Sunday, February 20, 2011

When We Were Kings

Back in 2006 after the release of Guitar Hero II it seemed like a veritable impossibility that this cultural juggernaut would eventually end.  It seemed far more likely that mutant gorillas from the third planet of the Kuroug system would master intergalactic travel, traverse the infinite dangers of interplanetary navigation to end up on our planet and buttfuck Nelson Mandella, sample our finest cheeses then depart only after stopping at Stonehenge to take a giant dump and scribble the secret of eternal youth with their feces on the rocks in a language we can't yet comprehend.   However, much to the surprise of gamers the world over (but probably not to the executives and employees over at Activision) that is exactly what has happened.  Not the gorilla thing, but the Guitar Hero franchise ending thing.  The news came as quite a shock to me as I felt quite certain that it at least had the staying power to outlast the HARRY POTTER movie series, but apparently teenage wizards who play with their wands all day (Get it?  It's a masturbation joke!  Wand = Penis.  Tee hee hee.) and who fall ass backwards into various, increasingly pointless and convoluted adventures still has more pull than one of the most pervasive cultural video game phenomenons since Nintendo showed us how awesome plumbers were and how they could all break bricks with their heads.  True story.  Who amongst the gaming community -be they gamers or developers- would have thought that Guitar Hero would have had a shorter marketable shelf life than disco?

I suppose in retrospect this outcome was not totally unforseen.  I remember looking at the shelves in gaming stores and at the electronics section at Wal-Mart and marvelling at the ever-increasing number of Guitar Hero titles.  Remember Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks The 80'sGuitar Hero: Aerosmith?  Yeah, unfortunately I do too.  All in all since 2005 there have been at least 19 iterations of the Hero series, including DJ Hero and the appropriately titled DJ Hero II.  There were times when I would get flashes, but nothing concrete.  Nothing that would point to Total Meltdown.  The number of releases seemed excessive, but in a culture that seems to demand excess I kind of figured that the unrelenting content would be consumed indefinitely and digested slowly like a wad of chewing gum stuck to the inside wall of your lower intestine.  I feel kind of sad, but I'm not sure why.  Rhythm gaming is still alive and kicking thanks to the Rockband brand, though the complete annihilation of their closest competitor is probably more bittersweet than satisfying.  The end of Guitar Hero might seem to some (and rightly so) like an indication of where the entire genre is currently hanging in the marketplace and I have a sneaking suspicion that the folks employed over at Harmonix are taking a collective deep breath as it might seem more like a temporary reprieve than a free pass.

Looking at the whole soap opera behind the scenes with Guitar Hero and Rockband what with the split between Harmonix and RedOctane as they were acquired by MTV Games and Activision respectively I can't help but be reminded of that Simspon's episode where those accursed folks over at Shelbyville steal the lemon tree from Springfield which the children had been harvesting to make lemonade.  The children of Springfield -led, of course, by Bart Simpson- embark on a desperate and hilarious rescue mission to get back the beloved tree, and with the aid of their parents -led, of course, by Homer Simpson- return the tree to its rightful place while the children of Shelbyville were left to enjoy a fresh glass of turnip juice.  Well it looks like the Guitar Hero turnip has been squeezed dry so now if you want a glass of freshly squeezed turnip juice you'll have to go to the Rockband lemon tree.  Or something like that.

But now in the aftermath of this consumerist cataclysm it seems like the perfect time to reflect on what Guitar Hero was.  Well to millions of people it might have seemed like "just a game" (though I find the "just" somewhat demeaning as it implies that games -video included- have little to no cultural value) however it was even more than that.  What Guitar Hero -and all rhythm gaming- represents is how we, as a culture, view music today.

I remember being opposed to playing Guitar Hero when I first heard about it.  I don't know why, but I felt indignant about it.  I feel embarrassed now, but I think I remember telling people that it was essentially a waste of time and their energy was better spent learning to play a "real" musical instrument.  I don't know why I felt this way.  Perhaps it was the kind of reactionary, self-righteous view that only someone influenced by years of organized religion would tend to gravitate towards.  Or maybe because I have a naturally contrary personality and I feel I have the obligation to disagree with the Majority just on pure principle alone.  However, when I actually tried playing the game I was immediately won over and have been addicted ever since.  I remember the song that I busted my cherry on: Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box" featured on Guitar Hero II (or rather "Heart Shaped Box", as made famous by Nirvana as at that time RedOctane or whoever didn't have the cash to get the actual master tracks for their games yet).  Once I lost my rhythm gaming virginity I very quickly turned pro and became a whore, only instead of getting paid with money I was racking up stars and points.

Almost immediately after I bought Guitar Hero II for my much loved PS2 I became acutely aware that I was having fun playing a bunch of songs I had either never heard of or never really paid attention to before.  But now in order to complete the game I had to concentrate intensely on songs I had never really had interest in before.  It quickly became apparent what was happening: my musical horizons were being broadened.  Also the pain in my wrists from excessive masturbation was being exacerbated by hours of continuous playing, but that's another story.  What Guitar Hero had done for me -and most likely countless others- was grant access to entire new musical worlds in a relatively friendly environment.  This accessibility becomes even more pronounced for younger players.  In this case what rhythm gaming has done is introduce a whole new generation of gamers to music they might not otherwise have had access to.  I think thirteen-year-olds rocking out to music like "Paint it Black", "War Pigs" or "Sweet Home Alabama" is not only culturally relevant and necessary to enrich their lives, but also to encourage them to research rockers of the past and learn valuable lessons about the benefits of promiscuous sex and excessive drug and alcohol abuse and the relative safety (or lack thereof) of airline travel.

