“So how are you all doing tonight?”
Andrea Harsell takes stage to emcee, mustering a salvo of whoops and hollers from an audience of about 20, half of whom are participants. She seems a little disappointed by the low turnout for the Ultimate Air Guitar Contest at The Other Side—there was an ad on Fox and everything—but it’s clear that what this crowd lacks in numbers, it’s prepared to make up for in enthusiasm. And why not whoop and holler? Where else but an air guitar contest do you find the worst aspects of narcissism and voyeurism paired to such winning advantage?
Contestants are to be judged on originality (including costumes and props), stage presence and charisma, accuracy and crowd response. They’re competing for that most dubious of prizes: the promotional giveaway, in this case a guitar emblazoned with an enormous Miller Lite logo and the rather unconvincing legend, “celebrating 50 years of rock ’n’ roll.” In other words, the kind of prize you might want to win just for the sake of winning, but nothing you’d ever really use, or unfortunately could ever hock for more than a bag of peanuts. Maybe there’s a band out there somewhere whose gear consists solely of promotional items won in similar contests, or even in raffles and as door prizes: the Miller Lite guitar, the Jägermeister bass, the Bacardi drums. The Band of Winners. A more appropriate choice of prize would have been a new air guitar—awarded in all emperor’s-new-clothes solemnity, and “lessons” in the form of 10 free drinks. In any event, Harsell teases, “It doesn’t matter how well you can play it—just how well you can fake it.”
Contestant number one goes by the stage name of Your Gay Uncle (unless, of course, that’s his real name) and to his credit he looks like an older relative trying to dress the part for a rock club with embarrassing results, or a catalogue model sporting a misguided line of JC Penney grungewear circa 1991. Clad in do-rag, western-style shirt with the sleeves cut off and blue jeans ripped with suspect precision, he gives an enthusiastic but unimaginative rendition of “Dr. Feelgood.” His stage routine is reminiscent of Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx, although strictly speaking he’s supposed to be Mick Mars. To be fair, he’s chosen a song without much to hang an air guitar on besides chugga-chugga barre chords, so Your Gay Uncle spices it up in other ways; he’s got that stadium-rock move where the guitar player goes sprinting across the stage to see what the bass player’s doing pretty much down. On the other hand, he comes in late on his whammy-bar cues, and details like these are important. Rule Number One of air guitar is that you have to attack with confidence—often wrong, never in doubt.
Next up is either Fred the Tank or Frank the Tick, or some combination of the two. He’s doing a Korn song, which, according to the introduction he’s written for Harsell to read to the audience, is “the sickest shit ever, so check it out.” After a minute or so, it becomes apparent that Fred the Tick’s air guitar won’t be making it out of its air aluminum flight case tonight; his performance would more accurately be called a lip-sync, and a pretty insipid one at that. He must have missed the “guitar” part of “ultimate air guitar contest” when he was reading the flyer. I start feeling embarrassed for him, the same kind of embarrassment I always used to feel for this guy I know who got walked in on unannounced by one of his friends while he was doing the slow-motion, cuff-clutching alt-rock windmill dance to a Pearl Jam song in front of his bedroom mirror. Ouch—he would have been better off if he’d been caught masturbating. And sorry, Frank the Tank, but Korn is, like, so totally not the sickest shit ever?
Oops, another lip-syncher now, doing a System of a Down song. Can’t she read, either?
Contestant Number Four goes by the stage handle Medium Cheddar, and he’s tackling Steve Vai’s “The Attitude Song” with athletic vigor. Even so, the best part of the performance might be his choice of prop: one of those oversize—what were they, teak?—wooden dinner forks that people used to hang on their walls in the ’70s. Was this guy just rummaging around his mom’s crawlspace at the last minute, feverishly searching for something guitaroid in shape to bring to the contest? Is it a multilayered ironic statement about air guitar-playing? He looks far too young to have played the fork during the real ’70s, when air guitar was still in its infancy. Medium Cheddar scores huge style points by actually leaving the stage while the song is still playing, ducking out of one of those endlessly protracted butt-rock grand finales as though to suggest that Steve Vai has also left the stage prematurely, but that maybe, if enough panties get hurled to pave the way, he’ll come back out for an encore. Medium Cheddar had me at the fork, but leaving your own air band high and dry mid-performance? That’s priceless.
Next up: two guys from Kalispell who actually drove all the way to Missoula just to see the competition, only to discover that all of three people had signed up to perform. So they signed themselves up to do an impromptu routine to the Gypsy Kings’ cover of “Hotel California”—when life hands you lemons, etc. etc. One of them, the guy pulling most of the instrumental weight while his friend stands to one side mouthing the lyrics, is rocking my personal favorite air guitar look: the Fists, with both chording and strumming hands balled up tight in open defiance of the intricate picking and fretwork the rumba flamenca requires. It’s my favorite look because it says, loud and clear, “Look, man, I’m not going to bullshit you. We both know I can’t really play guitar even a tenth this well. I’m just here to have a good time.” The song is apparently sung in pure Spanish (not the Gypsy Kings’ preferred Gitane dialect), and presumably it’s not a word-for-word translation—how else to explain one of the beefy dudes abruptly dropping his shorts and punctuating a significant lyric with a mighty whap to his bare left buttock? I myself have fantasized plenty about mooning Don Henley, although I don’t remember there being anything to prompt this gesture in the original Eagles version. The crack of briskly slapped flesh rings out above the music like a pistol shot. The buttock quivers like a Jello salad.
Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Hummingbird and his exceptionally a capriccioso reading of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’.” Hummingbird has just come from a celebration of sustainable living and local produce—a more suitable occasion, one imagines, for his nearly guitarless air guitar style. It’s a little of everything—a desultory strum here, an air-bongo fill there—but mostly interpretive dance. OK, can’t anybody read?
Three girls get up and take the stage. Yeah, I think. Maybe they’ll do the Go-Gos. I’ll settle for the Donnas, though. En Vogue? Please oh please oh please oh please don’t let it be Four Non-Blondes!
Not even. They do a Madonna song with one girl miming all the vocals and the other two barely attached to the same performance. I will allow that some of the dancing is mildly sensual, but this is supposed to be an Ultimate Air Guitar Contest, dammit, not an Ultimate Contest to See Who Can Look the Most Like a Bunch of Secretaries Dancing in a Circle Around Their Purses on Girl’s Night Out at the Non-Threatening Gay Bar. Sheesh. And now the word is that lip-sync performers are eligible to win the Miller Lite guitar, too? This is like karaoke, only without the added pressure of actually singing. Let them compete for a Miller Lite mirrored disco ball or one of those pre-karaoke contraptions that lets you sing along with songs on the radio.
Oh, jeez, now Fred the Tank is back—with either another Korn song or some carbon-copy grunt-metal substitute. Kids these days. What a lot of rubbish they listen to, and what a dearth of guitar heroes they have to emulate. Frank the Tick’s whole touching-himself schtick seems lifted directly from one of those awful body-fragrance advertisements (“I want your bod!”) mixed in with the previews at the Carmike 10. It’s ironic that people’s fantasies about what they would do in front of 50,000 screaming fans (and no one here is playing a club date—clearly, the participants all imagine themselves headlining the main stage at a huge outdoor festival) shed such embarrassing light on what they like to do when no one else is looking.
Watching Fred, I found myself thinking about water bears—microscopic organisms that live on mosses and lichens and can survive for years without water by going into a kind of dried-up hibernation. Everyone should be so lucky—in seemingly guitarless times, ultimate air guitar contests especially.