improvise an air guitar routine to a surprise song selection. 

As part of my ethnographic work on air guitar, I competed in a local competition, where I was crowned third best air guitarist in Boston in the year 2017 (a distinction that will likely never appear on my CV). I have also conducted fieldwork in Finland twice and attended countless competitions in the U.S. I judged the 2019 U.S. Air Guitar Championships in Nashville alongside Edward Snowden’s lawyer, which resulted in a three-way air off to crown a winner. 

Competitions depend on recruiting new competitors, celebrity judges, and large crowds, all of which can be at odds with creating an inclusive community. Organizers have worked hard to eliminate racist, sexist, ableist, and other forms of discriminatory language from judges’ comments. Women within U.S. air guitar have formed advocacy groups. The proceeds of the most recent competitions have been donated to Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which took up the case of a disabled Black veteran named Sean Worsley who was incarcerated for playing air guitar to music at a gas station. Both organizing bodies at the national and international level emphasize world peace as central to their mission. 

Air guitar routines are themselves political statements too. These acts of musical interpretation enable women, BIPOC, and disabled performers to author sounds credited to guitar idols, like Eddie Van Halen or Slash. Performers make arguments about their access to popular music, using only their bodies. Sydney Hutchinson’s work  examines how air guitar can challenge Asian American stereotypes and gendered conceptions of dance

My current work revolves around disabled air guitarists. Andres SevogiAIR drew me in, as a result of his expressive flamenco-inspired seated style he called “chair guitar.” He passed away but left me with an enduring appreciation for air guitar’s ability to challenge conventional virtuosity, a term that can often reproduce an ableist link between physical ability and musical virtue. I came to appreciate how air guitarists could invent imaginary instruments that serve their particular bodies. I witnessed competitors coupling chronic illness and impairments with air guitar routines, as well as competitors using air guitar to fully amplify their struggles with cancer.

I also came to appreciate how air guitarists embrace stigma (e.g., madness, craziness, and gendered forms of listening), turning taboo into a source of creativity. This led to academic writing that traces the history of madness in relation to air guitar, showing how imaginary instrument playing has often been pathologized, and yet contemporary disabled air guitarists reclaim these accusations of insanity as a source of power. 

* * *

A few weeks ago, I received a request from Lieutenant Facemelter to judge the Midwestern Online Regional U.S. Air Guitar Competition. I accepted. As with many things these days, the contemporary competition has morphed into a Twitch-hosted online spectacle, featuring combinations of live and pre-recorded elements. One woman gave birth between first- and second-round performances (made possible by a multi-day filming period for an asynchronous part of the online competition). One man’s air guitar performance evoked an exorcism in his basement. Another middle-aged competitor competed while suffering the side effects of his second shot of coronavirus vaccine, ultimately winning the competition with a pro-vaccination message. His parents appeared in the livestream when he accepted the award, and the host of the show–the Master of Airimonies–jokingly said to them: “You two must be so proud.” 

I think of U.S. Air Guitar as a stained-glass window, through which prisms of popular music history shine through. The competition can bring troubling facets of that history to light, but the competition can also revise that history (or, at least, reimagine how that history can influence the future). Either way, performers celebrate the idea that rock solos live most powerfully in the embodied listening practices of everyday people. Listening becomes the subject of these performances–the source material for these persuasive displays of music reception. Indeed, air guitar can be one of the strangest things you’ll never see. 

The competition continues this summer

Featured Image: US Air Guitar National Finals, The Midland Theater, Kansas City, MO, August 9, 2014, by Flickr user Amber, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Byrd McDaniel | Byrd is a scholar who researches disability, digital cultures, and popular music. He currently works as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University. His forthcoming book–Spectacular Listening— traces the rise of contemporary practices that treat listening as a performance, including air guitar, podcasts, reaction videos, and lip syncing apps. Byrd is enthusiastic about work that addresses any facet of air guitar, including global and historical approaches. He welcomes outreach from those who want to research these topics.

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REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

SO! Reads: Steph Ceraso’s Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening–Airek Beauchamp

Digital Analogies: Techniques of Sonic Play–Roger Moseley

Experiments in Aural Resistance: Nordic Role-Playing, Community, and SoundAaron Trammell

SO! Reads: Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s Personal Stereo

In Personal Stereo, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s eminently readable history of the Walkman and its kind, it is telling to learn that Sony founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita were prone to conversing in ‘something akin to a private shared language’ or idioglossia. “They would sit there,” recounts Morita’s eldest son, “and we would listen but we had no idea what they were saying” (21).  In later life, following strokes, both lost the ability to speak; Ibuka’s son characterises their subsequent relationship as “communicating without words’.” Even the name Sony itself, notes Tuhus-Dubrow, with its origins in the Latin sonus and the English slang “sonny,” was ultimately “a word in no language’” (13).  It is as though aural perception, delivered on an intimate scale, is somehow revelatory in a way that transcends the typical organising principles of language. The incorporation of the sonic into everyday life forever approaches a kind of affective intensity.

