Wednesday, August 26, 2009

AGWC part three, in which the winner is revealed, and comments on his success

After I take a too-early bike tour with foreign journalists, another press conference starts off the official part of the day, and now all the national champs are here. There’s Mei, a tiny, stylish Japanese woman. She tells me she was into salsa, never listened to this music before starting in air guitar. She did it because she works for Tomy toy company who has a new toy out that is like a guitar neck on which you can press buttons for various power chords as you play air guitar. They said they didn’t have the money to make a big marketing campaign, so she had to become a champ.

There is Tremolo Thoen of the Netherlands who seems to fancy himself a real rockstar. He is wearing leggings printed with colorful comics, I think. The Martian Canadian turns out to be a martial arts instructor from Whistler. Lord Airness from Switzerland shows up in full HazMat attire, apparently fueled by swine flu fears. Representing Taiwan is another Canadian who is a little befuddled by the whole media circus, and the fact that he is representing Taiwan, but having a good time nonetheless. I interview him, briefly, and Kate regarding her win last night. She talks about coming up with her jock-strap costume as a reaction to the usual “sausage show” of air guitar.

Now the champs must go off to market square to jump on a giant trampoline and have their portraits taken mid-air (get it?). So I go back to the hotel to get a few things done and then to interview Santeri Ojala, the creator of shreds, the YouTube comedy hit! He is pressed for time so we keep it short, but I learn that he welcomes and is amused by the negative comments, so, hey folks: keep them coming.

No time to rest. I grab a cheap lunch (or is it dinner?) at the grocery store and head back to Rauhala for the Air Guitar World Peace Parade. Champs are supposed to carry their country’s flag, but unfortunately there is no Brazil or South Africa. We are not told where the flags came from, but they look used.

Parade Grand Master is Bjorn Turoque dressed in a white tail coat with (f)airy wings attached, followed by a throng of younger, blonder, and more feminine Finnish fairies. Bringing up the rear are three zombies advertising a Zombie Walk in September. Apparently this is much like the Air Guitar World Peace Parade, only for zombies, and without the peace part. We are not sure if they play air guitars – at least, we don’t see any.

In between are air guitarists, air groupies, and air ethnomusicologists. OK, I was the only one of those, and the one in the least interesting attire. US champ William Ocean was decked out in his mom’s sweater vest, French winner Gunther Love was naturally in gold lame, Dutch rep Tremolo Theun in psychedelic op-art pants, later to be enhanced by his painting his facial hair green. Walking through the cobblestone downtown Oulu streets, many marchers broke out into classic rock songs like “We Will Rock You” in order to serenade the throngs of Oulu folk eating at sidewalk cafes on this beautiful, warm day in the near Arctic.

The market square was already filled with thousands of people, and we arrived just in time to hear some official making heartfelt announcements in perfectly enunciated but unfortunately unintelligible Finnish. Later switching to English and reading off her giant pick (or plectrum, as they say here) cue card, she repeated the air guitar manifesto, noting that the people of Oulu believe that anyone acting against the goal of world peace should be made to play air guitar. Then we are led backstage where, for the next hour, 20 men and one woman are kept busy putting on tight pants, eyeliner, war paint, blond curly wigs, electrical tape, and other items of rock attire. Once that stage is completed, the iPods come out and arms start swinging about as routines are practices in front of mirrors or in isolated corners of the tent and its environs. Beer is consumed, as is water, surprisingly. Every so often Hilkka, the stage mistress, comes around to tell us 25 minutes are left, 15 minutes are left, and finally only 3 minutes are left so I make my way to the front in the small space between the stage, speakers, and crowd barriers. There, I share a small metal perch with a Reuters cameraman and start filming. The show began with a group air guitar jam by Bjorn Turoque and his Airies, then a choreographed dance routine minus Bjorn, and then, finally, it was time to rock.

On this night there were three different invited judges: Ari Gold, air drummer; Santeri Ojala, shredmaster, and Juha Torvinen, Finnish guitar legend. They are joined with two national organizers drawn by lottery, this time from the US and Estonia. For the first few performers, scores were all over the place. Although later on the judges seemed to come together a bit more, it was unfortunate for early performers like France’s Chateau Brutal, who really deserved a better score for his routine, which included a Twilight Zone moment in which he realizes he’s not actually playing any guitar. Other performances were underwhelming on the creative side, but made up for by the excitement of the performers – hard not to be excited in front of 5000 screaming Finns.

