Gender and U.S. Air Guitar: Initial Thoughts

A friend recently brought to my attention that I have failed to grapple with gender and air guitar, and I now realize that, despite thinking quite often about gender, I have failed to really articulate my thoughts on this blog. So, I might begin with a little exchange from the U.S. National Air Guitar Competition.

Nordic Thunder: You know it’s easy for women—it’s not easy… I gotta be careful how I say this. Hold on a second. It’s easy for women in air guitar to rely solely on the fact that they’re a woman and they have parts of their bodies that other people find arousing. Don’t boo me! Let me finish… It’s easy for women to rely solely on their sex. It’s ok to use that, but you also have to some talent and skill to go with that. But when you combine the two, that’s pretty fuckin’ awesome.

Later on:

Rocky Rhoads: Nordic, before you talk, are you going to talk shit about other lady air guitarists first? Some of us just happen to be sexy by nature. You got your fuckin’ dick flapping out everywhere. Don’t talk shit about ladies.

Nordic Thunder: First of all, you… I want to clear the air real quick. I’m being completely 100% serious. I wasn’t saying anything bad about women. What I don’t like is when a woman uses only the fact that she’s a fuckin woman and tries to be sexy and that’s it.

Rocky Rhoads: Too bad. If a woman gets up there, we’re a woman. Quit talkin’ shit.

Nordic Thunder: I’m going to use Gairy as an example. There’s an air guitarist in this crowd tonight named Gairy who competed in New York City. And she got shit from the judges. They were like “you’re sexy you’re this you’re that…” Hold on don’t talk yet. You don’t get to fuckin’ speak until I’m done. I have the microphone. No Yes I’m pissed right now. Gairy was insulted by the fact that the judges were commenting noting on the fact that she was just a woman. So, she had to dress up as a man to show her air guitar skills. And it shouldn’t be that way…

Here’s what I take Nordic to be saying:  He seems to be illuminating a fundamental difference between the ways that women on stage are judged, as compared to their male counterparts. In addition, he seems to be saying that using sex appeal can both be a way of circumnavigating other judging criteria, in ways unfair to men who cannot rely on sex appeal. Yet he also seems to indicate a double standard, in which women are judged unfairly simply for being women—their bodies are sexualized simply by being on stage (hence: Gairy).

Here’s what I take Rocky Roads to be saying: She seems to be saying that highlighting the fact that a contestant is a woman can be inherently problematic: that people could make a distinction between “air guitarists” and “female air guitarists” (when people rarely refer to “male air guitarists”). I imagine she’s also responding to a longer history of the male gaze upon air guitarists–one that sexualizes, exoticizes, and feminizes the female body in ways that normalize the male body as the standard by which the female body has been judged.

This exchange cuts at the core of a classic feminist debate: Does declaring womanhood help organize and acknowledge the double standard operating on stage? Or does highlighting womanhood serve to reify gendered power imbalances on stage? I think it’s also crucial to note that this took place with three male judges and a male MC exchanging with one woman on stage.

Of course, gendered differences in real life are also (re-)constructed on stage. Just like Doug performs a kind of white masculinity (more on this later) through ripping his shirt and flexing his muscles, so, too, does Gairy perform a kind of white masculinity–yet the stakes and approaches are quite different.

As Judith Butler wrote (in Bodies That Matter, for example), gender is iterative and unstable—it’s something we perform repeatedly to make it appear natural and innate, although it is not. This is evident when we compare normative ideas of transgender individuals to those about cisgender men—one group is presumed to perform identity and the other is presumed to have inherited a “natural” disposition. Yet, Butler would argue, both are equally constructing their own gender identities through repetition and subconscious and conscious construction.

Butler’s writing on drag shows can also speak to air guitar. She wrote in “Gender is Burning” that drag shows can do one of two things: they can challenge existing gender norms through playing with ambiguity and categories on stage, or they can reaffirm and idealize gender categories by showing some people’s inability to “cross over” from their “natural” categories. We have conservative and subversive drag, and we have the same for air guitar. There can be air guitar performances that simply offer a liminal space of exploration and then reaffirm gender in the “real world.” Or there can be performances that reconstitute gender relations that actually carry over into the real world. I think it’s always a mix of the two.

