The New York Times officially recognized the Air Guitar World Championships in its “Weekend Briefing” column, adding to the countless times the Times has mentioned air guitar competitions in the past 35 years. One always wonders: Is visibility increasing? Will air guitar competitions finally break into the mainstream? Or do brief references to air guitar only sustain its marginal status, since these stories typically fail to feature in-depth reporting and rather use air guitar as a pick-me-up story among depressing headlines?
The sustainability of certain air guitar organizations might change, but it appears quite obvious that the gestural interpretation of popular music will be here to stay for the foreseeable future. For example, I could imagine air guitar competitions undergoing a history similar to that of breakdancing, which is also a way of gesturally interpreting music in social contexts. Just as breakdancing has become institutionalized and formalized (with certain famous performances canonized), air guitar might also be developing its own history and institutionalization (perhaps due, in part, to people like me).
Some might feel inclined to cling to a declension narrative of air guitar competitions–one that insists that the once wild air guitar competitions have become corporatized and streamlined in a way that removes authenticity or wildness from the competitions. This argument goes something like: Air guitar has increasingly become more mainstream, which has resulted in it losing its original essence. Once we develop a history of air guitar, it becomes history. However, air guitar competitions have always had corporate sponsors (and many of the same ones) throughout their history.
Perhaps more importantly, a challenge to the declension narrative might also recognize the role of historicization in sustaining community. I say “historicization” and not “history,” because I want to highlight the act of making history. For example, this year’s competition featured Zac Monro, a famous name from past Air Guitar World Championships who returned to the world stage to the surprise of many. The competition festivities also featured a film session, in which three world champions (Nordic Thunder, Mean Melin, and Devil’s Niece) presented classic air guitar performances in competition history. The three also discussed competition routines that touched nerves in the community, by challenging certain conventions. People raised questions like: If air guitar and rock ‘n’ roll are fundamentally about sexuality, what happens when a person disguised as a robot performs air guitar?
Historicization serves to organize the present, primarily by organizing events in the past in a way that gives the status quo coherence. And this historicization also sustains community values. By saying “this is what we are all about,” the community becomes “about” that thing. By articulating its key values, it orients the community around those values. And historicization helps give these values connections to the past.
One of the most important values of the community would be “world peace.” I admit that the mission of promoting world peace was hard for me to accept, in my initial interactions with the community. It’s hard for me to think about wealthy individuals (on a global scale) playing imaginary instruments on stage as somehow helping the human rights crisis in Syria. However, as I spoke with people from all over the world (Belgium, France, Japan, Canada, Latvia, Germany, Russia, The Netherlands, Taiwan, Finland, Sudan, etc.), I found that conversations emerged that did indeed facilitate substantive exchange of perspectives. For some attendees, this competition was their first time out of their home country and certainly their longest and most sustained period of time with people from another nationality. Nearly 50 people spending four days together with very (very) little sleep facilitates a kind of dialogue and intimacy that compares to that of summer camp or college. For example, I had and overheard conversations about a range of topics: Finland’s treatment of indigenous populations, personal struggles with mental illness, death of family members, Russian government’s effect on artistically inclined youth, Islam and air guitar, etc. I don’t mention these to make some sort of grandiose claim about air guitar as a pure agent for moral good or bad, but I do think that the values circulating in the air seem to promote an ethos of understanding, empathy, and catharsis. One air guitarist even held a touching funeral for his uncle (that I somehow missed attending), and he spread cremated ashes from his uncle on the world air guitar stage, after the competition ended. Such an act demonstrates that air guitar goes far beyond a silly hobby for people–that it represents something more akin to spirituality, although it would never be articulated in these terms.
The international community only meets for a few days each year, but social media enables the community to form a kind of “air guitar diaspora,” where community members constantly interact and support one another. Many of these community members feel marginalized in their home countries and cities, since air guitar competitions remain marginalized. But the diaspora is strengthened by a sense that one belongs elsewhere–that a utopia exists beyond where one finds oneself.