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Quick, think of an instance where pretending to perform a task has become an art form unto itself. OK, OK, try to not think about the current commander in chief, who’s spent nearly half his two-term presidency taking vacations, clearing brush and playing tennis while the country goes down the shitter. Come up with anything else? A magician sawing a woman in half? A mime walking against the wind? That guy who used to draw eyes and lips on his fist and pretending to be a ventriloquist? Uhhh, yeah, those are good examples, I guess …
… But nothing beats the shock, awe and majesty of a hundred guys power-chording chest vapor into purely imagined rock! I’m talking Air Guitarist, baby!
Not even air drummers who pound the nothingness that surrounds them can compete, especially since they invariably will accidentally hit something, causing a beat to be heard, after which they have to disqualify themselves.
Arguably, air guitarists inhabit the music that they don’t make with more authority and downright chutzpah than the millions of professional knob twiddlers and shoegazers actually processing sound from their very real guitars. People unsure of what world famous orchestra conductors like Mantovani and Arthur Fiedler actually did to draw a paycheck may be shocked to find that they were little more than air guitarists with a baton, a channeler of music, music that could have just as easily taken place without their visual input. But at least the air guitarists have a self-deprecating sense of humor about what they do when they aren’t doing it, But once the illusory guitar strap crosses their shoulder, they take this competition very seriously indeed.
The 2006 documentary Air Guitar Nation chronicled the start of a U.S. Air Guitar Championship, since, before that, most of the winners tended to be from Finland and Japan. Anyone wondering why the United States has lagged behind need only look to where the really potent heavy metal has come from in recent years, hint: It’s not the country with red and blue states and a cheesy chair farmer past to live down.
"America doesn’t lag really behind in this field; it’s merely misunderstood" says current U.S. champ Craig "Hot Lixx Hulahan" Billmeier, who favors a giant sombrero and Mexicali outfit for his simulated flamenco routine that breaks into Metallica’s "The Shortest Straw." "My favorite routines are the ones who shy away from the standard hair metal genre that most air guitarists seem to select. Classical, techno, the theme to Flashdance … Those actually require some creativity, diversity, and, most of all, a complete lack of shame."
You could argue that most of the world is populated by frustrated air guitarists and that even singers like Joe Cocker, Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury who were required to spend a lot of time onstage not singing started air guitaring with their gut or mike stand because no one except maybe Davy Jones wants to bang a tambourine simply to feel useful.
Nevertheless, Billmeier refuses to buy into a theory that singers invented air guitar. "My friend’s two year-old daughter air guitars every time the Ramones come on," he says matter-of-factly. "That is not taught or learned. It is a natural tendency."
A real musician who once played in a Guns ’N Roses cover band, Billmeier’s earlier non-competitive air guitar career incorporated Nikki Sixx moves and Tommy Lee facial expressions. "Most competitors aren’t skilled enough to emulate any one person so we usually spaz out in whatever ways seem natural," he says. "Hopefully, this comes across as ‘unique,’ if not ‘ridiculous’."
In the U.S. Air Guitar finals, judges use the same 4.0 to 6.0 score system as in figure skating. There are 3 categories on which air guitarists are assessed:
• Technical merit — or how close the air
guitarist looks like he’s simulating real guitar
playing as opposed to tickling a giant iguana;
• Presence — how much you can simulate
a rock star, stopping short of throwing a chair
and chewing out a road manager;
• Airness — that indefinable je ne sais quoi
that makes the performance look like more
than just pickin’ and grinnin’.
One of Billmeier’s best moves — and one that best captures that "airness" that judges are looking for — is during his set routine to "Live to Fight Another Day" by the High Speed Scene, during which he tosses and makes his air guitar actually become airborne above his head before catching it on a downstroke chord.
So why isn’t there a category for guitar hero facial glowers such as the "My face is being sucked by a vacuum cleaner" look? Or the heavy rockin’ "I’m dropping a load in my pants" look? Or the best "I’m going to mime every note I play while I bobblehead" look? Or even the "I’m backing into a cold doorknob naked" look?
"Well, while a good, powerful, emotive, pained facial expression might not boost Technical Merit scores," Billmeiser says, "it does weigh heavily in both the Stage Presence and Airness assessments."
Having just watched Ochi "Dainoji" Yosuke, the current world champ for the past two years, on YouTube, I can’t believe we don’t have someone who can whip up some baddass air and beat this guy. And since the U.S. Air Guitar Championship is open to the public and anyone can qualify, even you, cherished reader, could be a windmill chord or two away from adding "Air Guitarist Champ" to your resume. And if the gods are with you, this will lead you to Oulu, Finland, to reclaim the all-American first place honor that David "C-Diddy" Jung was awarded in 2003. After all, if you want to be revisionist about it, Tom Cruise stripped down to his briefs put air guitar on the map for a lot of Gen Xers and by birthright, that honor should be ours. And that future champ should hail from Detroit, which, of course, is where that wretched Bob Seger song originated,
Billmeier would rather talk about that other wretched Bob Seger song, though: "Speaking of Bob Seger, did you ever notice how enhanced the song becomes when you change the words from "Like a rock" to the obvious "Like a cock"? "Like a cock/standing arrow straight/Like a cock/charging from the gate/Like a cock/hard against the wind …"
Spoken like a true easily distracted rock star!
The Sixth Annual U.S. Air Guitar Championships take place Sunday, June 8, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030.
Serene Dominic writes about music, often satirically, for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.