Now, I think gender in air guitar is certainly haunted by some of the same issues the plague “there guitar” practices (good books: Instruments of Desire, Running with the Devil, and Laurin’s article “The Boy is a Girl is a Boy” on air guitar!). Rock has always crowded out women, and many rock and punk groups have actively sought to challenge patriarchal rock traditions (like riot grrrl, for example).

“There guitar” has a complicated history, but one can see the “there guitar” history manifesting with the gestural dimensions of air guitar, which almost make the practice look, at times, masturbatory and symbolically phallic. Also, in “there” practices, women have also historically been relegated to the status of dancers, with men reserving for themselves the title of real instrumentalists. Since air guitar lies at this intersection between dance and instrumentation, it becomes extremely potent symbol of these various ideas. And certainly many air guitarists are actively fighting against these conventions.

So, where do we go from here? Postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak theorized the notion of “strategic essentialism,” which refers to the way in which groups of people might essentialize themselves—or claim that they have unchanging and consistent qualities—in order to make certain gains. This is why we might challenge the notion of “woman” (as Butler is wont to do) and also believe in women’s rights (a way of organizing and understanding power imbalances to achieve specific political gains).

The Nordic Rhodes Exchange of 2014 highlights two fundamental approaches to strategic essentialism (of course, there are more approaches than just two). One approach might seek to carve out agency for women as an identity category within air guitar. These individuals might actively draw upon and subvert hegemonic masculine ideals through playing with them and redefining what women air guitarists can/should be. The other approach might seek to avoid talk of gender altogether—to equalize the playing field by refusing to mark certain performers as “women” or “people with certain body parts.” I see the adoption of both approaches in air guitar practice, and I will be fascinated to see how the normative gender conventions change over time (if, in fact, they do).

Anyway, I would love to hear your perspectives on this—agreements, disagreements, outrage, or indifference. Please get in touch (byrd@brown.edu) or post on here if you want to talk.

(Also, thanks Marquina for helping stoke some of these ideas. Also, I just found this from Camille, which is great.)

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6 thoughts on “Gender and U.S. Air Guitar: Initial Thoughts

  1. You have crap judges(mostly male) who subjectively judge while being drunk, and encouraged to get drunk to make the experience better. Drunk male human beings are usually awful, think about the parking lot before and after a NFL game. And how they come up with these judges is beyond me, but they usually suck. A former world champion judges all the big events in the States, but he has his favorites and friends in my opinion. Nobody is above being a human being with subjectivity involved. This whole thing is based off of figure skating type scoring, we all know how that usually goes. You may have judges with air guitar experience or in the circuit, but they are usually friends with some contestants, and not others, and the conflict of interest becomes apparent quick. There are huge gender inequality issues in our society and world, that bleeds through even in this competition. Air guitarists want you to believe they are different, they are not. The biggest problem, the people who run the competition don’t care anymore. It is a small summer paycheck-weekend getaway while they watch the monkey’s do a dance for them. The worst is when they have the Dark Horse at a gay bar every year. The competition staff where outfits, and act in a way, that just mock the lifestyle. In my opinion. There used to be like 30 countries involved in this, there are like 13 now. The American competition has turned into an even bigger cluster@#$%. Air guitar rules, this competition, meh. In my opinion.

  2. I am a woman who has been judged as well as been a judge in air guitar competitions. Having accidentally fallen into the air guitar world I have thoroughly enjoyed challenging myself creatively and meeting some of the most wonderful and surprising characters I never would have met if it wasn’t for this crazy pastime. Judging an air guitar competition is completely subjective, sometimes a judge just likes what they like and there can not be any real science or concrete fact or even an adherence to the supposed guidelines behind their decision. I have judged people that I know and consider friends and I personally do not play favorites as far as who I have had drinks or social intercourse with AND I do not believe I am the only one who does this, it sucks to give somebody you know an unfavorable score but to be a proper judge one must try to insure that the best candidates to represent the U.S. move forward and onto the next level. I do believe that when selecting judges for an air guitar competition said judges should take their job seriously and it is the job of the people putting on the competition to nail this point home. Regarding gender issues, I think people need to look at themselves and maybe think outside the boxes that they may have been living in and stop being so biased based on what they are comfortable with.

