Air Halen

The state of American air guitar: sweaty, sincere, electric.

Picture your favorite electric guitarist in midsolo—Eddie Van Halen playing “Hot for Teacher” or maybe the incomparable C.C. Deville of Poison, in a furious, hair-sprayed arabesque. Now remove the guitar from your mental picture and behold the Northeast regional semifinals of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships, held recently in New York City at the Pussycat Lounge, on a still-dusty block near the World Trade Center site—and, luckily, open to an audience of longtime air guitar fans like myself. On stage for the final round is Ralph Martin (aka Rufus Sewer), a lanky, scowling Midwesterner. He has just launched into the furious solo of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” when, attempting to dash his white silk scarf to the stage floor, he becomes hideously entangled in it, like a marionette caught in his own strings. He should have worn an air scarf, I think—but his mortification, as he slumps offstage to booing, is actual. Out of a possible six points, he receives a few low fives from the judges, and one scribbled obscenity from the obligatory Simon Cowell-wannabe.

SuperJulie is next, in a glistening white bodysuit and gauze cape—the sole girl finalist. She seems to have been sucked into her bodysuit by a powerful vacuum force in one of its heels. She looks great, but the crowd doesn’t like her: She’s phoning it in—she might as well be air-air guitaring. Besides, she’s using the venue to promote some dubious after-party, hosted by her and her pals, at an East Village club. Sorry, SuperJulie—the rest of us are headed to the air Waldorf to drink air Veuve and air-snort some Colombian.

And so another air guitarist disappears into the oblivion that reared her  …

Or back into the arms of her best friends. As at a poetry reading, nobody in this crowd is plausibly more than 2 degrees removed from the stars. Imagine an NBA game where every one of the fans is Kobe Bryant’s cousin or boyhood chum, and you get the idea. But this is not the NBA: Some arms were twisted getting people here tonight. “The Shred” is going to owe his buddies big time for trekking up from Ocean City, Md., to see him tear it up to Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” They can’t drink enough Rheingolds to stay frothy and seem to grow inward and philosophical behind their Oakley sunglasses.

But the Shred and his colleagues aren’t just competing for the extra-large souvenir beefy-T that awaits tonight’s winner or the personal glory of reaching the national finals—they’re hoping to represent our fair nation at the international finals in Finland, the land where competitive air guitar (as well as competitive wife-carrying) was born.

To get there means making some concessions to appearances. Beside me in the audience is a straight-edge punk air guitarist from Pittsburgh, Dan Harding, a first-round contestant rather brutally excluded from the final round. Dan refused to wear a costume, just as he refused to take a stage name—in his long-sleeve maroon polo shirt and jeans, he brings to mind Henry Rollins lining up for his eighth-grade photo, but his air moves spoke for themselves: thumping, hypnotic, vigorous. Accurate, too, as he moved up and down the neck of his air ax to Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows.”

“I think you were robbed, Dan,” I say, and his buddies, also in long-sleeve polo shirts and jeans, nod in solemn agreement.

“It’s all costume at this show,” Dan replies. I nod. “It’s as though the air guitar itself didn’t exist.”

Mostly the crowd is sincere—if also sweaty and irritable—and certainly the wait while the contestants tune their air instruments is very real. The rock ’n’ roll press has turned out, some Shelley Duvall types and some scruffy Jack Blacks, and there’s a Godot-like rumor, cruelly unfulfilled, that Howard Stern is on his way. The two boyfriends that materialize when I yell at their girls for stepping on my toes are very real, as is my fear of getting really, sincerely, beaten up. But at the middle of this Dionysiac frenzy is an invisibility—a guitar that is not a guitar. It occurs to me to ask some Matrix-style existential questions about reality and so on—but instead I decide that air guitar isn’t an existentially provocative phenomenon. Rather, air guitar is about mimesis—the way manifestly unreal things like words or symbols conjure real but absent things. All that onanistic writhing around a nonexistent guitar makes the guitar present, radiantly so, to a degree no actual guitar could match. Even if it were Jimmy Page’s double-necked Les Paul. [Correction, June 11, 2003: Jimmy Page played a single-necked Les Paul, but he is best known for his double-necked Gibson EDS-1275.]

But I’ll play Erich Auerbach some other time, because now the overwhelming crowd favorite, C-Diddy, has taken the stage in a red kimono and white Samurai headband. Under that kimono he’s wearing a giant “Hello Kitty” breastplate and an elaborate codpiece shaped like an unagi. His shtick is brilliant, in an intellectualized, Po-Mo sort of way—a montage of Orientalist kitsch, part Anime warrior, part Robert Plant circa “Now and Zen.” The Smashing Pumpkins tune involves wild tempo swings, from a sneering diminuendo to an explosive, snarling crescendo. C-Diddy does the slow part on air ukulele with a narcotized smile and a thousand-yard stare. When the song explodes, he unleashes a tremendous windmill and proceeds to do things with his body I’ve never witnessed—he’s everywhere, a sinewy knot of red silk and flesh, leaping into the sky one minute and flapping around on the deck like a caught walleye the next.

The crowd is stunned. C-Diddy understands that air guitar, like poetry, is “play for mortal stakes” as Frost said (of poetry, not air guitar). He’s the easy winner and advances to the national finals; I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up representing our nation in Finland. I feel I’ve seen the future of air guitar, and his name is C-Diddy.

Though the Finns can boast that they invented these competitions, everyone knows that air guitar is an American phenomenon. What made the air guitar such a fundamental part of the American mythos? Who knows. Maybe because it’s portable, for one—cowhands and rail-runners could pack it away in their flop-sacks as they moved from town to town. Maybe at one time every settler in the West had an air guitar, and the canyons resounded with their music. But it clearly took the advent of the electric air guitar to infuse the instrument with its present heady potion of sex and menace. And indeed, as America has changed so too have air guitar styles. C-Diddy is only the latest and most glorious air guitarist, but he reminds us that under our red kimonos, we’re wearing “Hello Kitty” breastplates. At least for the night. 

[Correction, June 11, 2003: Jimmy Page played a single-necked Les Paul, but he is best known for his double-necked Gibson EDS-1275.]