The New Zealanders brought their own air: a fuzzy black box, like an amp, fitted with a lock and marked “Randy Reaper.” They explained to me that inside was about 2 cubic feet of the fresh air of New Zealand. The Romanian, Buvnitz, brought only his hair, which was whipped around in dangerous fashion to a speed metal song – he was his country’s first-ever AG champion, having beaten three other contenders, and the youngest in this competition at 21. The Canadian Martian, Johnny Utah, made a daring move by playing not air guitar but air keytar, with a white 80s-style fringed t-shirt, “Got Keytar?” printed on the back. Although he explained that the Finns should love it, as Finns love tar (they do – they even have tar-flavored lemonade), and in spite of his fancy round kicks, he scored low.

Heart Buckboard, dressed in suit, white tie, and scary silver teeth pulled off some nice Jacksonesque moves. William Ocean ended in a painful-sounding thud on his knees, but was apparently unharmed. Gunther Love’s painfully geeky faces and backflip won the crowd over, and Hot Lixx Hulahan’s scary joker-like persona also impressed, ending with the sound effect of an air beer being opened. They all made it into the second round: the compulsories.

At this point, all competitors join together on stage for a hearing of the compulsory song, selected by the judges. This year it was "Animal" by Sweatmaster, a Finnish band, a song which - strangely enough - I already knew, since it was also used as the compulsory in Berlin. This would seem to give an unfair advantage to the German competitor, but in the end it didn't matter. Gunther Love's explosive style and elastic face won the day and, in the end, it was he who received the Flying Finn, a transparent electric guitar seemingly made of air, but in fact handcrafted by a local instrument-maker. (The guitar maker actually showed up himself, and said something that was apparently in English but nonetheless unintelligible.)

The joy of the 5000+ crowd was palpable as "Rockin' in the Free World," the traditional end to an air guitar competition, began to play and all air guitarists, organizers, and even photographers joined on stage for some communal rocking. I couldn't hold myself back and jumped up there myself for some air bass and solo guitar playing, further bruising my knees. One must suffer for one's art, of course, even if that art is air guitar.

The traditional conclusion to the air guitar weekend is an all-night drinking fest in the basement of the Hotel Cumulus, but alas, after a single drink in the VIP area down at the marketplace, and a deep discussion of air guitar philosophies on the walk back, I decided I better hit the hay. My flight was, after all, at 6:50 the next morning.

And so four and a half hours later I was back on the road, this time in a shared van with the members of Airnadette and the new world champion, Gunther Love. Only two of the air band's members had had any sleep at all, and the rest were running on only beer and pizza. I asked Gunther about his feelings on his win and his remark was: "Yeah…. wow."



The great French air band Airnadette, with new world champion Gunther Love in gold.

Post-rock, pre-roll

These air guitarists did not win, but they are happy anyway. They may have had a few too many.

AGWC part two, in which I am alternately amused and afraid, not to mention confused


The day starts off at noon with an interview. Five members or associates of the French air band Airnadette are here, one for judging and the others for performing, and we meet over coffee in the hotel restaurant. The interview is a bit confusing, but as band member Scotch Brit - who channels Britney Spears - notes, air guitar is a bit like a "return to surrealism."

Next is an info meeting and press conference at Rauhala, the "House of Peace" and air guitar HQ, only no press were present. Slots are drawn for the dark horse qualifying round by picking playing cards. Flamboyant costumes are already to be found: the Japanese organizer is decked out in white sunglasses, a hat, and platinum blonde hair, the Russian contestant is gothed out with chains hanging from pants, long wavy flowing hair, and eyeliner, his girlfriend in a silver bolero jacket with matching purse. The cameras are on as soon as entrants come through door and the media circus continues for the rest of the time I'm in Oulu. I learn that one of the camera teams, the one that in fact filmed me the day before during the training camp, is from the Australian 60 Minutes.

After the conference, I interview "Heavier Dannair," the Brazilian champion, who is there with a kind of manager. He shows me pictures of his recent trip through Germany – “I love the German people,” he reports – Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Hildesheim. There, he stopped to practice his heavy metal routine at a scenic overlook with a gray-haired lady looking on. Afterwards he said she called her whole cycling group over, and he got a picture of everyone playing air guitar with him. Next the Brazilians went on a tour to Lappland, where Fausto got Santa Claus and Santa’s elves to play air guitar too. And on a train in Finland a little blond girl also played air guitar for his camera. His manager is now a convert to the power and joy of air guitar. They prove it with pictures – people smile when posing for the camera but smile like idiots when striking air guitar poses. This guy is an air guitar guru. The two of them suggest air guitar as a new Olympic sport when I mention how sore I am today from the training camp activities. Well, if ice dancing is an Olympic sport, why not air guitar too?

