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.
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.
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 Sound—Aaron Trammell
SO! Reads: Steph Ceraso’s Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening
Pedagogy at the convergence of sound studies and rhetoric/composition seems to exist in a quantum state—both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This realization simultaneously enlightens and frustrates. The first page of Google results for “sound studies” and “writing instruction” turns up tons of pedagogy; almost all of it is aimed at instructors, pedagogues, and theorists, or contextualized in the form of specific syllabi. The same is true for similar searches—such as “sound studies” + “rhetoric and composition”—but one thing that remains constant is that Steph Ceraso, and her new book Sounding Composition (University of Pittsburgh Press: 2018) are always the first responses. This is because Ceraso’s book is largely the first to look directly into the deep territorial expanses of both sound studies and rhet/comp, which in themselves are more of a set of lenses for ever-expanding knowledges than deeply codified practices, and she dares to bring them together, rather than just talking about it. This alone is an act of academic bravery, and it works well.
Ceraso established her name early in the academic discourse surrounding digital and multimodal literacy and composition, and her work has been nothing short of groundbreaking. Because of her scholarly endeavors and her absolute passion for the subject, it is no surprise that some of us have waited for her first book with anticipation. Sounding Composition is a multivalent, ambitious work informs the discipline on many fronts. It is an act of ongoing scholarship that summarizes the state of the fields of digital composition and sonic rhetorics, as well as a pedagogical guide for teachers and students alike.
Through rigorous scholarship and carefully considered writing, Ceraso manages to take many of the often-nervewracking buzzwords in the fields of digital composition and sonic rhetorics and breathe poetic life into them. Ceraso engages in the scholarship of her field by demystifying the its jargon, making accessible to a wide variety of audiences the scholar-specific language and concepts she sets forth and expands from previous scholarship (though it does occasionally feel trapped in the traditional alphabetic prison of academic communication).. Her passion as an educator and scholar infuses her work, and Ceraso’s ontology re-centers all experience–and thus the rhetoric and praxis of communicating that experience–back into the whole body. Furthermore, Ceraso’s writing makes the artificial distinctions between theory and practice dissolve into a mode of thought that is simultaneously conscious and affective, a difficult feat given her genre and medium of publication. Academic writing, especially in the form of a university press book, demands a sense of linearity and fixity that lacks the affordances of some digital formats in terms of envisioning a more organic flow between ideas. However, while the structure of her book broadly follows a standard academic structure, within that structure lies a carefully considered and deftly-organized substructure.
Sounding Composition begins with a theory-based introduction in which Ceraso lays the book’s framework in terms of theory and structure. Then proceeds the chapter on the affective relationship between sound and the whole body. The next chapter investigates the relation of sonic environments and the body, followed by a chapter on our affective relationship with consumer products, in particular the automobile, perhaps the most American of factory-engineered soundscapes. Nested in these chapters is a rhetorical structure that portrays a sense of movement, but rather than moving from the personal out into spatial and consumer rhetorics, Sounding Composition’s chapter structure moves from an illustrative example that clearly explains the point Ceraso makes, into the theories she espouses, into a “reverberation” or a pedagogical discussion of an assignment that helps students better grasp and respond to the concepts providing the basis for her theory. This practice affords Ceraso meditation on her own practices as well as her students’ responses to them, perfectly demonstrating the metacognitive reflection that so thoroughly informs rhet/comp theory and praxis.
Chapter one, “Sounding Bodies, Sounding Experience: (Re)Educating the Senses,” decenters the ears as the sole site of bodily interaction with sound. Ceraso focuses on Dame Evelyn Glennie, a deaf percussionist, who Ceraso claims can “provide a valuable model for understanding listening as a multimodal event” (29) because these practices expand listening to faculties that many, especially the auditorially able, often ignore. Dame Glennie theorizes, and lives, sound from the tactile ways its vibrations work on the whole body. From the new, more comprehensive understanding of sound Dame Glennie’s deafness affords, we can then do the work of “unlearning” our ableist auditory and listening practices, allowing all a more thorough reckoning with the way sound enables us to understand our environments.
The ability to transmit, disrupt, and alter the vibrational aspects of sound are key to understanding how we interact with sound in the world, the focus of the second chapter in Sounding Composition. In “Sounding Space, Composing Experience: The Ecological Practice of Sound Composition,” Ceraso situates her discussion in the interior of the building where she actually composed the chapter. The Common Room in the Cathedral of Learning, on the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus, is vast, ornate, and possessed of a sense of quiet which “seems odd for a bustling university space”(69). As Ceraso discovered, the room itself was designed to be both vast and quiet, as the goal was to produce a space that both aesthetically and physically represented the solemnity of education.
