A Retrospective Glance at 2014 Research

I haven’t updated this research blog in a bit, although air guitar has been firmly on my mind and agenda. After a generative summer on air guitar last year, I spent the following semesters applying for more research grants and working on publications and presentations.

Specifically, I worked on two projects: one that connects contemporary air guitar competitions to the long history of air guitar and air playing in the United States; another that thinks about the relationship between audio editing in air guitar and the manipulation of the imaginary guitar on stage. Here are two abstracts that represent these trajectories. These abstracts continue to evolve as I do more research, but they lay bare some of the main ideas/themes.

Here’s a draft of an abstract for the project that deals with the audio editing/guitar manipulation aspect:

Each year, hundreds of air guitarists and thousands of spectators attend local, regional, national, and international air guitar competitions. During one-minute competition routines, air guitarists not only simulate the picking and strumming of a “real” guitar, but they also stage theatrical and comic performances, in which they throw, swallow, digest, and regurgitate their virtual guitars. Before appearing onstage, air guitarists use audio-editing software to isolate guitar solos, add sound effects, and combine various clips to construct a narrative arc for individual performances. These remix techniques offstage facilitate the manipulation of the virtual guitar onstage, ultimately turning popular music into a controlled substance that may be conjured and consumed in front of a live audience. Rather than viewing competitions as evidence of the interpretive power of popular music consumers, I argue power differentials emerge, where identity, sensibility, and acquired skills determine types and degrees of participation possible for practitioners. Based on fieldwork at local, regional, and national competitions in the U.S. and the international competition in Finland, my research explores two questions: How do air guitarists perform media consumption and configurability? If air guitar competitions reveal the way popular music consumers actively alter and represent popular music, then how do power differentials within the community reflect different interpretive possibilities for different individuals?

And here’s a draft of an abstract for the historical aspect:

In the 1980s, people began to use the term “air guitar” to describe a new set of gestures that rock, heavy metal, and punk fans performed in imitation of their music idols. Rather than viewing air guitar as a novel byproduct of certain music genres, I argue it emerged from longstanding performance practices in the United States that featured imaginary instrument playing. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, simulations of instruments and sound-producing gestures commonly appeared in minstrelsy, ventriloquism shows, hypnotism demonstrations, and musical pantomimes. From racialized subjects at hypnotist shows who played “air banjo” to Fred Astaire’s air conducting to Joe Cocker’s air guitar performance at Woodstock, air playing has been an important facet of performance in the United States, and the continuation of these traditions may be seen in the rising popularity of contemporary air guitar competitions. Despite passing references to air guitar in rock genre studies and research on contemporary competitions, important historical questions remain unanswered: Why did “air guitar” emerge in the 1980s? Why did “air playing” organize around the guitar specifically? What are the cultural precedents of “air guitar”? My archival research reveals how historical practices put forth powerful arguments about music’s potential to affect, animate, and overpower the body. I demonstrate how these ideas facilitated notions of air guitar as pathology and fandom—as a symptom of music’s capacity to control the body and as a way for individuals to construct a relationship between their bodies and the sources of musical sounds.

Of course, these two abstracts are two of many approaches I hope to take to air guitar.

I should also add that, in addition to these academic projects, air guitar research has been part of my life most prominently in the form of explaining to people what air guitar is. At random social events, I find myself constantly explaining air guitar competitions, and I’ve gotten pretty good at distilling air guitar into a few sentences: “Air guitar is basically a performance art competition in which people edit popular music and choreograph routines to the music that simulate the gestures need to play a ‘real’ guitar. They’re judged less on their ability to simulate the exact gestures of the electric guitar and more on their ability to offer humorous, ironic, and sincere representations of the theatricality of guitar playing.” These explanations are always followed with the line: “You’ve just got to YouTube it.”

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