Nap time, then over to the city hall annex, since city hall itself is under renovation. A reception for all air guitarists is held here yearly. Four city officials welcome us and shake hands with all air guitarists. They take these things seriously here. An enormous Finnish giant in something like a monk’s robe and a little round cap with a feather in it is getting food from the buffet table. The media circus continues: there are cameras everywhere. In fact, I keep bumping into them as I try to take my own pictures. All air guitarists are asked to line up and state their country for the video cameras. A Canadian is last in line and says “Mars” - is an Air Guitar Interplanetary Championship next?

While at the reception three German freelance journalists interview me, and then I interview Nat Hayes of US Air Guitar while this guy from Munich films us in a distractingly non-ethnographic fashion. Back to hotel to write up notes, a little shopping, and dinner at an Iraqi falafel joint where the pita was as big as a pizza, then it is time to get to 45 Special for the famed dark horse qualifying round of the championships.

The worst performance of the evening was, hands down, that by the Crazy Swede. His entire routine consisted of a minimalistic strut back and forth across the stage, strumming the same high notes on his air guitar. We kept thinking he was just warming up and was going to break out into some face-melting solos at any moment, but it didn't happen. The Crayz Swede wasn't crazy enough.

In one way, the most frightening performance was probably that of DefCon John, an American living in Tampere, Finland. I later found out he was making a tour of all the wacky Finnish summer competitions and had already participated in the wife-carrying contest and the international sauna competition. For this evening, he had decided to portray the worst American stereotypes. He had painted red, white, and blue starts on his chest and USA on his back, then sprayed his entire torso with gold. He wore a cowboy hat and silvered glasses. For clothing, he had only some skimpy shorts made out of an American flag and held up with a wide leather belt. When the Finnish emcee introduced him and asked a question, he responded, "I don't understand you. Don't you speak Merkan?" Nonetheless, afterwards he reported that he wasn't sure if the judges got the joke, because of his low scores, and joked that he had been "politically railroaded." I myself was just relieved that his shorts had stayed on the entire time.

Depending on your definition of frightening, a second contender for that title might have been the performance of one of the South Africans, who opened his number by stubbing a lit cigarette out on his neck. He didn't make it through but four did: the other South African, Skeletair; Snake Russkin of the UK and Sausalito; France's Chateau Brutal, of the well-known air band Airnadette; and the critically-acclaimed Zero Prospects, the only female contender that night. As Bjorn Turoque's recently-acquired wife, she had had extensive training in facial expressions, but the costume concept was entirely her own. Under her tight-fitting, rip-off yellow track pants she wore men's underwear with "Make Air Not War" written on the B side, so to speak, and a jock strap. She explained that this was her feminist statement about the "sausage fest" usually found in air guitar competitions.

Afterwards while chatting with Airnadette members and admiring their lamé costumes, a crazed Finnish fan steals Scotch Brit’s red plastic glasses, and starts to drink Gunther Love’s beer, although he is able to recover it before too much damage is done.

The evening winds up with a round of Aireoke, which if you haven't experienced it, is basically like karaoke only you play air guitar badly instead of singing badly. The nice thing is that it brought the locals and the pros together for once, but the bad part was watching lackluster amateur performances. As I said, it is much like karaoke: it requires alcohol to be entertaining.

Oulu welcomes air guitarists

Oulu is serious about air guitar. City coucil members welcomed us with a reception involving free food and drink, and this is what they got in return.

Air Guitar World Championships, part one: in which I abase myself in jolly fashion

Hey folks, I think I mentioned earlier my intentions of conducting research on air guitar by traveling to the birthplace of competitive air guitar performance, Oulu, Finland. Read up to see how I lived the dream.

Oulu, Finland

I wake up at a reasonable hour on my first day in Oulu in order to take advantage of the hotel breakfast. They should really extend the breakfast hours past 10 for the weekend, since air guitarists need to sleep in, and the training camp doesn't even start until 12. That gives me plenty of time to get some work done, and since I noticed Bjorn Turoque and Hot Lixx Hulahan eating together in the breakfast room I know they are up and decide to start off with an interview with Mr. Turoque. We discuss Freud, Nietsche, and air guitar ideology until it is time for me to go.

Arriving at the High Altitude Training Camp, I find that my co-guitarists are two 2 Swiss, Airnado and Lord Airness (who turns 35 this week - we both feel a little over-the-hill for airing, but I soon find out that many others are old enough to be our.. well, brothers, anyway) and 1 South African, Skeletair. That's it but Bjorn Turoque and Hot Lixx also decide to join with us, as do a couple of the Finnish hosts (the only other females). Bjorn’s Scottish wife is there briefly but leaves. She will play in dark horse round tomorrow as Zero Prospects, in order not to get anyone’s hopes up..

During the introduction, the principal organizer of the event attributes the rise of air guitar to Finland’s economic downturn in the 1990s and the cutes in health and mental health care that accompanied it. Intriguing: air guitar as low-cost, DIY therapy?