    1. Kara, “Intercourse” is an unfortunate typo, but I take your point! I think a lot of judging in various kinds of competitions–from American Idol to figure skating to music criticism–often rely on various levels of abstraction and ambiguity. The judging seems to be one of the arenas in which differing ideas about air guitar plays out. We saw this in this year’s World Championships, in which the winner performed nearly the same routine three times and the guitar became an auxiliary appendage to a kind of dance routine. Is this air guitar? I know some of the judges with whom I spoke felt conflicted about scoring Seven Seas, since her impressive acrobats challenged the parameters of what might count as air guitar. In offering these scores, I think the judges authorize a certain idea of air guitar–they kind of make subconscious decision about what air guitar should or should not be, and the judging criteria, in many cases, become resources for justifying these subconscious decisions.

      Dr. Feelbad, I didn’t get to attend this year’s Dark Horse, but I do think there can be sensitive issues regarding who and when people can play with identity. Playing with identity, in many ways, can be a privilege of those who feel secure in their daily identity. And I do think that gender inequality permeates all aspects of our culture, but I think it’s a little too hasty to assume air guitar simply mirrors gender inequality elsewhere. One might at least point out that air guitar seems to be very much about gender in many ways–from the fake penises in people’s pants to these explicit debates to cross dressing to someone like Moredrive’s flamboyant masculinity. All of these things at least seem to address gender outwardly, and I think, generally speaking, many gender inequalities in real life persist as a result of gender being unstated or assumed to be natural. Yet I’m not sure what the net effect of these gendered ideas in air guitar are, and I think you and Kara are both right that judging seems to be one arena in which this plays out.

  3. What an important (and ongoing) discussion this is. I’m so glad to see that Byrd took time to recognize this issue in his study of our subculture. Here’s my particular take on the issue…

    I’ve been participating in the US Air Guitar circuit since 2009. First acting as a male character, Dyin’ Cletus, and now as a female foil, Diane Cletus. The issue of gender wasn’t what led me to change characters, but since I have, it has been an eye-opening experience for me, on and off the stage.

    As a male performer, I found it took a lot of concentration and creativity to make myself stand out from the pack. There is virtually no limit to the array of ‘schtick’ you can take an air guitar performance, but finding one that is both unique and high-quality enough to win over judges–while staying true to your own ambitions–takes some real consideration on the performer’s part. This is true of all air guitarists. Or at least the ones who who want to win. After several years of circling my own tail creatively and competitively, I decided to mix things up and don a female persona.

    Enter Diane’s debut at the 2012 Rocky Mountain regional. This was an unveiling that I’d kept relatively quiet amongst my competitors, partially as I was nervous about how the new character would go over. In my head, I figured I would get a chance to practice in the night’s first competition (the Regional showcase), then hopefully fare better in the Dark Horse immediately following. I did not have high expectations for my first night as a woman. Side note: air guitarists, in my experience, are pros at over-analyzing every element of their performance! It’s so easy to psyche yourself up and, somewhere along the line, psyche yourself OUT of success. This was my mindset before I stepped onstage that night, and many since then.

    Drawing the short straw to go first that night, I pounded my tall boy, took the stage, and let Diane do her thing. The minute that followed was rapturous; it was the first time that I felt truly at home on the air guitar stage and the audience response was overwhelming. When the judges, one our USAG co-comissioner and two of them fellow airtists who I admire greatly, gave their feedback and scores, I was taken aback by the positive feedback, largely unrelated to my new character. As I hugged MC Hulahan and took my exit, I felt both encouraged by my peers and excited by a possible first place win, my first-ever.

    Thanks to some Motorhead and a Dukes of Hazard g-string, the night’s trophy was indeed Diane’s. But even as we celebrated, and I searched the floor for my Confederate bikini top, immediately my mind went to how audiences would respond to her at the National championship two days later. Would the bigger crowd ‘get’ the character? Would judges who don’t know me be more critical of my gender-bending schtick? What if I didn’t find that bikini on which my feminine mystique depended? My confidence began to deflate like the air from my inflatable bosoms.

    Two days later, I’m still coming to terms with this quandry. I’d taken on this female character just for fun, initially, but Diane did much better than her brother ever had. Would tonight’s Nationals debut be as received? I worried. I rarely get stagefright before an air guitar show, but as my friend Robin helped me apply my lashes at the Bluebird Theater that night, I’ll admit I had more than butterflies in my stomach.

