Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


August 23, 2007

Air Guitar Hero

Gelf learns how the big boys swing the imaginary axe at the US Air Guitar Championships.

Adam Rosen

"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 Finland—where the world championship is held—under 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."

Contestants and fans pile on to the stage for the encore.
"Air guitar strikes me as too hilarious and ironic and downright weird to analyze sociologically."—New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell

Contestants and fans pile on to the stage for the encore.

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 Jersey—ever," 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 criteria—technical merit, stage presence, and airness—on a scale from 4.0 to 6.0. Airness—like the "presentation" category in figure skating —is the most subjective factor, so organizers and judges look to the standard of proof established by former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously defined pornography as, "I know it when I see it."

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."

Ricky Stinkfingers

Ricky Stinkfingers prepares backstage. (Photos by Adam Rosen)

His tone, I soon realize, is not to be dismissed. Ricky Stinkfingers alluded to it at the press conference with his talk of "putting America back where it belongs." There's a subtle current of anti-Japanese sentiment running beneath the guise of friendly competition. My thesis is confirmed when Türoque, discussing Japan's victory in 2006, brings up legendary Japanese competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi's unseating at the hands of American Joey Chestnut on July 4. This proves too much for the crowd, and they erupt into chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

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 square—or something like that—but 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 alcohol—beer in particular—is 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.

Related in Gelf

Gelf goes deep inside the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest and also gets the scoop on chocolate syrup wrestling.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


- Nightlife
- posted on Aug 24, 07
keith h.

now THAT'S a gelficle. nice work. a pleasure to read

- Nightlife
- posted on Aug 28, 07
aka Nakagawa

Gelf does it again!! Where else do I get to read about this major challenge in such depth? Keep it up--this competition would have definitely been overlooked if you hadn't made this report.

Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.