Our training day begins with an improv course. According to the promotional materials, “Improv is a jolly form of self-abasement.” Accordingly, we make complete fools of ourselves and laugh hysterically for much of the rest of the day. We play the “bunny” game, a kind of hot potato game in which we have to make floppy bunny ears with our hands; we lead a “blind” partner around the house; we have to rapidly assume the roles of police, victim, sheriff, or thumb-sucking child; we collaborate to complete stories on the topic of “Biting the dust” (ours involved murderous giant midgets); we chant musically in a circle with appropriate sound effects and gestures; we sing songs on topics and in styles provided by the others in “Whose line is it anyway” fashion (mine was “delicious golden raisins” in country style, but others included Christian pop, techno, blues, and Miami sound machine). Finally, we create air bands in the suggested styles, so that I find myself at one moment playing bass in an emo rap band, then air trumpet in an 8-man Jamaican group singing the lament, “There is no snow in Jamaica.” All throughout, we are being filmed both by the Australian 60 minutes crew and by a Parisian/English couple residing in Germany and working on an air guitar film. If this footage ever gets out, I may never live it down…

At break, I avoid a journalist wanting to interview me, preferring to conduct my own interview instead, this time with Tappo Launonen, one of the original founders of the festival. The journalist eventually gives up, and I rapidly consume a sandwich mid-interview in order to be prepared for the next event, a lecture by 2008 World Champion Hot Lixx Hulahan. He isn’t very well prepared, but he is enthusiastic in demonstrating some moves for us. Also, he’s brought along the bottle of spirits traditionally provided by the defending champ for the drunken amusement of the aspiring air guitarists. Unfortunately, due to airline restrictions, he has only brought about 25 mL.

Thus, we are forced to attend the next workshop, the Choreography workshop, completely sober. First we play funky music while focusing on using different body parts, like the shoulders, or different levels from standing to kneeling. Then we join up in a group, watching others and copying their moves (I, unfortunately, as yet have none worth mimicking). Bjorn and Hot Lixx get a little nutty, tossing the air guitar around the circle from across the room, Bjorn finally eating his guitar. Then we join into pairs to play a Rage Against the Machine song twice, experimenting with 2-person air guitaring and the well-known back-to-back solo pose. Afterwards my neck hurts. Also, I find out that I am the only one who has never played Guitar Hero, making me a kind of social outcast. They should give me a red A (for Air) to wear on my shirt.

Continuing in the theme of self-abasement, we are given funny air guitar head wraps to wear for our bike ride to a wooded island. With our hair thus protected, we feel no need to protect our brains as well, and forgo helmets. On the way we stop to see some local sights: a salmon run constructed of concrete steps and located in a park below water level; some fountains and ducks in a river where a Ric Ocasek look-alike gives us hate-filled glares before he rides away; a library building right on the water, near the stage now being constructed for the big event on Friday. After coasting across some bridges from which we can see the paper factory, we pull up at an 1892 house/cabin now used as a Waldorf School – and for air guitar training, naturally. It’s kind of rustic what with the giant woodburning stove in the living/dining room and the composting outhouses, and also a bit cold, so after a salmon-based dinner inside, we gather around a fire going in the back. There a couple of Sami shamen play drums for us to scare away the evil air spirits. They seem a little befuddled by the whole thing and leave as soon as they can.

Next Bjorn/Dan and Tappo give their motivational talks on air guitar and Hot Lixx/Craig passes around the ceremonial bottle. Luckily, he also got a larger one from duty free, so that we can play the new drinking game Dan’s invented. It was a sort of Air Charade – Chairade? – deal, where he made up a special iPod playlist, passed around a written copy, and then everyone has to play a song and have others guess it based on nothing more than their movements. My skills are still pretty low-end so I pick the easiest one I see on the list: “Girl you really got me” as performed by Van Halen. The woman here as representative of the City of Oulu also must do it, and she plays Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit.” That one was slightly harder, lasting about a minute longer than by 10-second performance. The Australian film crew is back again. We learn they’re here in between providing vital news coverage of dramatic events in Israel and Africa. Maybe air guitar will make world peace.

Afterwards, I stand by the fire a while longer, chatting with the Finns and learning
swear words they assure me are highly useful. Then I join the others in a huge old wood-burning sauna, where impromptu rock sing-alongs are already underway. The Finns have thoughtfully provided us with beer and with birch branches to whack each other with, an oddly refreshing activity, and an appropriate-enough end to a day of jolly self-abasement.

Air guitarists in training

Swiss air guitarists listen attentively to Hot Lixx Hulahan's lecture at the High Altitude Training Camp.