Personal Stereo tunes into this frequency and – by virtue of its array of research and skilful marshalling of social and cultural history – offers a compelling map of its coordinates. If, as part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, one of its central tasks is to apprehend the affective resonance of the inanimate, it is testament to Tuhus-Dubrow’s work that she is able to manage the breadth of her material into an adroit and concise narrative while at the same time allowing space for her writing to approach these contained moments of intensity. “When I think of [the Walkman] now, I think of joy,” she writes in the introduction (1). While acknowledging that undue celebration of the past can stymie the present, she offers a quietly persuasive case for an examination of nostalgia amid the anxiety of contemporary life, which almost serves as a rallying cry for a generation pinioned between the two: ‘The past, whatever its shortcomings, has the virtue of having already happened. And we survived it.’

As iTunes – like the glory of the world – passes into epilogue, it is again time to consider how we might frame obsolete technologies as echoes of a particular moment in our lives, anchored between progress and decay. As texts, they harbour a kind of degraded cartography: a summation of meaning and collapse.

The story of the Walkman begins in the bombed-out ruins of 1940s Tokyo, as Ibuka and Morita establish the foundations of the company that would become a consumer electronics giant as part of Japan’s ill-fated post-war boom. It is striking how much of the Walkman’s development was shaped by the ravages of warfare: Tuhus-Dubrow notes how its antecedent, the tape recorder, was first used in the German military, and early headphones were issued to fighter pilots. It is possible to read the subsequent commercial adoption of personal listening devices as an attempted refashioning of the domestic interior, transgressed so violently in acts of conflict. One of Ibuka’s founding principles for Sony was to “apply highly advanced technologies…developed in various sectors during the war to common households” (12).  Tuhus-Dubrow also recounts the case of Andreas Pavel, a native of post-war Berlin, who emigrated with his family to São Paulo and developed what we might term a “counter-prototype” to the Walkman, partly inspired by the internal acoustics of his mother’s home – “a mecca of sound” – in Cidade Jardim. Object lessons are formed through disintegration and salvaged materials. Morita compares his formative partnership with the older Ibuka to a newly-established familial unit: “It was almost as though an adoption were taking place” (13).

Akio Morita (left) and Masaru Ibuka (right), 1961. Courtesy of Sony

This elides neatly with Tuhus-Dubrow’s central chapter, which is also the strongest. Here, she discusses the reception of private listening within the public domain, and how existing societal norms apprehended this new sonic phenomenon. It is intriguing, and at times hilarious, how much of the reaction operates as moral critique: from a 1923 article comparing the very act of solo listening to alcohol abuse or a drug habit, to rather more recent takes that foreshadow the current intergenerational culture wars. “The personal stereo,” harrumphs A.N. Wilson, ‘became the archetypal accessory of the me-generation” (68).

Tuhus-Dubrow’s research is smart and on point, not least because it leads to a productive consideration of how the cathartic element of the private soundtrack becomes something that society struggles to assimilate. She takes to time to weave in personal testimonies and reminiscences that are effective and somehow touching: “the Walkman,” she admits, “was a source of elation and comfort” (85). A friend recalls how “[my] inner world was enriched by the freedom to explore music on my own” (84).  Pavel describes how the first use of his prototype, in the snows of St Moritz, evoked “a state of ecstasy,” in which life temporarily assumed a cinematic quality. “Suddenly,” he remembers, curiously switching to the present tense, “I’m inside a film” (27).

Darryl with a new Walkman, December 25, 1982, Image by Flickr User Kent Kanouse

Others speak of how musical accompaniment aids a more immersive interaction with the world around them, and it is here that perhaps the real strength of Tuhus-Dubrow’s work emerges: the generosity of an approach that permits mutual recognition; the summoning of an experiential quality that is elusive in its definition but vivid and immediate in its resonance. It is a mode of writing – and indeed a mode of listening – that is resolutely contemporary, formed in a firestorm of technological innovation that was both oppressive and liberatory, attuning us to new ways of being at the same time as it degrades and erodes old certainties.

It bears resemblance to what Tuhus-Dubrow recognises as “the logic of our own bodies, with organs and limbs whose motions are connected to their functions, and which are susceptible to injury and gradual breakdown” (102).  Earlier she writes, “as one song neared its end, I would begin to hear the opening chords of the next in my head.”

What is it, this sense of auditory anticipation?

It is the forming of new waves. We have blood in our ears.

Featured Image: “Walkman through the cassette” by Flicker User Narisa (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Lewis Jones is a writer and itinerant based in Brighton, UK. He received an MA in Literature, Culture and Theory from the University of Sussex, having previously graduated in English Literature from the University of Winchester. He is interested in how artistic and aesthetic mediums might be used to develop new theoretical approaches to culture and society. He particularly likes urban spaces, as visual and auditory environments, and the intersections between music, movement and the body. He thinks that dancing about architecture is a perfectly valid exercise.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

SO! Reads: Hiromu Nagahara’s Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents–Shawn Higgins

SO! Reads: Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder’s Designed For Hi Fi Living–Gina Arnold

SO! Reads: Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP— Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

SO! Reads: Steph Ceraso’s Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening–Airek Beauchamp

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