Moving Pictures March 2009

School of Rock

What does Guitar Hero’s popularity mean for the future of rock and roll?
Jeremy Traum

We’re just easing into “Sweet Emotion”—the highlight of our set, the serotonin payload—when I experience a lapse in creative voltage. Tom Hamilton is moving his fingers through that strange swoon of a bass line; Steven Tyler skims the stage, mouth agape in song, his molars glowing under the black light like a row of tiny moons. Then there’s me—Joe Perry, Aerosmith’s lead guitarist, sinews musically taut, bracing myself for the riff as it sails out of the ether toward me in fat notes of red, blue, yellow, and green. I hit it once, I hit it twice, and then … I miss it. Damn! The notes keep coming, but my ’70s super-sound has broken up—what? how?—into clucks and clangs of dissonance, ruinous post-punk fragments. The song lurches and dies. Drones of disapproval from the crowd. Tyler contemplates me sourly, hands on hips. I see Hamilton mouthing imprecations. Even Joey Kramer is giving me hell, up on his feet behind his drum kit. Numb with culpability, I stare at my Les Paul. Of the many, many deaths I have endured while playing video games, this may be the worst.

No doubt about it—losing at Guitar Hero: Aerosmith is heavy. And winning is even heavier. If you get it right, if you hit the colored buttons on your little plastic guitar in the correct sequence and find yourself quasi-playing along with the onscreen avatars, you will experience a scalp-tightening surge of hard-rock mastery. The feeling is of a different order from your regular video-game satisfactions: the dark triumph of wiping out a few hundred zombies, or of thumping a pimp in Grand Theft Auto. It’s a feeling close to inspiration, and it may help to explain why Guitar Hero and its competitor, Rock Band, are reshaping the video-gaming world, doing funny things to the music industry, and possibly (we shall see) sounding the last trump for rock and roll as we know it.

Some basics first. Guitar Hero and Rock Band, blood rivals in the market-place, come from the same cradle: Harmonix Music Systems, out of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Guitar Hero was birthed there in 2005, after 10 years of experimentation. The inputs, as they say, were many, but the game couldn’t have happened without Konami’s Guitar Freaks, a Japanese arcade game in which players diddle hectically with colored buttons on the neck of a guitar-shaped controller to match colored “notes” flashing onscreen.

Guitar Hero’s genius was to retain at its core this mimetic act—the buttons, the colors, the high-velocity “beat-matching”—while conjuring around it, via the black arts of the virtual, a floating sensorium of rock-and-roll performance. Now the gamer’s guitar-playing libido was bodied forth by an onscreen character, bedight in denim, paisley, or spiked gauntlets, with a band behind him and an audience in front. The music was different, too: instead of lightweight Japanese pop-rock, the Guitar Hero gamer wagged a faux guitar to the austere metallic thrusts of Helmet’s “Unsung” or the tripped-out biker boogie “Frankenstein,” by the Edgar Winter Group. And the better he played, the more things happened. Lightning writhed across his fretboard; the love of the crowd rose like the wind.

Harmonix, working with the game manufacturer and publisher RedOctane, released Guitar Hero in time for the 2005 holiday season. It sold 1.5million units. Guitar Hero II, released a year later, sold almost 4 million. Then Harmonix was bought by MTV, while RedOctane, along with the Guitar Hero brand name, was bought by a company called Activision. At this point the “rhythm action games” arms race began. In November 2007 Harmonix released Rock Band, a new game featuring interactive bass, vocals, and drums—Guitar Hero, essentially, but in four dimensions. Activision countered with Guitar Hero: Aerosmith in June 2008; Harmonix responded with Rock Band2 in September; and in October Guitar Hero World Tour arrived, clanking with its own interactive bass, vocal, and drum capabilities. The big news of this year’s first quarter is Activision’s release of Guitar Hero: Metallica. The big, big news of the fourth quarter will be the game that Harmonix is developing with Sir Paul Mc-Cartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Olivia Harrison, and other crowned heads of Beatledom.

The philosophical difference between the two franchises, as far as content goes, is that Guitar Hero allows you to inhabit the virtual bodies and personae of your favorite rock stars (Joe Perry, for instance), while Rock Band encourages you to create your own rock star, live your own dream, man. Both franchises, however, rely on pretty much the same business model: after buying the game, its “peripherals” (guitar, drums, etc.), and a bundle of songs, the consumer then purchases extra songs at about two bucks a pop in the game’s online store.

To a senescent music industry, this “downloadable content” has worked like Ponce de León’s Fountain of Youth: a band whose song appears on either Rock Band or Guitar Hero is almost guaranteed an instant and enormous commercial boost. Back catalogs are illuminated, obscurities arbitrarily enthroned. Weezer’s “My Name Is Jonas,” first released in 1994, reportedly increased its sales tenfold after being featured in Guitar Hero III. Rock Band currently has a library of about 500 songs; since its launch, there have been more than 28 million downloads.

Watch a video demo of the Weezer song “My Name Is Jonas” as played on Guitar Hero III

Last December, on a cold and vindictively slushy Massachusetts afternoon, I paid a visit to Harmonix headquarters. I played Rock Band 2 with a group of amiable employees, fat-fingering my way through the Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary,” before being shown to the office of Greg LoPiccolo, the company’s vice president of product development. Not unexpectedly, he was buzzing. He talked eagerly about the legions of apprentice rockers that the games have summoned into being, and the uptick in business reported by guitar teachers nationwide. The impact of the original Guitar Hero, LoPiccolo told me, took its makers by surprise. “We had this debate internally. Like, does anybody care about rock? And then we did Guitar Hero and discovered to our great relief that many people cared about rock, including a lot of people who didn’t apparently know that they cared about it until they got exposed to the material. So did we create that? Or was it already happening?”

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic correspondent.

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