Air Guitar and a Social Model of Disability

Picture a normal air guitarist’s body. Picture it from top to bottom. Picture it from all angles. What did you picture?

Now, think of how this exercise requires you to draw all kinds of assumptions about the “normal” body—about race, gender, bodily proportions, weight, height, hair length, fingernail style, and maybe even clothes (unless your body was naked). The idea of a “normal” body is, in many ways, a construct. When we compare “abnormal” bodies to “normal” ones, we essentially construct some kind of idealized standard, against which deviant bodies are judged.

This idea factors into two competing models of disability. A medical model of disability treats the body as biological system with a proper function, and, when certain bodies fail to perform that function, these bodies are seen as “disabled” or deviant from a norm. But, as a proponent of a social model of disability would argue, we should be careful to blindly support ideas about what a body’s “proper function” should be. To argue that the body has a proper function serves to place value judgments on bodies. The social model of disability shows how these ideas are constructed socially—how notions of disability rely on certain ideas about the body and its normative functions. For example, Ellen Samuels, in Fantasies of Identification, describes a social model of disability in the U.S., in which racialized, gendered, and disabled bodies have been constructed as essentialized categories that deviate from “normal” bodies—this is part of the “fantasy” she attempts to deconstruct.

Now, picture a normal air guitarist (just kidding).

However, I do think it’s useful to consider the kinds of concepts about the body that air guitar puts forth. In many ways, some air guitar performances seem to valorize the male body, specifically at the level of the biceps, the chest, and the male anatomy. Think of the way Thunder Stroock kisses his biceps during a performance and rips his shirt off to show his chest. Think of the way performers put prosthetic penises in their pants to accentuate male sexuality. The exaggerated female body also appears on stage. For example, at the Dark Horse Competition in Oulu, a local woman performed with gigantic fake breasts. At the same competition, Moredrive also performed in all pink with his sexualized booty shaking.

Now, all of these performances certainly present ironic stances towards these bodily archetypes. In many ways, they demonstrate how actual bodies always fall short of some normative ideal. But do they idealize these normative constructions? Or do they show that the normative bodies are actually false idols—problematic value judgments thrust upon actual bodies?

I think it may be useful to approach these questions from a different angle—that of non-normative bodies of actual performers. Justin/Nordic Thunder mentioned to me that he has experienced two semi-serious injuries during his air guitar career, and, despite his love for the sport, continuing to play air guitar frequently pains his body. Eric Melin told me that head banging sometimes gives him a headache. There is also the famous example of Bettie B. Goode who had to amputate a toe that she injured during an air guitar performance. These injuries point to the fact that air guitar often demands that the injured actual body must, at times, represent an idealization of itself. In other words, in performance, the pain-ridden body approximates a more ideal version of itself—a version of itself that is liberated from pain and discomfort. The free and full motion of the air guitar on stage allows the body to leave the actual world and enter a realm of virtuality, in which it can renegotiate the physical conditions and boundaries of its own existence.

We might also consider the fact that hangovers and excessive drinking factor prominently into air guitar practice, both of which frequently bring a mix of pleasure and pain to the body during and after performances. The use of air drugs (I’ve seen air heroin and air cocaine) on the stage also takes a lack of sobriety to a higher performative extreme. There is a sense in which the stage offers a liminal space (in Victor Turner’s formulation) to transcend materiality of the body and “air drugs” augment the extent to which reality may be transcended. The emphasis on what the body is becomes displaced by the notion of what the body can conjure.

Thus, a social model of disability allows us to challenge the notion of a “normal” body, making the oppositional category of “abnormal bodies” also a fiction. We can accept that these normative conceptions of the body have real effects in the world that can be extremely harmful, both physically and psychologically. At the same time, we can challenge normative conceptions through exposing their fabrication.

The question, for me, remains: Does air guitar challenge the notion of the normal body, by showing that no one can achieve it? Or, by masking over injuries, does air guitar reinforce the supremacy of the normal body?

I think we begin to answer this question by returning the heart of the matter: the air guitar. Air guitar challenges the material boundaries of the body (think: Mr. Mean Melin impaling himself with the guitar), in a way that subverts the idea of the body as a “contained corporeality”—a made up term that I am using to describe the notion of the body as reducible to its material reality and contained within a certain physical structure. The body, of course, is never fully contained; it is always in contact with things outside of itself. Air guitar re-routes sounds that come from speakers and moves them through the body, with the use of an imaginary guitar. Such a process challenges the ontological status of the body as fixed or static. Rather, it demonstrates the body as performance, as becoming, as process. In doing so, it throws into question the “normal” as categorically fixed, because the body becomes something that is becoming. It is in a constant state of self-construction.

Certainly, there are normative and non-normative modes of becoming, but, to a degree, an epistemology of becoming is itself non-normative, since we tend to think of bodies as things fixed in time. To authorize a certain perspective on the body as actively constructing its own boundaries is itself a challenge to ideas of normalcy and disability.

Try, for example, to picture a normal body. Now, picture an abnormal body becoming normal–the latter being the confounding task that air guitar asks us to perform.


One thought on “Air Guitar and a Social Model of Disability

  1. This is fascinating stuff. In a previous post, you meditate on the gendered dimensions of air guitar, but perhaps you could braid your analysis of the air guitar as phallic and masturbatory with your discussion of disability here. As you note, our normative understandings of ablebodiedness determine how the “ideal” air guitar performer looks, but how do these conceptions interact with our gendered expectations for air guitarists? Moreover, how does the air “ax” itself serve to shore up a performer’s masculinity and its sexual trappings — i.e., his virility, endurance, and “length” — while also shoring up his ablebodiedness? Finally, how do bodily performance and musical content diverge or overlap in these discussions? That is, it stands to reason that a majority (or at least a solid number) of songs chosen and performed by air guitarists deal with heterosexual intercourse, love, or heartbreak. How does lyrical content, then, reify ablebodiedness, heteronormativity, and gender normativity? Do these musical numbers celebrate the female form, the male body, the heterosexual act, etc., and how do performers enact this content?

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