"I'm here to get guitarded," the ditzy blond twenty-something tells me in complete deadpan. I nod in response, not understanding precisely what she means, but willing to learn. It is half past seven on a Thursday night, and we are idling in the lobby of the Fillmore at New York's Irving Plaza awaiting the start of the US Air Guitar Championships.
Just an hour before, I was sitting in at the press conference called by the movement's domestic sanctioning body, United States Air Guitar. Joining me were more than half a dozen other reporters and photographers, all of us gawking at a visual cacophony of humanity. There was unruly facial and body hair, package-quashing nylon, and transvestite-grade makeup application. As each of the 15 contestants was introduced, it became increasingly obvious that this was truly a ceremony of American composition. From Columbus came Derek-Not-So-Smalls; from San Francisco, Ricky Stinkfingers. According to the organizers, competitive air guitar began in Finlandwhere the world championship is heldunder the mantra, "If you're holding an air guitar, you can't be holding a gun." Björn Türoque (pronounced byorn to-rock), air guitar hall-of-famer and MC of the evening's activities, confirmed this civic lesson during his introduction, saying that the practice "was founded for world peace."
"Air guitar strikes me as too hilarious and ironic and downright weird to analyze sociologically."—New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell
At eight o'clock, there's an hour to go, and the contestants are backstage getting ready. Friends and significant others mill about, cans of cheap domestic beer in hand, as bright lights reflect off the dressing room's wall-length mirror and into the eyes of the assembled press corps. "The Shred," who has 50-plus years and 13 grandchildren in addition to his killer ripped denim vest, is chatting away with the media. It's so stuffy in the room that his black mascara is beginning to trickle down his cheek.
While the stars of the evening are primping, Satanicide takes to the stage. They call themselves "the greatest heavy metal band from New Jerseyever," and they have an increasingly large crowd to please. Fortunately their hit song, "Fire's Hot, Hot like Fire" strikes the right chord, and the lead guitarist, his leopard-print Speedo and red fishnet stockings complementing shoulder-length curly golden locks, feels comfortable enough to play the real guitar as if it were an air guitar. The crowd, now filling the entire theater, then laps up "Pussy and Ice Cream," a song, according to the lead singer, "about my two favorite food groups."
At last the main event commences. Türoque the MC appears onstage a little past nine to introduce the judges and explain how the contenders will be scored. He's wearing a sleeveless shirt bearing the phrase he made famous all the way back in 2005: "To Err is Human, To Air Guitar, Divine." Each contestant will have one minute to perform a song of his or her choosing. Like ice skaters, the air guitarists will be judged on three criteriatechnical merit, stage presence, and airnesson a scale from 4.0 to 6.0. Airnesslike the "presentation" category in figure skating
The four judges are Saturday Night Live's Rachel Dratch, New Yorker writer and Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones, and prominent ACLU attorney Ben Wizner. Standing next to them on the balcony are various members of the press, including a New York-based reporting duo from Japan TV. The Japanese won the world championship last year, one of the guys from Japan TV explains, and "when they get into something, they get into it."
Fans of air guitar cut a harmoniously disparate bunch, united temporarily by an irony so gargantuan it transcends all social boundaries. I know of few other instances where popped collars mingle so cordially with horn-rimmed glasses and yarmulkes. It may be hip to be squareor something like thatbut in the end we are all amused by someone named Loverboy.
As the contest progresses the judges quickly establish their American Idol alter egos. Gladwell plays sweet understanding Paula, while Jones ducks beer cans as he makes Simon-esque assessments such as, "That was terrible." Chuck Mung, the foul-smelling, natty-haired finalist from Cleveland, mutters under his breath as Jones ridicules one crowd favorite after the next. After his own crucifixion, Chuck can take no more. Pointing his index finger up at the balcony, he realizes a moment far bigger than his air-guitar set and instructs Jones to "go grab a big handful of sand, take a hammer, and hammer it far up your ass."
Chuck, I suspect, may just have been sore about his groupie, who was rumored to have thrown up on the tour bus before it arrived to New York. I soon realize that alcoholbeer in particularis just as sacred within the air-guitar community as it is amongst real musicians. Perhaps even more so, considering its immense utility as an onstage prop: It can be chucked into a crowd; doused over oneself; smashed by one's backside, as is the signature move of hometown favorite William Ocean; or even poured down one's American-flag Speedo, as Dallas's own Big Rig did onstage, just before he embarked on a minute of intimate crowd surfing. (So intimate was the surfing, in fact, that at one point he was riding the shoulders of someone in the front row who was facing the opposite direction from him.)
Alas, a crotch in the face does not an air guitarist make. The results are in, and despite Big Rig's noble efforts, native son and air apparent William Ocean comes out on top. His parents are sitting next to me on the balcony, and his mother shoots off confetti at any mention of her progeny. "When Ocean was a baby," she tells me solemnly, "we used to rock him to sleep to Neil Young."
In the end, I've learned it's not about the size of your air guitar, but how you use it. As Derek-Not-So-Smalls told me just before the competition, "If I'm able to make a good tingle in [someone's] spine, then I'm doing my job." Even Gladwell, the resident intellectual, knows better than to question the motives of its heroes. "Air guitar strikes me as too hilarious and ironic and downright weird to analyze sociologically," he says. "I feel like a killjoy trying to bring the principles of The Tipping Point to bear on it."
William Ocean accepts his victory and his new challenge as the shining gold unitard representing our country abroad. (He also accepts a rectangular plastic container, filled with nothing. But. Air.) All of the competitors join Ocean up on stage, and they ask a still-huge crowd for requests. Someone yells for "Freebird." On it comes.
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