Every anthropologist seeks out the local practices rooted deep in community folklore and heritage that make each place unique in its own way. The diverse ways people adapt to the world and understand it underscores our fundamental cultural creativity even as such practices link global places together in often-unseen ways. Historically, anthropologists sought out the absolutely unique local traditions that were in danger of receding out of memory and active practice, but that picture of a “salvage” anthropology has been long disabused as anthropologists have turned their attention to every conceivable dimension of contemporary cultural practice. Nevertheless, we still tend to focus on rather distinct practices such as foodways, religion, language, or kinship that are rooted in local culture.
Northern Finland can make claims for all sorts of interesting cultural distinctions: regional cuisine, architecture, fashion, sports, and sauna culture all make everyday life in Finland and Oulu distinct from places like the American Heartland. Yet perhaps the most interesting of all local cultural events may be Oulu’s 16-year hosting of the World Air Guitar Championships and its claim to being the Air Guitar capital of the world. The most skilled practitioners of the art come to Oulu each August from all corners of the planet to engage in air guitar, with representatives from 20 member countries including the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, the Ukraine, and Finland. Metallica and Iron Maiden resounded through the town square over the last week as these national champions met to decide the World’s crown. Air guitar is much like soccer (football for my European colleagues): that is, pretty much everybody can play, and it seems enormously simple, but the skills are subtle and few can play well. A legion of people have reproduced the stylings of Jimmy Page in the privacy of their bedrooms, but a precious few gather in Oulu each year after worldwide contests amongst those who have elevated air guitar to art form.
The line between camp, creativity, philosophy, commerce, and performance art are remarkably complex in air guitar circles. Somewhat surprisingly, the air guitar championships began with a heartfelt appeal to world peace, advocating for a world in which everybody plays air guitar. In the words of the traditional Declaration of Air Guitar Peace, “The purpose of the Air Guitar Championships in to promote world peace – according to Air Guitar ideology, wars will end, climate change stops and all bad things disappear if all the people in the world play the Air Guitar.” The 2001 and 2002 World Air Guitar Champion Zac Monro says that “It’s impossible to be angry and play air guitar. Air guitar is the last pure art form. There’s no sponsorship. No one does it for the money. It’s about going out there and expressing yourself.” It is unclear if our collective imitations of Angus Young will resolve a host of deep-seated historical and cultural conflicts, but it is an interesting and somewhat distinctively Finnish politics to project onto something so superficially ridiculous as air guitar. Unlike many of the thoughtful but often over-earnest advocates for world peace, the Finns lend that politics a sense of humor and even disarming camp.
The camp factor is tremendous, and overdone imitations of musicians that are themselves over-inflated evocations of power, mastery, and control in various metal manifestations makes for a distinctive performance art. Nobody does an air guitar interpretation of Woody Guthrie; instead, they cobble together demonstrative elements of the most overblown musical performances, so the performance dimensions of metal appear repeatedly amongst the masters of air guitar. Much of the air guitar performance is like watching a caricature of Spinal Tap, which takes its power from its remarkably accurate evocation of the most ridiculous elements of metal bands. Nigel Tufnel would be proud of this year’s champion Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard, an American dressed as a Viking in a getup that would be ideal at a Spinal Tap show.
A great metal guitarist invokes mastery of the skill of playing and a performance presence, but rarely are we intended to giggle through Metallica. In contrast, an air guitarist aspires to borrow all the performance dimensions of real guitarists even as they surprise us with and make us snicker at the little details of bodily movement, expression, and style that are part of all rock music performance. Air guitar is a performance in which the lines between imitation and individual license are blurred just as the impressive bodily presence of a real guitarist is leavened by the ridiculous details of bizarre facial expressions, odd stage movements, and enormously optimistic cod pieces. It is easy enough to conclude that everybody can air guitar, but that leveling effect is indeed the point of projecting a consequential politics onto the performance. And if you think air guitar is completely the province of skill-less nerds living in their parents’ basements, check out the creative Airnadette Air Guitar band performance from last years’s championship.
None of this matters if there is not an audience with the frame of mind that sees air guitar as intentionally comedic performance art and not as a self-important reproduction of Geddy Lee or something less substantive than “authentic” music. Self-anointed defenders of various bands or genres or otherwise “authentic” music seem eager to assume the moral mission of defending their favorite artist against tribute bands or air guitar, and musicians and fans alike spend much of their time championing some “real” musical experience that is more meaningful than poseurs and mass-marketed music. Some journalists cannot contain their snide self-importance as they wonder how air guitar has been elevated to a public performance art, but this also misses the interesting respect and self-conscious humor of air guitarists and their Finnish audience. Winner Justin Howard proclaimed after winning that “I feel loved,” and that warmth for each other was a surprising effect at Air Guitar that is very different from the experience we are likely to have at the next Metallica concert.
The American Air Guitar Champion YouTube page features American representatives, and the remaining 20 member-nations of the Air Guitar World federation nearly all have web pages with images, videos, and stories about the select few who embrace Air Guitar artistry
There is a feature-length documentary Air Guitar Nation