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."