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Olympics

Air apparent

In the age of pretending to play the guitar, attitude is everything

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Illustration: Colleen Wang

This month in Beijing, the planet's greatest athletes sprinted, backstroked and pirouetted their way to glory and endorsement deals, thrilling billions around the world. In Oulu, Finland, the planet's greatest air guitarists sprinted, backstroked and pirouetted their way to sore necks and sweaty semi-acclaim, momentarily amusing the hundreds of Finns who were on hand. Still, can anyone deny that, these days, the Air Guitar World Championships is a far more relevant cultural event than the Olympics?

Sure, every four years, we turn the spotlight on Michael Phelps and his anachronistic ilk—talented, pathologically focused individuals who train for years to achieve performance gains that are barely perceptible to the human eye. The rest of the time, it's Hot Lixx Hulahan's world. Two years ago, Hulahan, aka Craig Billmeier, entered a local air-guitar contest on a whim and ended up U.S. champion. This year, he won the U.S. title again, then traveled to Oulu, where, on August 22, he outperformed 19 other champs from Japan, Canada, the Netherlands and other countries to claim his crown as the world's best air guitarist.

Unlike many of his competitors, the 34-year-old Billmeier knows how to play the guitar. But when he took the stage at Oulu, he disguised whatever genuine facility he has so well that he seemed like any other head-banging spaz whose mastery of guitar began and ended with his ability to approximate Eddie Van Halen's facial contortions. Flailing like a tased flamingo, he projected energy instead of talent, spectacle instead of craft, ego instead of meaning. In the Age of YouTube, is there any greater formula for success?

Like punk rock, air guitar was a response to the virtuosity and bombast that started infecting rock 'n' roll in the 1970s. But while the punks rejected endless, overwrought guitar solos, the air guitarists embraced them. In essence, the air guitarists outpunked the punks. For Johnny Rotten & Co., technique wasn't necessary, but instruments remained a part of the equation. For heavy-metal mimes, only style and attitude mattered: Actual performance took a backseat to projecting the appearance of a performance.

At first, this philosophy mainly played out in bedrooms and at Iron Maiden concerts, but in the 1990s, it began to spread. Pro wrestlers weren't athletes so much as air athletes, offering up an amateurish caricature of sport instead of the real thing. Matt Drudge emerged as the world's most powerful journalist, except that he isn't actually a journalist. He's an air journalist, dressing and sounding the part but mostly just adding fist-pumps and hip-thrusts to other people's reporting. Dane Cook, the most successful stand-up comedian of the last few years, is an air comedian. On the page, his material's mediocre, but in performance no one sells a joke more vigorously or effectively. He may not have the comic insights of a Lenny Bruce or a Richard Pryor, or even, say, a Soupy Sales—but he knows how to work a stage.

Indeed, one could argue that Cook's obvious devotion to stagecraft invalidates his airness. He may not spend as many hours in the metaphorical pool as Michael Phelps does, but he certainly spends more time perfecting his art than the average air guitarist does. Watch a few air-guitar clips on YouTube, in fact, and you will quickly see how hard it is to tell a world-champion performance from one that isn't even good enough to make it through the Netherlands semifinals. On any given night, anyone can be the world's best air guitarist—all it takes is the right combination of liquor, fringed armbands and proximity to Oulu, Finland. Which is why air-guitar contests are growing increasingly popular, no doubt. These days, we'd all like to believe that the only thing keeping us from potential stardom is a line as invisible as a phantom Stratocaster.

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