Hot Air

Andrew Hultkrans on air guitar

New York

Left: Waltham. Right: An air guitar contestant named Ambrose. (Photos: Katharina Drechsler)

Having witnessed the spaz bacchanal of New York’s regional Air Guitar Championship, I’d like to see a statistical graph of the relative fortunes of performance art and air guitar. My hunch is that factor analysis would reveal a strong negative correlation between the two. That is, as performance art declined into masturbatory irrelevance in the 1980s and ’90s, air guitar—a far more honest type of masturbatory irrelevance—rose like David Lee Roth in midair split. Take the politics out of performance art, after all, and you’re left with untrammeled histrionics, potential nudity, and indiscriminate fluids (bodily or otherwise)—and you can get all that from an air guitar competition.

In the music world, too, the constellations are aligning for air guitar. During the ’90s, the twin legacies of This Is Spinal Tap and postmodern irony took the cock out of rock and soured a generation on spandex, hairspray, and virtuosity, resulting in low-wattage bands like Pavement. Now a younger cohort, epitomized by The Darkness, have once again taken up the hammer of the gods. Check your irony at the door, they say: We’ve come to RAWK.

Perhaps this explains the lack of smirking Williamsburg hipsters in the packed, All-American audience, which radiates animal hunger and barely suppressed violence. Any pet delusions that Spinal Tap still holds cultural sway over kids these days are demolished by the opening (real) band, Waltham, and their metalloid, internally lit logo—a giant W with WALTHAM emblazoned across it in a font straight outta Albert Speer’s Haus of Dasein. Now this may not seem funny to you, but anyone who’s ever lived in the Boston area in the past twenty years will recall the name of the nondescript Massachusetts town and the incessant radio ad that made it infamous: “Jordan’s Furnitchah Wal-tham. . . left on Spitbrook, right on Daniel Webstah.” My cocktail blasts through my nose as the band kicks into their utterly sincere blend of Journey and Blink 182. Their second song is called “Fast Times at Waltham High,” and I wonder if I’m going to survive the evening with my wits and bladder intact.

Left and right: Unidentified contestants. Middle: Bjorn to Rock, contest winner.

Post-Waltham, the emcee introduces the judges (a Ben Folds tour veteran, a guy from a band called Satanicide, and two former air-guitar champs) and reads the rules. First round: sixty seconds of a contestant-chosen song. Second round: the same amount of a judge-picked song, ostensibly new to the contestants. The judging criteria are technical merit (convincing fretwork), stage presence, and “airness” (transcending simulation). The winner will be flown to Los Angeles for the US finals; the US winner will travel to the World Finals in, er, Finland.

The first-round contestants, around twenty of them, are a mixed bag: A vegan metalhead; a fellow named Assquatch who’s clearly never held a guitar; a tattooed bruiser with a T-shirt reading “I Fuck Like a Beast”; and a Shea Stadium hot-dog hocker who mimes to AC/DC, his bald pate sporting glued-on devil horns, one of which immediately, hilariously, falls off; etc. Most fail miserably, their musical selections predictable (Metallica, Ozzy, Van Halen), their pseudo-shredding no better than a fratboy’s.

Things pick up when the five finalists take the stage. These are: Face Melter, Shreddosaurus Rex, Bjorn to Rock, Jammin’ Jaybones, and a Bozo-haired geek named Ambrose, a professional clown in a gaudily feathered glam-rock outfit. The mystery music segment is played for the finalists, and they take their stab at improvised air glory. Face Melter, a tall, heavy-set oaf, miffs his chance, and last year’s world champ, a tiny Japanese woman, rewards him with a penis sketch on her judge’s scorecard. Leaving the stage, he blurts “Fuck YOU, Sonyk-Rok!”—a sign of internecine squabbles in the air-guitar community. Shreddosaurus Rex, a short, packed metalhead in an Anthrax T-shirt, apparently knows the tune, executing a perfect “1-2-3-4” countdown in the one-measure pause in the music. This doesn’t help him with the crowd, though, which boos him with an intensity usually reserved for pro wrestling villains. Ambrose the clown is masterful in every way and is my personal pick for the LA finals, but he comes in a close second to Bjorn to Rock, a fresh-faced lad in an Evel Knievel-inspired get-up, who himself has come in second four years running. If he trumps the US competition, Bjorn will have to face real Scandinavians in the World Finals. Given the region’s land-speed-record-breaking Black Metal, my money’s on the Scandos.