Airness (full text)

A jumping jack. A jerk of the head. A flutter of fingers and a slide of hand. Watch Ann Van den Broek’s Creating Joy or Joy Enjoy Joy and you’ll see, near the end of each piece, the dancers bounding, bouncing and spasming in sequences that have a distinct touch of… air guitar.

What is air guitar? You know what it is. It’s teenagers in bedrooms, galvanised by the guitar break of their favourite heavy metal song. It’s Joe Cocker bellowing A Little Help From My Friends at Woodstock in 67, backed by a full band but guitarless himself, though his arms twitch and thrash as if powerless to unfeel the mighty presence of his absent instrument. It’s Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter every time they hit a plot point in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, twanging together in a stoner’s rock-and-roll-up version of a high-five or a fist-bump. Air guitar is a full-bodied, high-energy, high-drama, gut-reactive response not only to a particular kind of music – rock, in various subgenres such as metal, glam and punk – but also to its pre-eminent instrument, the guitar.

Which means that every performance is built around the one thing that is missing from it. That is Rule No. 1 of the Air Guitar World Championships: no guitar allowed. In the absence of a so-called “there guitar”, the performance shifts focus from instrument to the body, with its skids and slides, punches and thrashes, kneels and jumps; and to the face, convulsed by exquisite ecstasies of pain and joy. Yet all this excess of storm and stress serves only to outline rather cover up the guitar-shaped hole that lies at its heart.

That makes air guitar a very different beast from karaoke, where the performer’s voice replaces the original singer’s. There’s no substitute guitar here, no specially doctored backing track that lets the performer fill its gaps. It’s also different from lip-syncing, where the performer mouths the music as closely as possible to create an illusion, however see-through, of actual singing. Air guitarists don’t play that trick. They keep a tight grip on the music, but they don’t literalise it: they are more occupied with channelling their physical and emotional responses to it. Air guitar is not a masquerade of the music but rather a feat of audacity, like riding the musical tiger.

In the Air Guitar World Championships, the skill of keeping tethered to the musical beast is judged as “technical merit”. The performance needs to stay connected to the musical template, indicating the detail of guitar licks, runs, picks, strums and slides – otherwise, it just becomes unformed flailing around, lacking shape and definition.

But like a rodeo rider keeping one hand on the reins while flourishing a hat in the air with the other, the air guitarist must play not only to the tune, but also to the audience. It’s showtime, after all, and competitors are also judged on “stage presence”. Caped and draped as heroes, geeks, rebels, outcasts and indeed ordinary people, they enter under names such as Airistotle, Shreddy Mercury and the Rockness Monster, and perform mini-dramas about unleashing the beast: going crazy, becoming possessed, mutating from butterfly to bat out of hell. They use whatever theatrical tricks come to hand: daredevil twists, comic timing, punchlines that often feature a fist literally punching straight into the air. And of course, air guitar’s fingers fluttering at crotch level, its hands caressing curves or sliding up and down, are blatant sex-sells devices that, combined with its vibrant gestures of exultation and abandon, are designed to stimulate the audience’s sweet spot. Can we see it, can we feel it? That’s stage presence.

But there’s one more judging criterion, which everyone agrees is the most important and yet no one can quite say what it is. They call it “airness”. Two-time world champion Zac “The Magnet” Munro philosophises thus: “Nietzsche said something along the lines of: if you define something, it loses a certain amount of its power… If you try to define airness, some of the depth would be lost.” More pragmatically, he says “it’s like the X Factor – you just know it when you see it.”

Perhaps Dan Crane, aka Björn Türoque, author of To Air Is Human and a star of the film documentary Air Guitar Nation, gets closest to a useful definition: airness, he says, is when air guitar transcends its origins and becomes an art form in and of itself. No longer dependent upon its source, it has become a creature and a creation of its own – a work of art.

Maybe airness is simply another name for the aesthetic – that quality of art that is not really “there”, but rather exists in the air of the artwork. Certainly it’s something that judges look for, that performers aspire to, that audiences respond to. It’s what can make air guitar not just a skill or a show but – to use one of its own slogans – “the greatest thing you’ve never seen”.

How wonderful that all this is built on an absence, a void, and yet it takes people to a happy place of ecstasy and exaltation. Nothing really matters, doesn’t it? In art, as in air guitar, it really does. That’s a strange, puzzling thought – but kind of beautiful, kind of joyous.

Work/world (content)

  • Heel thyself
  • Bittersweet
  • Joy of the hip
  • Loops
  • Adulterated joy
  • I, human
  • True colours
  • Airness (full text)

  • Back to the overview
  • Work/world is a collection of eight essays by Sanjoy Roy that offer a unique perspective on the Joy diptych by Ann Van den Broek.