    When the time came to take the stage, I strut my stuff out onto the big stage and tried to channel the mojo that made the previous competition so magical. After a flirty start, I fumbled a few queues and struggled to maintain my composure. I had fun, but I didn’t deserve to place and knew it well before my 60 seconds were up. But what happened next was even more jarring: all three judges’ feedback focused solely on my character. Some ‘complimentary’ (one judge indicated he wanted to spend the night with Diane) and some less-so (my friend and air guitar mentor was aghast at my deliberately over-the-top ‘trailor trash’ outfit and makeup and handed me one of the lowest scores of my caireer). I wasn’t expecting my critique to be so…superficial. And while I’ve left the stage empty-handed before, this was my first taste of being judged not for my air guitar, but for my T&A.

    The blunt fact is, women and men are judged by a different rubric in air guitar, as in many areas of life. My personal experience with it has ranged from directly advantageous and downright insulting, which I imagine is not unlike most women’s experience when it comes to being judged on your appearance. If you happen to be what the judges–usually male–are looking for, then more power to you. You lucked out. But if not? Then that ceiling just got a little bit higher. It took me adopting a female persona to understand how much of a man’s world the insular community of air guitar really can be, particularly when judging is involved. To quote the hardest working man in show business, this is a man’s world…but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl.

    It’s worth pointing out that among my friends and peers, the response to Diane has been strictly supportive. Especially from the ladies! Reactions have ranged from laugh-out-loud riots to tongue-in-cheek ‘one of the girls’ innuendo to, erm, ‘unexpected’ sexual advances, but it’s all in good fun from where I’m standing. Backstage and in the audience, I’m at home with my friends, and the air guitar community is one that I am so proud to be a part of. It’s a point of pride that air guitar is one of the most accepting, good-natured families I’ve ever been among. At the risk of sounding ‘all Nordic’, I love my air guitar brothers and sisters. Or in Diane’s lexicon, ya’ll are true kin.

    But the problem remains: on the stage, it’s a different story. The stage isn’t level. Judges have the difficult task of meting out highly subjective scores and applying entertaining banter to a paying crowd. I’ve done it twice myself (both times as the only ‘female’ judge on the panel) and, honey, it ain’t as easy as it looks. In the incident quoted at the beginning of this article, I do believe that my friend Justin (Nordic Thunder) did accidentally put his foot in his mouth by trying to identify but then decry the double standard that exists in air guitar judging. Trust me, bungling your words is very easy to do with a microphone in front of you. I agree with Byrd’s assertion that Nordic was genuinely trying to clear the air and his meaning got lost along the way.

    But that being said, I think if our little sideshow expects to maintain some semblance of impartiality when it comes to judging, we need a few changes. Why aren’t there more female judges on panel? Or emcees, for that matter? My wife, who has also competed in air guitar (as a male character, Scott Baculum) asks this all the time, and I never have a good answer for her. Maybe it’s time to make a diverse panel a regular practice, if only to encourage male judges in check with the derogative comments to themselves.

    At the same time, the double standard isn’t as cut and dried as it is made out to be. For example, why are judges’ comments about male bodies laughed off or dismissed off-hand while those regarding female competitors are given the spotlight? Air guitarists, like regular people, come in all shapes and sizes. Come to think of it, why are judges so swept up in our bodytypes at all? Though we may be made of air on the inside, some competitors are not as thick-skinned as we would like to think. If you prick us, do we not deflate? If you judge us unfairly, do we not revenge?

    In summation, the air guitar world can be a fickle one. It’s subject to the same prejudices of race, gender, age and culture as the rest of our society. But that shouldn’t serve as an excuse to gloss over one of our faults, especially one so readily identified as problematic by members of all stripes. I love being a part of the air guitar family for many reasons. Chief among them is that, as I stated, it truly has an inclusive, familial feel. The sense of belonging is palpable and easily the main reason I’ve stayed a part of this community for this long. Trust me, it ain’t the high scores and cash prizes. But what unites that family is the sense of fun and creative expression that is unique to our art. It’s center stage in air guitar. And to paraphrase the reverend King himself, bad air anywhere is a threat to airness everywhere. It’s a discussion worth having and a solution worth finding.

  4. Thank you very much for this well thought and written blog. I am posting here with one simple truth. The competitor who has won the American title every year has completely deserved it and represented our country very well.
    What has put them over the top every time? Amazing technical skills (whether perceived ir actual), well defined personas and that special airness we all strive for, but few ever obtain. None of those reasons included gender. Craft your character and tell a story that captivates us all. Seven seas did so with the most creative and best first round of the year. Get back to the lab and make 2015 the most innovative ever and i doubt this topic gets nary a mention.

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