While this cross-generational cultural show and tell is aggrandizing it is also at the same time highly reductive. The game developers elevated some songs to create a pantheon of music: essentially they created a historical narrative.  However, this narrative, like all historical narratives, is highly biased.  The developers picked songs that they either A) really liked, B) had the money to pay for the rights to use the song, or C) both.  Whether valued for their (relative) musical merit or their status as a commodity the game developers were presenting what they considered to be the best or the essential in music history.  On the other hand they took epic songs from the past (both recent and classic) that represented something significant to a generation and  reduced them to a bunch of shiny circles flying by on our television screens.  Yesterday's masterpieces are today's playthings.  Like an episode of The Amazing Race the entire world is nothing but a source of entertainment to us here in the West.  Tiananmen Square is nothing more than a few seconds of video that we use in music videos to try to represent emotions we wish we had.

The other reason Guitar Hero is so significant culturally is because it is a form of social interaction that presents very little chance of giving you herpes.  Well, maybe that's not as significant, but being herpes-free is always a bonus and the same can't be said for other family-friendly activities like getting pantless lapdances at your local strip bar or playing a few rounds of Injecting Yourself With Unknown Substances from Dirty Needles Found in Your Local Playground.  God, I miss the good old days.  But I digress.  No, the other reason Guitar Hero is so significant is because it does what we as a culture now love to do: deconstruct things.  We love to analyse and break things down into their base forms.  It's the same reason we love documentaries, or at least I do.   I love to see some aspect of society broken down into its base components, into a few easily digestible concepts.  We love to take the mystery and the mystique out of things.

I remember a couple of years ago -I believe it was 2007- I heard about something incredible.  Led Zeppelin -the band that aging hipsters and young douchebags alike can definitively describe as "the greatest band of all time" in a strangely self-congratulatory way and then predictably quote "Stairway to Heaven" as their favourite song as well as being "the best (rock/blues) song of all time" because it was on the top of a bunch of arbitrary top-ten lists that they feel obliged to take as gospel even though it wasn't even the band's best song- was reuniting for a concert of epic proportions twenty-seven years after breaking up due to the death of John Bonham.  Now when I first heard this I was blown away.  Not because I was a particularly enthusiastic or hardcore Led Zeppelin fan, but because they were a legendary rock band that had previously only existed in the tales passed down from generation to generation or whispered about in dark corners as college students got high and listened to Led Zeppelin II after trying three separate times to get Dark Side of the Moon to sink up to THE WIZARD OF OZ and failing.  Hearing of their reunion was the equivalent of hearing that Hercules would be showing up in New York tomorrow to fight Goliath, Godzilla, and one of the three heads of Cerberus before ass-raping the Loch Ness Monster with Hitler's skeleton.

While this sounds awesome at first, the reality quickly dawned on me.  Led Zeppelin reuniting was the equivalent of a child finding out that there was no Santa Claus.  Led Zeppelin reuniting took all the mystery out of Led Zeppelin.  Before that reunion they were legends; they were gods; they were ideas that could inspire us.  After the reunion show reality set it and they were once again relegated to the realm of mere mortals.  They were a bunch of old rockers who couldn't play as fast as they used to and had to lower the keys of their songs so that Robert Plant could still sing them.  These banalities are not the concerns of gods, but of mortals.  To me the idea of Led Zeppelin -the myth- was forever damaged.  And as with all of us it's the myth, not that man, that will live on.

In my mind Guitar Hero kind of did the same thing, but to all music everywhere.  Now anyone anywhere with even a modicum of gaming ability, coordination or rhythm could play Free Bird.  What was once legendary was now commonplace.  What the developers had to do in order to make these games was to break music down into its key components -rhythm, tempo, beat, harmony- and translate that into a rigid system that was easily quantifiable to the players and represented by coloured circles and a system of points awarded for strumming at the right time.  What they did was to take music -the best of which is organic- and make it mechanical.  That's not to say it's not still fun, just different.  Any musician will tell you that music is more than just the notes on a page, and indeed if you did just play the notes on a page you wouldn't be playing the song.  Not really.  When you play a song -really play a song- it has a natural flow that can't be broken down or translated.  Guitar Hero deconstructed music and in so doing made it infinitely more accessible, but at the same time it made it infinitely more mundane.  Yet somehow, paradoxically, infinitely more fun.

Deconstructed or not, Guitar Hero (and even more so Rockband) made playing music with your friends easier than having to learn to play an actual guitar or bass or drums.  This accessibility and the continually developing social aspect make playing music more fun to more people.  While this deconstruction ultimately takes the wind out of the very sails these games are trying to fill, what they allow us to do is to temporarily become rock stars.  When we pick up those plastic instruments, adjust the straps and the foot pedals, and make our song lists, for a moment we are able to suspend our disbelief and become Gods of Rock and Roll.  And even though it's fleeting, for those few brief moments, we are allowed into a world we are otherwise barred from ever entering (like that hall you got kicked out of at your cousin's wedding for being way too drunk and covering the men's bathroom with projectile vomit and were then subsequently banned from the premises for) and that fleeting sense of rockstardom is perhaps the closest thing to real happiness most of us will ever know.  Deconstructed music breeding constructed happiness.  But that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Rest in Peace, Guitar Hero.                                            


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