The Sound of Air

Crunchable’s cultural correspondent visits the US Air Guitar Championship.

It’s so very rare that we ever get to witness pure, unfiltered talent punching us in the face. Most of us are fairly untalented. Instead of inspiring arenas full of screaming fans, we all spend our lives at work pushing buttons that someone else told us to push.

But then it happened — an incredible event that was almost beyond comprehension. On August 16, at the Fillmore in New York City, I experienced the raw power of talent at the US Air Guitar Championship.

I know what you’re thinking: Air guitar? Isn’t air guitar practically lip-synching for your hands? I thought so at first, but at the event I discovered air guitar isn’t just a comedic pastime for basement-dwellers like Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar. Air guitar is a competitive sport. It is performance art. Most of all, it is self-expression. This event and these performers truly prove one thing: it’s not what someone plays, it’s how he plays it.

US Air Guitar is the official air guitar association of the United States. Founded in 2003, the goal of USAG is to seek out the best air guitarists in the nation to compete in the world championships in Oulu, Finland. Its other goal? Create world peace through the shredding of air. Seriously. So why air guitar? According to the official Web site, “air guitar is so ingrained in the fabric of American life that it’s become an almost instinctual response. Play the right riff and for many, air guitar simply happens.”

The championship brought out elite air performers from all over the country. The 15 performers ranged from the tuxedo-clad Gentleman Joe from Austin and the unpredictable Rockness Monster from LA to McNallica from Boston and hometown hero William Ocean of NYC. Each one adopted a new persona while onstage. Characters like The Shred from DC and Ricky Stinkfingers of San Francisco borrowed the look of the 80s metal bands. Skeety Jones of Chicago took on a 50s diner motif while William Ocean, who often wears an American flag jumpsuit, performed in a 80s-style orange and yellow track suit. These people are what the show was all about. These individuals are the best of the nation’s air guitar society. And they put on quite a show.

Of course no championship would be complete without judges, and NYC knows how to get judges. The competition’s panel included Rachel Dratch, of “SNL” and “30 Rock” fame, and Jason Jones, a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Jones did an excellent job playing the token asshole judge with his absurdly low scores and acidic commentary on the performances. The performers were graded on two criteria: “accuracy” and “airness.” Accuracy was described as how realistically the performers moved their fingers to play the actual song. Airness was the theatrics involved — because air guitar isn’t just playing an invisible instrument, it is commanding a crowd and making them believe that instrument was real.

Using Olympic Figure Skating-style scoring, the judges gave scores on a 6.0-based system. The competition was broken down into two parts. In the first part, the performers “shredded” to a one-minute song of their choosing and tried to impress the judges enough to make it to the second round. In the second and final round, the five performers who survived the first round were all challenged to air guitar for one minute to the same song chosen by the judges. Only one performer could achieve the title of US Air Guitar Champion.

The crowd was intense, sweaty, and 100 percent into air guitar culture. Basically any fan of 80s metal bands would fit into the crowd. The music included everything from songs by Metallica and Black Sabbath to even Europe’s “Final Countdown.” So to me it just felt like home. Dozens of inflatable guitar toys were held with pride, foam fingers holding the iconic “metal fist” were passed around, and groupies and fans of certain performers were chanting throughout the night. William Ocean had an legion of fans wearing blue T-shirts with the motto “William Ocean: Catch the Wave” and shooting water all over the crowd. Like any concert it was loud, hot, and exhilarating. These performers really made quite a performance, from bottle-smashing to back flips to fire-breathing, these air guitar players really knew how to work a crowd.

The final showdown was a five-way duel between McNallica, William Ocean, Hot Lixx Hulahan (last year’s US champion), the Rockness Monster, and Big Rig from Houston. The tournament was decided on a song by The Darkness that I’d never heard of but was old hat to some of these performers. In the end William Ocean, New York’s best, won the championship in a tidal wave of applause. With the night closing in, “Free Bird” blared throughout the theater for all to air guitar to.

On the subway ride back to Brooklyn, I put on my iPod and I practiced my amateur air shredding skills to the sounds of Journey. It attracted strange looks by fellow commuters but it didn’t matter: I was rocking out to “Wheel in the Sky” and “Don’t Stop Believing.” Maybe this is how William Ocean started out — just listening to his favorite tunes, air guitaring on the subway with strangers all around him not knowing he could be a future champion.

Maybe there’s talent all around us. Maybe the next great air guitarist is that woman giving me weird looks while I’m lip-synching to Steve Perry. Or maybe it’s me.

Article © 2007 by Rob Roan