To ensure a taciturn sense of stillness, the building was constructed with acoustic tiles disguised as stones. These tiles serve to not only hearken back to solemn architecture but also to absorb sound and lend a reverent air of stillness, despite the commotion. The deeply intertwined ways in which we interact with sound in our environment is crucial to further developing Ceraso’s affective sonic philosophy. This lens enables Ceraso to draw together the multisensory ways sound is part of an ecology of the material aspects of the environment with the affective ways we interact with these characteristics. Ceraso focuses on the practices of acoustic designers to illustrate that sound can be manipulated and revised, that sound itself is a composition, a key to the pedagogy she later develops.
Framing the discussion of sound as designable—a media manipulated for a desired impact and to a desired audience–serves well in introducing the fourth chapter, which examines products designed to enhance consumer experience. “Sounding Cars, Selling Experience: Sound Design in Consumer Products,” moves on to discuss the in-car experience as a technologically designed site of multisensory listening. Ceraso chose the automobile as the subject of this chapter because of the expansive popularity of the automobile, but also because the ecology of sound inside the car is the product of intensive engineering that is then open to further manipulation by the consumer. Whereas environmental sonic ecologies can be designed for a desired effect, car audio is subject to a range of intentional manipulations on the listener. Investigating and theorizing the consumer realm not only opens the possibilities for further theorization, but also enhances the possibility that we might be more informed in our consumer interactions. Understanding the material aspects of multimodal sound also further informs and shapes disciplinary knowledge at the academic level, framing the rhetorical aspect of sonic design as product design so that it focuses on, and caters to, particular audiences for desired effects.
Sounding Composition is a useful and important book because it describes a new rhetoric and because of how it frames all sound as part of an affective ontology. Ceraso is not the first to envision this ontology, but she is the first to provide carefully considered composition pedagogy that addresses what this ontology looks like in the classroom, which are expressed in the sections in Sounding Composition marked as “Reverberations.” To underscore the body as the site of lived experience following chapter two, Ceraso’s “reverberation” ask students to think of an experience in which sound had a noticeable effect on their bodies and to design a multimodal composition that translates this experience to an audience of varying abledness. Along with the assignment, students must write an artist statement describing the project, reflecting on the composition process, and explaining each composer’s choices.
To encourage students to think of sound and space and the affective relationship between the two following chapter three, Ceraso developed a digital soundmap on soundcities.com and had students upload sounds to it, while also producing an artist statement similar to the assignment in the preceding chapter. Finally, in considering the consumer-ready object in composition after the automobile chapter, students worked in groups to play with and analyze a sound object, and to report back on the object’s influence on them physically and emotionally. After they performed this analysis, students are then tasked with thinking of a particular audience and creating a new sonic object or making an existing sonic object better, and to prototype the product and present it to the class. Ceraso follows each of these assignment descriptions with careful metacognitive reflection and revision.
Steph Ceraso interviewed by Eric Detweiler in April 2016, host of Rhetoricity podcast. They talked sound, pedagogy, accessibility, food, senses, design, space, earbuds, and more. You can also read a transcript of this episode.
While Sounding Composition contributes to scholarship on many levels, it’s praxis feels the most compelling to me. Ceraso’s love for the theory and pedagogy is clear–and contagious—but when she describes the growth and evolution of her assignments in practice, we are able to see the care that she has for students and their individual growth via sound rhetoric. To Ceraso, the sonic realm is not easily separated from any of the other sensory realms, and it is an overlooked though vitally important part of the way we experience, navigate, and make sense of the world. Ceraso’s aim to decenter the primacy of alphabetic text in creating, presenting, and formulating knowledge might initially appear somewhat contradictory, but the old guard will not die without a fight. It could be argued that this work and the knowledge it uncovers might be better represented outside of an academic text, but that might actually be the point. Multimodal composition is not the rule of the day and though the digital is our current realm, text is still the lingua franca. Though it may seem like it will never arrive, Ceraso is preparing us for the many different attunements the future will require.
Featured Image: Dame Evelyn Glennie Performing in London in 2011, image by Flickr User PowderPhotography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Airek Beauchampis an Assistant Professor of English at Arkansas State University and Editor-at Large for Sounding Out! His research interests include sound and the AIDS crisis, as well as swift and brutal punishment for any of the ghouls responsible for the escalation of the crisis in favor of political or financial profit. He fell in love in Arkansas, which he feels lends undue credence to a certain Rhianna song.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Queer Timbres, Queered Elegy: Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass and the First Wave of the AIDS Crisis– Airek Beauchamp
Botanical Rhythms: A Field Guide to Plant Music -Carlo Patrão
Sounding Our Utopia: An Interview With Mileece–Maile Colbert