Moving Pictures March 2009

School of Rock

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

Well, something was already happening. Games are games, but you don’t have to be Jean Baudrillard to detect in all this another coup by the forces of unreality—a decisive one, perhaps. Rock music, like everything else, has entered the age of simulation—of tribute bands, air-guitar tournaments, reality shows about Gene Simmons, and now this virtual experience that replicates, apparently at a cellular level, the caveman euphoria of rocking out. By such means is Dionysus ironized, and even a god can bear only so much irony.

Also: go down to your local Best Buy on a Saturday and watch the kids demo the latest Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Someone is sitting at the drum pads, tonking along glassy-eyed to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Someone else is clicking fixedly, his face a mask, through the demented guitar solo from Metallica’s “Trapped Under Ice.” A screen blossoms with an image from an end-times rock pageant: demonically skinny avatars grimacing over their instruments, a Sly Stone look-alike in Kiss war paint singing a song by Jimmy Eat World. The in-store lighting imposes upon everything a violent sterility, as if we’ve all just been ejected from some loud and lovely dream. Has rock history ended, its glorious teleology exhausted?

It’s possible—but let’s not get too worried. For one thing, these games are a lot of fun, and fun has its own invincible claim to authenticity. For another, rock depends—has always depended—on simulation: its true tabernacle is the inside of a teenager’s head, that palace of delusion, where consciousness climbs like a guitar solo and one is always pretending to be Joe Perry. As long as the adolescent mind dreams and sweats, in other words, there will be rock.

Greg LoPiccolo was at pains, too, to point out the educational component. “The game does set you up, in a way, to be more receptive to learning about how to create music,” he said. “You learn about time, you learn about what the parts are … There’s this natural, intuitive knowledge about how songs are composed and arranged that the game totally gives you. My guess is that in five years’ time there’ll be an explosion of garage bands.”

What these bands will sound like is anybody’s guess. Some alien new music, draped in weirdness, spooling out of the void and into its devotees’ fingertips? Or old tics and gimmicks, and the hoarse exhortations of a vanished rite: “Wooh!” and “C’mon!” and “Bay-beh!” Either way, the end of history can be survived: look at Metallica, star of the new Guitar Hero. Six years ago, it was barely a band at all—more of an un-band or meta-band. Rehab, creative blah, the staleness of fame, a hole where the bassist used to be—Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster records it all. But the ordeal of unreality, once endured, adds spice to everything: the band roared back last year with Death Magnetic, its most vividly panicked album yet. “Suicide / I’ve already died,” pronounces James Hetfield in “Cyanide.” “You’re just the funeral / I’ve been waiting for!” The syllables are hammered out, blow by blow, on an anvil of guitars. He’s outlived himself, damn it.

Can he transmit the wisdom—electrically, as it were—to the kids who’ll be aping his moves on Guitar Hero: Metallica, copying his riffs and matching him breath for breath? Burning with solemnity, they’ll waggle their toy guitars. The cycle of simulation begins again. It’s the very sacrament of rock and roll.

James Parker is an Atlantic correspondent.
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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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