Air Guitar

On Christmas Day I had the chance to play Guitar Hero on a Wii system. It was a Christmas gift to my nephew or my brother-in-law, it’s not really clear which.  On one level, the game makes perfect sense. But on another, there’s something unsettling about it as well. Interpreting the experience of performing in a rock band for a video game seems completely natural. The audience demographic for video games and guitarist music is pretty much the same, and sooner or later someone was going to fuse the narcissistic fantasies of rock stardom and video games.

And yet Guitar Hero is yet another example of a collective experience rendered virtual. To put it in Benjaminian terms, the game turns erfahrung into erlebnis; it turns a contingent and transmissible experience into a repetitive and closed-ended one. A crucial part of being a guitar hero is creating music, not just aping other musicians, and the experience of being a rock star is exactly what’s being conveyed in a rock song. In other words, the subtext of every rock song is rock stardom itself. Even the game’s performance scenario isn’t all it appears to be. You must satisfy the demands of an inscrutable other–a crowd of dancing zombies–and play a repertoire that has more to do with corporate license agreements than drugs, sex and rock and roll. On stage with your anonymous band mates, you are alone within a group. In this sense Guitar Hero is a lot like work.

Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, the hosts of Sound Opinions, recently denounced the game, asserting that parents would be better off giving their children real guitars. Kot and De DeRogatis have a point: by the time one masters all levels of the game one could be a serviceable rhythm guitarist in a respectable garage band. In fact, I’ve avoided game counsels partly because the skills they cultivate seem like a developmental dead end. It’s possible, though, that Guitar Hero may be an exception. Others, like Slate contributor Joel Johnson,  have countered that Guitar Hero opens the door for a revival of amateur musicianship, which, in turn, will make better music fans and, eventually, higher quality music for all. This claim isn’t as absurd or exaggerated as it may first appear. Guitar Hero doesn’t teach notation or time schemes, but the basic concepts are present.

Playing Guitar Hero isn’t without its frustrations, but it does force one to listen to music like a musician. The level one songs–the only ones the game let us play–are guitarist anthems of surprising complexity. Even a primitive thumper like Fog Hat’s "Slow Ride" has tricky passages. Heart’s gimmicky "Barracuda" has those churning power cords, of course, but also some off-tempo runs in the bridges. Most intriguing are the practice screens in which each song is broken down into its component parts, revealing much more intricate structures than the verse/chorus alternation that’s usually sufficient to guide a listening experience of a rock song. If the mysteries of "Slow Ride" can be uncovered by a video game, then maybe there’s hope for guitarist music after all.

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